x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A pioneer returns

Salwa Zeidan Gallery is a welcome addition to the local scene, sitting pretty in a Khalidiya villa space complete with marble floors and a winding iron staircase.

Salwa Zeidan seeks to champion Emirati artists at her new eponymous art gallery, which is opening in Abu Dhabi today.
Salwa Zeidan seeks to champion Emirati artists at her new eponymous art gallery, which is opening in Abu Dhabi today.

Salwa Zeidan is back, armed with an arsenal of talented Emirati artists, to finish what she started. Fifteen years ago, Zeidan opened the first art gallery in Abu Dhabi. The audacious project was a bit before its time and, sadly, closed after one year. Zeidan, who is a painter as well as a gallerist, moved back to her home in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and focused solely on her own art. Until now. "Two or three years ago, I started hearing about Abu Dhabi and its art district, and every time I came here people would say, 'Hey where are you? You should be coming here," says Zeidan, a sophisticated woman who still manages to convey a warm, earth-mother vibe with her soft drawling voice and wild curls. "So I came back again and I thought I would reopen the gallery because I saw there is still a need for something to happen, and I know I can really add something from my own experience - to link here and now with the future." Her eponymous gallery is opening today.

Abu Dhabi has a healthy and growing art scene that has mushroomed along with the city since Zeidan's first days here. Art spaces such as the Ghaf and Hemisphere galleries have regular rotating exhibitions, and organisations like the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation engage the public with visual and performing arts. Major shows such as last year's Art of Islam exhibition and Picasso Abu Dhabi, both at the Emirates Palace, wowed residents and visitors. The art collective Fanaan, made up of long-time Abu Dhabi residents, and two rounds of artparis-Abu Dhabi also reflect the development that has taken place since Zeidan's first foray on to the scene. Still, the heralded projects on Saadiyat Island such as the Guggenheim and Louvre museum outlets, are under construction and have a number of years to go before they are open to the art-loving public.

Zeidan's gallery is a welcome addition to the local scene, sitting pretty in a Khalidiya villa space complete with marble floors and a winding iron staircase. It is a world away from the Abu Dhabi that Zeidan knew when she first came to live in the Emirates in 1979. "It was so empty that you could see the sea from all of Abu Dhabi because there were no buildings," she says with a smile. "I am very proud of this city and the development they did in only 15 years."

She and her husband settled in Dubai at first, but came to Abu Dhabi in the 1980s and stayed for more than a decade. Though she had always been an artist, Zeidan decided to try her hand at the art business by opening a gallery in 1994. Like her present space, her previous one was also called Salwa Zeidan Gallery. Its first show in 1994 heralded a group of young Lebanese artists such as Mohammad Rawas and Ali Shams, who are now established figures on the Middle Eastern art scene. Rawas's painting Souk El-Franj, Bab Idriss (Beirut Vegetable Market) was sold this past October at Christie's auction house for more than US$50,000 (Dh184,000). Though the artists that Zeidan championed in the early days now exhibit all over the world, her first gallery didn't fare as well and closed in 1995. Even though business didn't boom - Zeidan says she had a hard time just paying off the rental lease - her love of Abu Dhabi didn't diminish.

Today she is sitting behind the desk of her gallery office, sipping coffee in front of a trio of pastel-on-paper works by her long-time friend, the Emirati artist Hassan Sharif. Sharif is one of the eight artists from the Emirati collective The Flying House who will be exhibiting in the new Salwa Zeidan Gallery's first show, titled Contemporary Emirati Art. The Flying House, a non-profit group, was created in 2007 to help encourage Emirati arts and artists. The collective includes established talents such as Sharif alongside young artists like the 22-year-old Moza al Suwaidi, who has already been included in a number of important group shows featuring Emirati art. The collective works out of Dubai and includes about 10 artists. This will be their first show in the UAE capital, and some of the artists were milling about the gallery before the opening, checking frames and biographies.

The two standouts from the collective who are showing at the Contemporary Emirati Art exhibit are Mohammed Kazem and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, both mature artists who turn out beautiful and conceptually strong works. There are also pieces from other artists, including Hassan Sharif, Hussain Sharif and Layla Juma, mainly large-scale paintings and Dada-esque sculptures, dotted throughout the second-floor space.

The Dubai-born Kazem is an experimental artist whose work ranges from photography to video installation to abstract "scratch" on paper that reference traditions such as Nepalese lotka paper making and African tribal scarification. Some of Kazem's strongest work - scratches worked into acrylic with neon lights behind it - are more engaging than his paper pieces, but they are not included in this show. Hopefully Abu Dhabi will get another chance to see these works on acrylic, which look like amoebas swimming under a microscope or like the fluorescent algae found in parts of the Red Sea, floating in silent and dark waters.

Kazem has a number of his abstract scratch-on-paper works on display at Salwa Zeidan Gallery. One such piece, Chemnitz, is 100cm x 70cm of raised white scratches on handmade white paper, and its large size gives the viewer the impression of being caught in a snowstorm. Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, a Khor Fakkan-born artist who once studied archaeology, is showing work such as Forms 2007, a 32cm x 22cm drawing made with India ink on paper. Triangles with little hairs coming off their bases fit together in a puzzle-like way next to circles attached to the end of what look like fish skeletons. Forms 2007 is an intricate maze of symbols, drawn confidently but with a certain naive quality, that reminds the viewer of Chinese pictograms and, at times, tiny piles of bones. The pattern that these amassed cuneiform-like shapes create reveals that images and words are merely flip sides of the same coin. They are timelessly simple in black and white and extremely elegant - the type of work that people could have in their homes for decades and still love.

Zeidan felt that it was important for her first show to reintroduce UAE residents to local artists as a thank you to her adopted country and the art scene that she helped foster. "People are not convinced that there is a real artistic movement here among the Emiratis. We really have to recognise their work and how it's developing and I like to be the one to do that," says Zeidan. "I really want to see more people appreciating the local artists - it's very important."

After the Contemporary Emirati Art exhibit closes on Jan 22, Zeidan will show her own paintings in the gallery on Jan 29. Zeidan, who grew up in a family of artists headed by her poet father, spent the years away from the UAE working on her own artistic development, and maintains two studios - one in Lebanon and a smaller one in Abu Dhabi. She makes abstract paintings with ink and acrylic, creating smudges of black and red that seem to move as you look at them, quite like the motion that is present in some works by Franz Kline and Cy Twombly. Zeidan hesitates to talk about her work - she wants her audience to have as few associations as possible. "I want the viewer to have full freedom of interacting with my art," she says. "I believe in this freedom because it is the same freedom I use to create them."

This show, plus another group show for the Lebanese artists she introduced in the 1990s, is part of Zeidan's ambitious plan. "I have a big agenda," she says. "Not only for art exhibitions, but also projects for this city, and I know that I can add a lot with my experience." But for now, it's all about nurturing the existing grassroots art movement that's been percolating in Abu Dhabi, and Zeidan has received a warm welcome back.

"I see that people are opening their homes for art pieces. I see lots of people who are collectors now," says Zeidan. "They did some growing up artistically, and I am sure with time it will be developed much more." This is the opposite reaction to the one that Zeidan had in 1994, when she first tried the gallery business. As she tells it, friends and family were horrified that she would open an art space, shrieking at her that no one would appreciate it, much less buy anything. Now, however, it seems to be a different story. Four days before the show and gallery opening, Zeidan had already sold three pieces on her walls. "Now it's more positive, the feedback," she says. "People who hear about my adventure say, 'Bravo! It's completely the right time'." As for Zeidan's role in the Abu Dhabi art world, it's finally come full circle.

Salwa Zeidan Gallery, Al Khaleej Al Arabi Street (30th Street), Villa 256 2nd floor (02 666 9656). Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 10.00am to 8.00pm; Saturday, 3.00pm to 8.00pm.
swolff@thenational.ae