The UAE's art world has exploded in recent years, with new galleries, new collectors and a new generation of bright young artists springing up in Dubai and Abu Dhabi - and now Emirati artists are making a splash in London. A small solo show dedicated to work by the 23-year-old Dubai-based artist Kholoud Sharafi is currently running at the British Arab Centre in Holborn, and next month a larger exhibition of art by Abu Dhabi's Noor Al Suwaidi, 29, will be launched at the upmarket Gallery 27 in Mayfair.
The organiser behind both these shows is the curator Juan Carlos Farah, who runs Newertown Art, a company dedicated to showcasing the work of artists from the Middle East (and sometimes further afield) in London. As former cataloguer for the Middle East and India department of the art auction house Sotheby's, his job put him in touch with a lot of talented artists, including four currently based in the Emirates whom he has included in group shows.
Farah's interest in Middle Eastern culture predates the Sotheby's gig. Although he grew up in Peru, his family is Palestinian and he studied Arabic at university. After a spell in Boston, in the US, he's been based in London for the past three years and is now passionate about promoting Middle and "Further" Eastern art to Londoners of all sorts, from trendy East End scenesters to rich collectors with links to the Arab world.
Farah, who will be heading to Art Dubai in March to do some more talent-spotting, came across Sharafi's work through Sotheby's, which auctioned one of her artworks in Doha last December for US$5,000 (Dh18,400). It was a mixed media piece on fibreboard that incorporated the lyrics of a song by the Egyptian singer Um Kulthoum, who is a recurring image in Sharafi's work.
At Frequency, her show in London, there is a work made from a print on cardboard, which shows three images of Kulthoum superimposed on pictures of television sets and a piano. Again, fragments of lyrics from her songs are worked into the design. Different modes of expression - the televisions, the instrument, the song lyrics, the materials from which Sharafi built her work - are nested like Russian dolls, reflecting the show's subtitle, Converging Media. In Farah's words, it shows "that there's different ways of presenting [the same] message."
Other pieces in the exhibition reflect similar themes. There's a series of prints of vintage TVs showing song lyrics in flowing script. In some, the shapes of the letters are repeated over and over, forming a lattice that evokes the metalwork of Egyptian balconies. Elsewhere, vinyl LPs are encrusted with geometric design, Islamic-style arabesques and calligraphy. It's a mash-up of ageing global technology (another piece shows a fragmenting cassette tape) and snippets of long-lasting Arabic culture and design.
Sharafi had an exhibition at Dubai's Cuadro gallery in December, and her work was being auctioned in Kuwait at the time of writing, in a sale that also included work by Damien Hirst. Pieces from her Um Kulthoum series have been bought by the Jordan National Museum of Fine Arts and the Barjeel Art Foundation, despite the fact that she graduated (from the American University of Sharjah) only three years ago.
"I never planned on becoming an artist," Sharafi admitted in an e-mail exchange after the exhibition's opening. "I majored in visual communications and that gave me the chance to experiment, and that resulted in my involvement with art." She's unpretentious talking about her work and her success, saying "I just do what I like doing" and that "the idea of getting my hands dirty and physically creating something is what got me interested in art."
When I ask if there's any pressure from collectors or curators to preserve a recognisably Arabic style - the patterns and calligraphy - she replied that there's not. "I don't like to force things when it comes to making a piece," she said. "If I add something, it's there for a reason and not because I'm trying to point out that it's traditional or Middle Eastern. It's just a way of expressing the subject that I've been addressing."
While Sharafi hasn't yet started travelling for her work, Al Suwaidi, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi and studied on the same course as Sharafi at Sharjah, has undergone further education in Washington, DC, and Kingston in London, as well as living in Amsterdam and Berlin and travelling around Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Arab region. "All these experiences," she says, "are naturally expressed through my artistic practice."
Over the past decade, her work has evolved from transfer prints incorporating back-to-front Arabic script to figurative sculptures with letters carved into them, to bright, almost abstract-looking paintings with flowing lines. She says the shapes she uses in her abstract paintings are similar to the shape of her handwriting, although this wasn't a conscious decision, and that her use of colour is an important aspect of her work. For the forthcoming London show she's working on acrylic works on canvas and works on paper.
Like Sharafi, Al Suwaidi has attracted collectors from at home and abroad. "I would prefer not to drop names," Al Suwaidi says modestly, "but I have been supported by many patrons of art from the UK, Lebanon, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE. Their confidence in my work is essential to me." She's planning a residency in Europe this summer and is looking forward to the Venice Biennial, as well as the solo show in London.
It's a good time to be an Emirati artist, Al Suwaidi says: "With two art fairs and the numbers of exhibitions and visiting artists, it's a great chance to meet people and exchange ideas. It's great that twice a year the art world comes to us." However, she adds, "I don't want to be branded as an Emirati for a quick sales pitch to the local collectors. It's important for artists to be represented by agents or galleries that believe in their art first."