In 1977, almost three decades before the seedlings of the UAE’s art scene took shape, Dr -Najat Makki became the first Emirati woman to earn a Government scholarship to study art abroad. Although nobody understood her choice of art as a career, she went to the College of Fine Arts in Cairo and returned to forge her passion against the grain of social acceptance, finally exhibiting in 1989.
Seven years after that, in 1996, the struggling artist Jalal Luqman sold his watch and his car to fund his -debut exhibition at Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation and an ensuing show in New York.
And in 2011, Dana Al Mazrouei enrolled in a master's degree course in art history and museum studies at Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. As part of the university programme, she was one of nine students to travel to Paris for a four-month internship. Al Mazrouei, now 26, worked alongside the head of art education at Le Louvre, who prepared her for the arrival of the institution in her home city.
What a difference three generations make.
“We have Emirati years,” says Luqman. “Every year in the UAE is equal to five anywhere else. We are a country of rapid change and of course that is reflected across generations.”
Al Mazrouei, who will graduate this summer, says she is aware of how different it was for artists before her. “I guess at the time when it first started, things were much more challenging. I am fortunate to be in this generation because everything is accessible. We have a lot of support,” she says.
To mark these artists’ achievements and those of nine others of varying ages and disciplines, the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (Admaf) is hosting Three Generations, an exhibition of contemporary Emirati art at Sotheby’s in London. The show, which opens tomorrow, is described by Hoda Kanoo, the founder of Admaf, as “a reflection of where the UAE has come from, where it is now and where it is going”.
The team at Sotheby’s, one of the oldest institutions in London, says the exhibition marks an astonishing rate of cultural growth in the Gulf region and that the introduction of these Emirati artists to the UK public will be welcomed.
“Whatever our western perceptions of these novel and deeply embedded artistic expressions, it is important to recognise the freshness and newly championed aspect of the work of these dynamic artists,” says Roxane Zand, the deputy chair of the Middle East and Gulf Region for Sotheby’s.
From the first generation, Makki will display her figurative collage piece that depicts a strong, female form in a sea of texture. Karima Al Shomaly’s acrylic on canvas piece, Emirati Burqa, will join the show as a reflection of the Sharjah-based artist’s career-long investigation into the burqa, a disappearing icon of her culture.
One generation down the line and Luqman’s Hint of a Smile takes centre stage alongside Mattar Bin Lahej’s Depth and Speed. Both artists have worked long and hard in their artistic pursuits – and that comes across in their work. The fluid form of the horses in Bin Lahej’s sculpture is the result of 16 years of self-taught practice. Luqman’s now renowned work presents a digitally repainted Mona Lisa in the frame of a traditional Middle Eastern door.
“For me, having the opportunity to exhibit in London is a great thing,” says Luqman. “Any participation for an Emirati artist in an international venue is excellent, especially when it is in London. It is not a surprise that Admaf is supporting something like this. The love and support of Emirati art and Emirati artists from Her Excellency Mrs Hoda Kanoo is truly phenomenal.”
Also in the show is Sharjah’s Ebtisam Abdulaziz, who broke many taboos in 2007 for her performance piece -Autobiography, for which she dressed in a numbered body suit and posed in a variety of public locations. Azza Al Qubaisi, from Abu Dhabi, will show Signature Chair 1, from her palm frond series Objects with Functionality. Sumayyah Al -Suwaidi’s digital art Feminine Delicacy will also be on display.
The younger artists include Al Mazrouei, Maitha Demithan and Shamsa Al Omaira. Al Omaira, who has exhibited at the Venice Biennale and whose oeuvre follows a fascination with daily objects, will show Diffused, a series of graphite and acrylic on wood that depicts a torso with a lampshade for a head.
"The work is a portrait capturing the struggle to restrain my personality and the frustration in wanting to be accepted,” she explains. “It sums up what anyone would feel if they were asked to withhold their character and limit their reactions to a level that people can tolerate. The lampshade diffuses light that hurts the eye and, in these drawings, it is used to limit my personality – to present only that which I choose to disclose. It is a metaphor for being trapped, hidden and concealed.”