For the fifth year, the artist Jalal Luqman led a group to little-known pockets of the country, hoping to inspire creative works that will spark a dialogue about life, beauty and humanity in the UAE, Tahira Yaqoob reports
In eerie fog is hanging low on the horizon, giving a dreamlike quality to the buildings and landscape it billows over.
As we get off from our jauntily painted bus, disorientated and bewildered on this sleepy, holiday Thursday morning, the sun suddenly sears through the cloudy wisps, bathing the scene before us in an ethereal light.
It lends a mystical air to our setting and creates a striking resemblance to the other-worldly, distorted quality so often seen in the paintings of our host, the Emirati artist Jalal Luqman. One might almost believe he had some hand in the weather and had ordered it specially as inspiration for our gathering.
Luqman, who also co-owns the Ghaf Gallery in Abu Dhabi, has brought us to a tiny, obscure neighbourhood in Mussafah as part of his Urban Trek Art Trip, an annual event now in its fifth year.
The aim is to introduce amateur artists to little-known neighbourhoods, industrial areas and residential developments and encourage them to use their discoveries as inspiration for a series of artworks, to culminate in an exhibition in March.
"On foot," says Luqman, "the artists engage directly with images that are often overlooked in our frenetic daily lives. On this tour of the urban environment, they explore the beauty inherent in everything, even in the most unexpected places."
Theonly criteria for the 35 artists applying to join, who were narrowed down to a select group of 11: they could not be professionals who had already had a solo exhibition and they had to be passionate about art.
For this year's trip, which will be followed by a series of weekly workshops as the artists develop their work, Luqman has chosen three sites to explore on the initial day-long expedition: the Mussafah community, the old fruit and vegetable market in Al Ain and a shopping arcade in Al Ain, which is being chiselled away to make way for new developments.
We have ventured just 20 minutes outside the heart of Abu Dhabi city centre, yet we could be in the remote climes of Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Here, tucked behind new villas and a pristine mosque in Mussafah, Luqman leads us to a network of streets shaped like a W, where one of Abu Dhabi's oldest neighbourhoods is still thriving, although not for long.
Brightly-coloured towels hang in lieu of doors at the entrances to a series of crumbling bungalows. Graffiti, such a rare sight in the Emirates, is scrawled across every spare bit of wall - bold declarations of love, hope and despair.
Children dressed in gaudy silks and satins trimmed with gold, spill out of doorways to stand and stare on unpaved dirt roads, littered with rubbish and parked cars nearing the end of their lives.
It is a rare sight in a country that cherishes the new, the modern and the lavish. But there is nothing ostentatious about this community in a tiny corner of an industrial heartland. It is simply somewhere hard-up families have chosen to live and work; and it is set for demolition.
Luqman wanted to capture its essence before a piece of Abu Dhabi's history is uprooted altogether, and to share it with others who might appreciate the life pulsing through it.
"Do not look at this place as a tourist, look at it like an artist," he tells the group as they get off the bus at the first location. The group is an eclectic mix of Emirati art students and graduates, a British oil company executive, an American teacher and a diplomat's wife.
"Find the soul of the place you are in, because whatever you see will eventually be translated into a piece of art."
His recruits scatter, armed with sketch pads, cameras and bags. They scour the same streets but their observations are remarkably different.
Khawla Darwish, 26, an Emirati trainee manager for Etihad airline, begins scavenging for odds and ends that could be used in a mixed-media artwork - a piece of car tyre, an abandoned crisp packet, a crushed flower and, her most interesting find of all, a discarded food cover woven from multicoloured yarns.
"I am not sure what I am going to do with them, I am just collecting anything that grabs me," she says, bending to burrow her fingers in what looks like a dirt pile and emerging with a turquoise- coloured stone.
"I have collected stuff since I was a child. I love the idea we are all seeing the same things but responding differently. This place has amazing textures, colours, patterns and shapes. There are a lot of abstract qualities to the buildings."
Afra Al Hamed, 24, who is studying for a master's degree in art history and interior design at the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, is revelling in the quirkiness of a neighbourhood she did not know existed just a few kilometres from her family home.
"What inspires me most are the doors representing the people that live there," she says, snapping away with her camera.
"There are vibrant colours in such a simple neighbourhood and, from the expressions on their faces, everyone is very happy, which is something I did not expect.
"They still have the simplicity of life we have lost in our modernist way of living. The people here still invite their neighbours around and wear bright clothes that represent happiness, even if their welfare is not as good as other areas."
Yet, where some see roses, others see thorns. While Tim Bastow, 35, a British operations manager for an offshore oil firm, feels inspired to create a photographic or mixed-media work, he is disturbed by what he sees as a bleak existence.
"It is rundown, dilapidated and sad," he says. "I feel sorry for the people living here. I feel they were wondering why we are here and whether we are going to take away their houses."
He pauses at a wall with a skull painted on it. An opposite wall is spray-painted with the word "freedom".
To Bastow, this is a sign that the community wants to get out of a dead area. But is it? Or could that be a colonialist interpretation and the true meaning is that the community represents freedom?
Watching different perceptions taking shape isn't just a by-product of the trip for Luqman. It is a key part of the exercise and governs what kind of artists the participants will become.
"It is essential they are together on the bus," he says. "It is part of the experience, because people will not see the same two things. They might look at the same thing, but they will all see something different. I like people to experience the same environment in the same place and for each to translate it with their own set of tools and imagination."
It was a lesson he learnt the hard way. A graphic designer, Luqman, who never studied art, started by painting his "fair share of horses, falcons, camels and landscapes", but was left frustrated and unfulfilled.
He withdrew for three years, painting only for himself, without exhibiting any of his work. What emerged was much more raw, much darker but ultimately, he says, "I was painting Jalal Luqman".
"When I first started doing art, there was no support," he says. "I remember wishing I had it. I started producing art regardless of whether people would like it or be offended by it.
"I do not believe in painting something just because it is beautiful. Art without a message is like a body without a soul. There is no meaning if it is just something to hang. I take the viewer out of their comfort zone.
"We have all loved, hated, sought revenge in one way or another; it is part of being human. I just paint it in large form."
It was his desire to pass on some of what he has learnt and pay it forward that made him decide to launch his free art trips for budding artists.
The original one in 2008 was intended to be a one-off but was such a big success that he decided to make it an annual event.
Previous trips have included visits to Hatta villages tucked between mountains, off the tourist trail, a village believed to be haunted in Ras Al Khaimah, Margham desert between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas island and Khor Fakkan.
They have thrown up fascinating results. A young woman who got lost in the haunted site for 20 minutes produced paintings with a palpable sense of mystery and fear, says Luqman.
A third of his participants go on to explore a career in art. Nabeel Al Muhairbi, who attended the second art trip, has since staged solo exhibitions in Abu Dhabi.
Part of the thrill is that Luqman never knows what kind of personalities will be taking part or what they might produce. It is a case of art shaping life as much as life affecting art.
American Jeanne Whatley, 49, studied fine arts at university but abandoned painting to raise her three children. The art trip has awakened a long-held desire to resume painting.
"I feel I could go home right now and paint," she says after the Mussafah stop.
"I am enjoying this time in my life, when I get to do what I want now the children are bigger and do not need me. There is all this creative energy that has been pushed down and now it is ready to burst."
Hamdan Buti, 31, a government official from Al Ain, sees more inspiration in the geometric lines of construction sites at the final stop.
The simplest things - the hoarding outside a building site, the facade of a house - have him pulling out his camera, sparked into action by images of "things that appear as if you are looking into a frame".
Al Hamed, meanwhile, sees connections between the vibrant colours worn by the Mussafah residents and the lurid fruit on display in the market.
"I want to focus on how people respond to their environment and how colour intervenes," she says.
But while she is drawn to the people and objects on display, more obscure sightings appeal to the other artists, from the light reflecting through the market's Islamic art facade, to an abandoned chair with no legs balanced on bricks and tin cans.
This, for Luqman, is exactly why he brought the artists here: to see life in all its forms and commit it to canvas.
"A lot of us who live in the city do not slow down to appreciate these things," he says.
"The Emiratis who went to the old neighbourhood in Mussafah did not know it existed.
"With swift modernisation, are we losing a little piece of our humanity? Do we need to do trips like this to remember how human we are or how simply people are living?
"I think it teaches us humility, to see people less fortunate than ourselves. Let us talk about it with art in a beautiful, civilised and constructive way, without insulting or stepping on anyone's toes.
"That neighbourhood will disappear. There is nothing we can do about it, but we can at least preserve it in a body of work."
The exhibition will run from March 6 to 16 at Ghaf Art Gallery, Abu Dhabi, before moving to the Marsam Mattar Gallery in Dubai