Art and culture hold intrinsic value by shining light on the past making us who we are and invoking emotional states not independently possible. The expression of art and culture is one we often take for granted as something occuring naturally in a society – in reality their production is supported diligently by a single source of authority or a group of individuals, for us to discover by way of curiosity or serendipitously.
In the United Arab Emirates, more commonly referred to as the UAE, the active arts scene and its progressive development is supported heavily by her Rulers, the various cultural authorities, private companies, and the resident society. There is an almost unspoken mandate from all fields to encourage and support art and artists, perhaps because in a country so young, the work of artists in reflecting and responding to cultural liberations and constraints meets a more immediate need; to define and preserve a national identity.
In an exhibition originally organized for the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates (UAE) la Biennale Di Venezia, the works of 15 Emirati artists was selectively curated – to condense the history of contemporary local art and expose visitors to collective memories from a window of time between 1980 and now. Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, a member of the Ruling family of Sharjah, and also founder and president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, curated the exhibition called ‘1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates’ . Celebrating 1980 as a focal point in the history of the UAE art scene based on the formation of The Emirates Fine Arts Society, a non-profit association, in the same year. The exhibition was transferred from the UAE’s pavilion in Venice to a not-for-profit gallery in Sharjah, called the Sharjah Flying Saucer and opened to the public for the first time in February. About the Flying Saucer, UAE’s leading newspaper The National quoted:
Itself a part of anecdotal history, the building dates back to the 1970s and, as the name suggests, resembles an alien spacecraft, with its jagged edges and bright colours
The purpose of invoking memories is fueled by Al Qasimi’s belief that the past is influenced by the present and vice versa. The goal of the exhibit is to prompt Emiratis to remember their artistic past in order to fully understand their present and dream about their collective future. In her introductory text to the exhibit, Al Qasimi writes:
This exhibition is a collective memory of sorts, a compilation of the memories of individuals and those of society.
To this end, Al Qasimi creates a trip down memory lane for visitors and artists alike to remember the exhibitions and mediums of past decades. Sculptures, photographs, paintings are on display throughout the gallery alongside newspaper clippings from the time. In her text Al Qasimi reflects on the more popular format of exhibits; artwork displayed in the streets on the way to city markets or arranged on gallery floors, as in a show that she recounts, organized by contributing artist Hassan Sharif.
Though ‘1980-Today’ is presented in a more traditional manner, the exhibit captures a feeling of pushing boundries while also creating a strong sense of unifying identity. Al Qasimi’s design of a free flow exhibit allows every visitor the experience of discovering each artist at a personal pace. There is no chronology to the exhibit, no right or wrong way to move or interpret it as Al Qasimi’s careful choice of more than 100 pieces of artwork was made based on a common aesthetic. Walking through the exhibit, the story behind each work is open to interpretation by design, however the feelings of a past, a moment of experimentation, inspiration or awe of beauty is captured. Each work feels like it came from a snapshot in time, a moment captured in a sculpture, a photograph, a painting.
Overall there is a feeling of finality about the exhibit; all the items represent a point in time, a trend or a phase of each artists’ career that is now over. This is the past momentarily foraying into our present lives to create a new memory for itself.
‘Today-1980: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates’ will run until May 14, 2016 in The Flying Saucer in Dasman, Sharjah.