ABU DHABI // Walking to a high-windowed studio in the back of the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, where she runs an art workshop, Sawsan Khames points to a young woman sculpting a head. The artist, she says in hushed tones, sometimes makes female figurines out of clay, something that not too long ago would have been considered unacceptable. Nevertheless, there is much in art, including nudity, that is still considered taboo in the Emirates.
Ms Khames says that she and other members of the artistic community believe that if Abu Dhabi truly wants to become a cultural hub, then people need to start talking about art and its place in Arab culture, especially with the branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums scheduled to open in 2012. Many members of the artistic community are wondering how conservatives may react to some of the works the museums are expected to display, she says.
"It is not easy to change people's minds. To see different art from what we're used to here can change people's minds." She adds that simply importing art from abroad will not be enough to foster the arts and that there should be more promotion of all kinds of art, including traditional forms. Mohammed Kanoo, an artist originally from Bahrain whose work is inspired by Andy Warhol and the pop art movement of the 1950s, agrees. He notes that some UAE artists push the boundaries of what is acceptable, but many censor themselves for fear of offending the authorities.
"Art here is limited by the artists themselves," he says. Mr Kanoo says he would like a national debate on art and hopes the projects like the Guggenheim and the Louvre provide the inspiration. "The Guggenheim is important for an arts evolution here. Custom is what drives the people here and no one wants to challenge society too much. A naked woman in art, for example, is something our traditions won't allow," he says.
"But when the Guggenheim comes, will there be a debate? I hope so. When art becomes more popular here, when people are more educated and less fearful, that's hopefully when the debate will happen." Ronald Hawker, a professor of art history at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, agrees that art requires discussion to develop. "If you look at most art historical texts on Islamic art, they'll say that the prohibition of the figure rests primarily on the Hadith, figurative 'an angel will not enter a house with a dog or a picture'. This has been interpreted and reinterpreted from various angles according to what sect or school of Islamic law one follows."
It is a point his students regularly discuss. "The conversation continues in the design classrooms at Zayed University," he says, with students both for and against representations of the human body. "I have a feeling that this current argument among students is not altogether different than the discussion artists have had since the beginning." However, Abdulrahman, who is one imam who answers calls at the fatwa line, stressed that the depiction of "anything with a soul" - people or animals - was strictly forbidden under Islam.
"The person who does this is doing what the Prophet did and there is no permission within Islam to do this," he said. "Whoever does this carries a burden." The collections at the Guggenheim will contain as much local art as possible, assuming it meets the standards of the museum, according to Mubarak al Muhairi, director general for Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. "The staging of temporary art exhibitions has proved conclusively that there is an appetite for art here within the UAE and the wider region," he says.