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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

'Art is to be shared' says Zaki Nusseibeh after lending collection to students so they can learn about curation

Nine students were split into three groups, each tackling the steps of putting an exhibition together: 'I am impressed by the choices of the students,' says Nusseibeh

An artwork by Marwan, a Syrian artist who depicts the face with lanscape-like properties, such as its ravines and peaks, on show as Within/Without at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Photo courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi
An artwork by Marwan, a Syrian artist who depicts the face with lanscape-like properties, such as its ravines and peaks, on show as Within/Without at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Photo courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi

A week or so ago, twenty-five paintings and works on paper were taken from Zaki Nusseibeh’s house in Al Ain. Canvases were lifted from the walls of the living room, bedrooms, even the bathroom, leaving gaping white spots where they used to hang.

It wasn’t some highbrow art heist: it was the students on NYU Abu Dhabi’s curating course, run by professor Salwa Mikdadi. Nusseibeh had allowed the students to make use of his collection of modern and contemporary Arab works in order to create their show, which is now up at Manarat Al Saadiyat.

“I believe art is to be shared,” says Nusseibeh, the UAE minister of state. “Art is not for individual pleasure.”

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., June 27, 2018. The Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy will be launched by Minister of State Zaki Nusseibeh at the end of this month. This is an exclusive interview on the launch. Victor Besa / The National Section: NA Reporter: Anna Zacharias
Minister of State Zaki Nusseibeh. Photo: Victor Besa / The National

Nusseibeh regularly invites guests to Al Ain to see his collection, but this is the first time it will be shown publicly outside his home. The NYUAD students devised a theme after viewing the works; they picked up on the curious fact that many of the portraits he owns have obscured or altered facial features. They used this as a wider metaphor for how Arab artists of the past fifty years have approached the idea of the self, and specifically the disconnections between interior and exterior personhood.

The show, Within/Without, is a small jewel of works of contemporary and modern Arab art, focusing in the main on portraits. There are, as one might expect, works by Marwan, the great Syrian scholar of the face, in whose hands the visage assumes landscape-like properties — ravines and peaks and troughs.

Prints by the Lebanese sculptor Mona Saudi’s Petra Tablets series approach the face as a monumental icon, and bear her steadfast interest in ancient cultures, here of the Nabateans. The Saudi works made a nice connection to Ismail Fattah’s duotone image of a face, which likewise begs to be read symbolically, as a cipher for the violence in his native Iraq.

Indeed there is politics throughout: as in the monstrous faces in Mozambican artist Ernesto Shikhani’s work, which, the material about the exhibition notes, reacted to the Portuguese colonial regime.

Mikdadi explains that she split the nine students up into three groups, each tackling the steps of putting an exhibition together: those concerned with the theme, those who wrote of the exhibition material, and those who coordinated the logistics of loaning and exhibiting works. They built a 3D model showing where each painting would hang, presented justification for each of the works’ inclusion, and liaised with estates and galleries to draw up loan agreements and condition reports to insure and value the works.

From the opening of the exhibition Within/Without at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi
From the opening of the exhibition Within/Without at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi

The students, from the BA course, came from different majors: literature, law, political science, for example. Curating courses have become more popular internationally over the last 15 years, reflecting the increased importance of curating in the art world’s production of meaning. This is the second year NYUAD is holding a curating course, but the first time the final show is exhibited off-campus. (“I think they were terrified,” admits Mikdadi, about when she told them the show would be at Manarat. “But they did it.”)

Within/Without also affords a chance for the public to see Nusseibeh’s collection. Nusseibeh was the translator for Sheikh Zayed, and has become an important figure in supporting art and culture in the Emirates. Most recently he has established the Office of Cultural Diplomacy, based out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which strategically directs the use of art abroad as a tool of soft diplomacy for the UAE.

He began assembling his own collection while still a student at university, he bought Orientalist art “when it was not expensive,” he says. “I then sold the Orientalist works and started buying modern and contemporary art for the region.” His collection, though he insists it is modest, has examples by major Arab artists, and he has also put together a library of resources on Arab art that is also open for scholars to visit.

“I am impressed by the choices of the students,” he said. “And even more so by their professional work.”

Within/Without is at Manarat Al Saadiyat until December 8

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