Budour Al Ali is an accountant by day, royal portrait painter by night.
At age eight she was asked to write a 150-word creative writing essay about her family farm. Instead, she presented her teacher with a sheet of paper covered in a sketch of her father’s four-wheel drive surrounded by camels.
In class, she doodled on her table, in her textbook and on the chalkboard when she was called up to write answers. She was in trouble a lot. Her grandmother came to her rescue with colouring pencils and a notebook. “Take them to school,” said her grandmother. The gift saved Al Ali’s textbooks and set her future career.
During art classes at the Royal College of Art in London, she faced a new challenge: live models. “I ditched a lot of classes because when you start to draw the body they use a naked man. So I started with the hands, feet, faces. That’s how it started.”
Her oil paintings of Arabian horses and sheikhs now hang in hotel lobbies and in the majlises of Abu Dhab’s VIPs.
Al Ali paints from photographs. Sheikh portraits are always in demand and hoteliers are on the look for new ways to show the familiar faces. The 30-year-old has done more than 22 portraits alone of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs.
The most popular has him in a sky-blue Manchester City shirt with a smudged team logo. “I’m a big fan of Manchester United,” she says. “I tell people to focus on the face, not on the logo.”
She donates half of all sales to charity.
The one sheikh she will not paint is Sheikh Zayed, the country’s founding President.
“After his loss I found it really difficult to paint him. I started to cry and cry and cry.”
Person whom you most admire?
I learnt a lot from Sheikh Zayed. I have great values and manners because I’m just keeping in mind the advice and the things that he used to tell us about.
In Turkey there are a lot of mosques that I’m really, really, really impressed by, such as Sultan Ahmed Masjid. I love the way that they are built. For a second, I just imagined that it was the time of Sultan Suleyman and his wives, back in time.
Best advice from your grandma?
She told me never to give up, always let go and don’t get attached to anything no matter how much you love it. She told me that people easily leave others, things change and nothing ever remains the same. I lost a lot of things in my life and that somehow affected me. When I matured I learnt that lesson.
Favourite football club?
I’m a big fan of Real Madrid. I’m a big fan of Manchester United. A lot of requests come to me to paint Sheikh Mansour because he’s a champion in horses and he’s the owner of the Manchester City club.
Actually, I love drawing kids. There’s no specific face because every face to me tells a story. I so much love painting kids. I love their energy and I love their innocence. Even when I paint them I feel it’s a therapy for me.
Advice to Abu Dhabi visitors?
They should try Arabic coffee, they should try Emirati dishes and, if
they have a friend or a relative, I think they should and must visit the Emirati people in their houses to see their traditions and how they eat, because it is a great experience.
I like the tea room
in Etihad Towers. I love the St Regis hotel and the Monte Carlo is my favourite beach cafe, because it’s on an island and the beach view is very calming and peaceful. It feels different to sit there and have your coffee and the atmosphere is very calming.
Favourite building in Abu Dhabi?
There are a lot of mosques in Abu Dhabi that are really beautiful and I somehow like the Islamic design but there are two buildings that I really love – the twin [Al Bahar Tower] buildings.
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