As one of the most important shows of Arab contemporary art makes its Arab world debut, we find out more about the collection.
25 Years of Arab Creativity celebrates modern art
From Nadim Karam's trio of stainless steel elephants to the Egyptian painter Khaled Hafez's colourful work titled Stockholm Goddess, the exhibition opening at Emirates Palace tomorrow is one of the greatest collections of Arab contemporary art ever collated.
Making its Arab-world debut after it was unveiled in Paris last year to mark the 25th anniversary of L'Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), 25 Years of Arab Creativity is something of a celebration and an attempt to summarise a vast and varied artistic landscape.
Comprising the work of 40 contemporary artists from different countries, cultures, generations and even artistic practices, the show has only one underlying theme: all the artists are of Arab origin.
Some of them are well known; Hafez is represented by Al Masar Gallery in Cairo and has been exhibited in prestigious international spaces such as London's Saatchi Gallery. Karam is an established artist and architect who, as well as having pieces shown in Venice and Art Basel, also founded the successful Atelier Hapsitus in his hometown of Beirut.
Others are emerging, such as the Saudi photographer Reem Al Faisal and the Tunisian photographer Nicène Kossentini, whose work is conceptual and abstract. Two artists from the UAE are included - Ebtisam Abdulaziz and Karima Al Shomaly - and within the original Paris collection will be a new, smaller exhibition of 10 Emiratis selected by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (Admaf).
So, with such a large collection under one title, what exactly constitutes a piece of contemporary Arab art? "The show is defined by its universality," says Mona Khazindar, the director general of the IMA. "You can always see the Arab roots by the use of a sign or a colour, a letter or a landscape, but the art is universal and, aesthetically speaking, there is no link between the pieces."
The exhibition was curated by Ehab El Labban, who worked on the collection for a year, selecting the artists and their works and gathering them in what he calls a "visual adventure". In an essay written to introduce the exhibition, El Labban, who twice headed the Cairo International Biennale, addresses the difficulties of presenting the panorama of Arab contemporary art given its often opposing sensibilities. In it he also writes that he intends the show to have "educational value, and serve as a reference for researchers and historians in the years to come".
With controversial and thought-provoking pieces such as Safwan Dahoul's Dream 43, which the Syrian artist painted in his Damascus studio amid the government's continuing bombardment, and Nadia Kaabi-Linke's flasks filled with sand from the tombs of American soldiers who died in North Africa during the Second World War, it was inevitable that political and social commentary would work their way into the exhibit, El Labban says. However, he has not gone so far as to define any of the pieces under such categories. He outlines four loose themes - political, socio-economical, personal and global - but he arranged the art in the form of a "vast stage set" so visitors could view the exhibition as a whole and in detail.
The show in Emirates Palace is in collaboration with Admaf and will run throughout the Abu Dhabi Festival, which opened on Sunday. After the UAE, it will travel to the National Museum of Bahrain for the summer and there is talk of a stop in Riyadh before the exhibition possibly heads to Baghdad later in the year, although the latter two are not confirmed.
Keen to express that the original show in Paris covered 1,500 square metres - "a space not nearly big enough to represent 25 years of Arab creativity" - Khazindar says that the ensuing tour is part of her mission to promote Arab art in the East and in the West, something she does with "lots of pleasure and conviction".
She also says she is confident the show will live up to the expectations of the "cosmopolitan and artistically orientated" mindsets of the Abu Dhabi audience. "I don't think even they have had a show like this before and I hope they will enjoy it and learn from it."
Alongside the main show, Abu Dhabi Festival will present a specially curated section featuring the work of 10 Emirati artists in an exhibition entitled Three Generations. The divergent works from the different artists echo the 10 years of the Abu Dhabi Festival and highlight the creative practices of three generations of Emirati visual art. Artists such as Mohammed Al Astad, Azza Al Qubaisi, Jalal Luqman, Maitha Demithan and Mattar Bin Lahej capture core functional elements that form the fabric of traditional Emirati society such as the kurab or palm wood, the bisht or male cloak, and the movement of the Arabian horse.
Demithan says it is an honour to be part of the exhibition. "I'm not even 25 yet and I am part of this show that celebrates 25 years of Arab creativity. For me it is inspirational to see these artists and to know that I am part of a movement. It is now up to us to make the effort to tap into all the resources we have and to represent our generation."
Shamsa Al Omaira, a conceptual artist who usually works with chairs and furniture, says she feels privileged and that being part of the exhibition has only fuelled her ambition for greater success. "I feel I have reached my dreams already and everything after this is like I am living on a cloud."
The 10 Emiratis taking part in 25 Years of Arab Creativity
• Mohammed Al Astad
• Maitha Demithan
• Mattar Bin Lahej
• Jalal Luqman
• Najat Makki
• Dana Al Mazrouei
• Shamsa Al Omaira
• Azza Al Qubaisi
• Hamdan Buti Al Shamsi
• Sumayyah Al Suwaidi
25 Years of Arab Creativity, in partnership with L'Institut du Monde Arabe, runs from tomorrow until March 31. It is open Sundays to Thursdays from noon to 8pm, and on Fridays and Saturdays from 10am to 10pm. Admission is free