Intellectual Decolonization in Emirati Art: A Process of Learning and Unlearning by Aisha Al Ahmadi
Art has always been more than just a vehicle of expression; in the contemporary context art carries with it important signals to how we understand ourselves as political beings. As a Middle Eastern woman, being aware of what art is and how essential it is and then to be conditioned with a Eurocentric view of art history throughout my undergraduate education has been an unsettling experience to say the least. So it brings me immense joy that modern and contemporary art in the Arab world is receiving its long overdue acclaim. Colonial discourses must be openly debated in order to attempt to deconstruct subconsciously internalized ideologies. Our perceptions of our own identity have become skewed and I think one of the best ways to view ourselves through a less distorted, less westernized lens is to document our contributions to the art scene. With this in mind, I examine what it meant to be an Emirati artist in a budding nation, focussing on the practices of three female Emirati artists. Ebtisam Abdulaziz, Sharjah born contemporary artist who has fused her artistic and mathematical practices; Nujoom Alghanem, an Emirati poet, filmmaker, and artist; and the practice of Alghanem’s aunt, Najat Maki, the first Emirati artist to attain a PhD in art.
The Arab art scene has witnessed substantial growth over the last two decades. Yet, while the field and its participants continue to evolve, there remains evidence of a disparity between the Arab art scene and the written documentation of it, especially in the United Arab Emirates. While this is currently being rectified, the influence of western narratives and the fears of white washing remain due to the prevalence of Eurocentric discourses that alienate Arab artists and in turn diminishes their contributions. Aminn Maalouf shrewdly states: “If I study someone else’s language but he doesn’t respect mine, to go on speaking his tongue ceases to be a token of amity and becomes an act of servitude and submission.” I do not attempt to erase Western influence on Arab Art, on the contrary I acknowledge the way colonialism shaped Arab aesthetics. However, when we succumb to an excluding narrative, we are accepting, whether consciously or unconsciously, an erasure of fundamental elements of our histories.
The question that presents itself is “what template are we following?” and the answer is the West’s. Is it feasible to implement these templates in regions that the West has regarded as the “Other” and has looked at through the distorted lens of orientalism? The Arab region requires art history written for Arabs and by Arabs; an act of decolonization, a reclamation of the arts canon. In Is Art History Global? Elkins discusses how in 1999, he received information from one of the two largest databases in the discipline, bibliography of the history of art. The information encompassed two decades worth of entries; Elkins deduced that the study of artists is in fact disproportionate and there does in fact exist a canon of artists proven by a list of the most frequently cited artists. The list, in numeric order, included: Picasso cited 757 times, Durer 616, Rubens 600, Michelangelo 537, Leonardo 526, Raphael 460, Rembrandt 442, Titian 418, Goya 391, and Palladio 377. It is crucial to mention that this list is limited to painting, sculpture and architecture. It shows that the canon medium is painting, and the canon of artists – beyond merely the first ten but reaching the top one hundred – are almost all dead white males. We are interested in the artists we are interested in for a reason. The reason certain artists are studied is due to their importance in the grander narrative, and often even when art historians try to write without abiding by Western historiography, they still write on Western storylines or comparisons (Elkins, 2007).
The question we are left with is how can we acknowledge the influence Western culture and knowledge has had and continues to have without completely assimilating it?
Emirati artists are largely aware of the influence the west had and continues to have on Arab art. Ebtisam Abdulaziz currently resides in the US, where she initially undertook a residency in New York. The artist, upon feeling that she had familiarized herself with the UAE’s art scene and its participants, decided to leave for the US, in a move perhaps validating the core/periphery framework of global art ecosystems and the continuing dominance of the west. Nujoom Al Ghanem does not deny her fascination with French artists, poets and schools during the 1980s. The artist and writer used to buy biographies of non-Arab artists and was especially interested in learning the differences between the various western movements. That being said, Al Ghanem always sought to find a unique voice to express herself and she notes that reading Arab poets such as Qassim Haddad, Adonis and Lebanese poets provided her with a sense of belonging, writers that understood what she sought (Gray, 2017). Emirati artists, among others, have I believe learned that as Arab artists they are capable of learning from the west without completely assimilating, even with cultural frameworks globally still tangled in western hegemony.
Ebtisam Abdulaziz, a pioneer in the UAE’s art scene, is influenced in her artistic practice by her background in mathematics. Deterred from studying art as the works being produced in educational settings in the country revolved mainly around crafts Ebtisam shifted towards mathematics, a discipline she believed mirrored the ambiguity of her character. From her mathematics degree she learned to be simultaneously simple and complex, to produce work that prompted the viewer to seek a solution. After earning her degree in mathematics, Ebtisam pursued her art education, which began with classes at the Emirates Fine Arts Society. She signed up for painting workshops and noticed they were skewed to being composed of 70% women and 30% men; it was disheartening to learn that these women often did not pursue art past these workshops for it was not the norm (Gray, 2017).
At the Emirates Fine Arts Society, she met Mohammed Kazem, Khalil Abdul Wahid and Hassan Sharif, a group of artists who understood that she wanted to produce more than the cookie cutter served to her permitted. This group of trailblazing artists which Ebtisam was to find herself a part of were re-edifying what art could encompass, “we became teachers who wrote, explained, and published the details, and our society became like a student that had to read and be educated to elevate their level of thinking” (Gray, 2017).
Nujoom AlGhanem, who is among the towering figures of the UAE’s art scene, responds to this fact by pointing out that people were not aware of what “contemporary art” was in the 1980s. Her practice, which is rooted in writing as an art form, was not well understood (Bardaouil, 2019). Since then, the art/creative scene in the region has flourished dramatically and creatives began to be not only embraced but encouraged. AlGhanem deconstructs the conventional ways poetry is usually written; an act of dismantling language to construct her ideas on displacement, gender issues and cultural norms. Despite being unable to pursue her dream of studying art abroad due to the societal norms and taboos restricting women’s mobility, AlGhanem was fueled by readings of Arab poets such as Qassim Haddad into pursuing this need to write differently, and so she did. Combining her distinct voice and ability to manipulate language AlGhanem managed to find success in the Emirati art scene despite not receiving formal training until later in her career.
AlGhanem, alongside others such as the late Hassan Sharif, Khalid Albudoor and Yousif Khalil, belonged to a collective by the name of Aqwas. The collective faced intense scrutiny for not abiding by societal norms; they were criticized, disrespected and attacked. AlGhanem specifically recounts a newspaper critic that targeted her explicitly, accusing her of disrespecting both the Arabic language and Arabic poetry by not adhering to the rules of either. Such acts of safeguarding are less likely to unfold in the UAE’s current art scene.
The birth of Aqwas Group, according to AlGhanem, was a response to an urgent need rising in four artists, from different creative backgrounds with a common goal, to create a safe space to produce art that transcends any form of constraints. It was after one of the group’s visits to an exhibition that the decision was made, provoked by the high truly experiencing art elicits, to issue a form of manifesto to document their unconventional ideologies. That was the birth of Ramad (ashes), the collective’s first publication. The journal was not welcomed by the public, people did not understand this break away from conventional art forms (Gray, 2017). The art forms that transpired from the collective challenged society’s more accepted forms of art making, which were classical painting and poetry. The Aqwas collective represented a minority back in the 80s, they were marginalized and made an easy target for a society that was trying to process the rapid change the country was undergoing (Bardaouil, 2019).
Growing up in her grandparents’ house surrounded by adults, art, music and literature nurtured her love for various art forms and was a crucial influence on the development of Nujoom AlGhanem’s practice. She highlights the influence her aunt Najat Maki had on her, a celebrated fine artist in the UAE at the time and at present a legendary figure. Al Ghanem produced a documentary titled “Red, Blue, Yellow” (2013) in which she pays tribute to her. To Najat Makki art is a way of life, “I consider it a part of my physical and spiritual composition.” Dr. Najat Makki in 1977, became the first Emirati woman to be funded by the government to pursue an art degree abroad. Dr. Makki has been part of the Emirati art scene for 40 years.
The history of art in the country transcends the formation of the union, and these female artists have not only aided in shaping the narrative, but also succeeded in using their practice to voice their opinion in a time when speaking on certain matters was alien to the society and not only strongly rejected but fought against. Dr. Makki sees color in everything and has done so ever since she was a child. From the colors in her father’s herbal medicine shop filled with various herbs and dyes, to observing her mother fold clothes. An act so seemingly simple had taught Makki the play of shadow and light, strengthening her relationship with color, which as she states, did not materialize independently of her but was rather a direct result of her constant observation. Makki often uses saffron, henna and other traditional materials to compose her color palette (Khalil, 2019). Nurturing this fascination with color and drawing inspiration from her environment and culture, she addresses social issues and the representation of women.
Highlighting how the West views modern art is crucial because I believe it shapes how Arabs view modern Arab art. The stories of the three artists discussed here attest to the feasibility of a middle ground in which we, Arab artists, can learn from the west in a form of open dialogue as opposed to subjugated assimilation. Joseph Brodsky wrote “You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.” It is essential to begin with language for one to control the narrative, the emergence of a new wave of Arabs writing on Arab Art is hugely promising. I encourage fellow artists, art historians, culture enthusiasts to revise the way in which we digest the texts we are exposed to; to understand the limits of the narratives presented to us, to be aware of the disparity between what is and what is documented and taught, and try to bridge that gap. It is perhaps utopian to want our identity to be untainted by the hands of colonialism, but that does not mean we should be discouraged from adding our own, unique voice to the art scene and to art history discourses instead of succumbing to the hegemony of the western canon. The irony of writing this piece in english is not lost on me.
Aisha Al Ahmadi is an artist and writer based in Abu Dhabi. She received her BFA in Visual Arts with a minor in Curatorial Practices from Zayed University, Abu Dhabi and is currently pursuing her MA in History of Art and Museum Studies from Sorbonne University. Recently graduated from the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship Cohort 7 (SEAF), her work is research-based and centered around themes of identity politics, truth, post-colonialism, and external influences on our perception of ourselves and the world.
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Gray, L. A. (2017). But we cannot see them: Tracing a UAE art community, 1988-2008. ArtAsiaPacific, (104), 104.
Khalil, L. (2019). This UAE artist’s fluorescent works throw light on the Gulf’s past. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://wired.me/culture/design/najat-makki-uae-exhibition/
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