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A home-grown design industry

A student exhibition is clear proof that Abu Dhabi's graphic design profile has a very healthy future ahead of it.

Abu Dhabi's graphic-design industry had better hold onto its digitally rendered hat if Desert Rose, the graduation show by the applied media students at Abu Dhabi Women's College of HCT (Higher Colleges of Technology) is anything to go by. Held at the Ghaf Gallery - a proponent of emerging talent since it opened two years ago - 16 students displayed the culmination of three years' work. The results came in a variety of media, including graphic design, audio, video and photography. All showed plenty of commercial nous which was just as well, since the exhibition was intended as a showcase for prospective employers.

Thirteen of the 16 students had chosen to specialise in graphic design in their final year. And there were some familiar faces: Fatima al Shamsi and Shaima al Maisari had previously shown their artistic mettle in Jalal's Art Trip, held by the Emirati artist and co-owner of the Ghaf Gallery, Jalal Luqman. Following a trip to Jazirat al Hamra in Ras al Khaimah earlier in the year, the group had produced a series of works inspired by the trip. Both al Shamsi and al Maisari's works had been standout entries at the exhibition and their course work this time was similarly accomplished. Al Shamsi, whose previous work, What I Was, an aboriginal-style recreation of the intricate patterns formed by a piece of coral to signify her growing confidence as a woman, had, this time, combined self-reflection with humour: Chicken, a sunny, cartoon-style poster, had the words, "I am not a chicken; I am chicken" inscribed on it. "In college," she explained, "they call me chicken. I wanted to make the point that I'm not actually a chicken."

For their graduation project, their teacher Cordula Peters had asked the students to think about an issue surrounding the UAE today. Many had chosen to focus on the assimilation of eastern and western cultures, with thought-provoking results. Afra al Mehairi's propaganda-style posters asked questions about how one's culture is manifested through food and dress. "What are you eating? What are you wearing? Who are you?" it demanded. And Huda Abbas's accomplished documentary Because... I am centred on the idea of assimilation. Beautifully shot sequences on an old dhow contrasted with scenes of shifty looking teenagers at a skate park. "I wanted to ask questions about eastern and western culture," she said. "We take from one but we don't give back to the other."

Although the majority of the works were in digital form, there was plenty of artistic flair in evidence. A Starbucks cup emblazoned with al Shamsi's intricate ink doodles showed considerable skill, and Mariam Abu Haleeqa's Betty Boo-like book illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid were imaginative and engaging. "One of the things for me that was really important was that they understood that the computer is just another tool," said Peters. "Graphic design doesn't need to be done on a computer. Go back 20 or 30 years and most designers didn't have one and a lot of it was done by hand."

The course is seeing increasing numbers of applicants, she said, as the home-grown graphic design industry puts down roots. "Graphic design work is not being outsourced so much anymore," she said. "More and more design companies are starting up here now and so my students are able to get work placements and then job offers." Mohamed Kanoo, who co-owns the Ghaf Gallery and whose company, the Kanoo Group, has sponsored the Desert Rose graduate show this year alongside the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. The Kanoo Group has been a sponsor since the exhibition first ran eight years ago. He believes in the importance of providing the students with a proper commercial space. "Before they were in the malls," he said, "and the mall is not the right place for art. One of the things that is important to us is to bring the students into an art environment. But also to get them out of the classroom and into a more realistic field."

As it turns out, the majority of the students will be continuing their studies for a further year in order to get their BScS before they move into the workplace. But they are itching to get going. "I love designing so much," said Anood al Mulla. "I'd like to design corporate identities when I graduate." "Once I've finished studying," said Nora al Mansouri, "I'd like to start my own graphic-design company in Abu Dhabi." The future seems bright indeed.

Desert Rose 2009 will be on at the Ghaf Gallery, Abu Dhabi, until June 11. Call 02 665 5332

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