x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Brainstorming art

Feature Debates abound at Thinking Cloud, an art discussion forum created in Dubai to encourage visual arts in the UAE.

Left to right: Sonia Brewin and Laura Trelford, co-founders of Thinking Cloud, at the Courtyard in Dubai.
Left to right: Sonia Brewin and Laura Trelford, co-founders of Thinking Cloud, at the Courtyard in Dubai.

Laura Trelford and Sonia Brewin talked and talked until they could talk no more. Tired of debating tête-á-tête, they decided they wanted to speak with other people, too. That's when the two women dreamt up Thinking Cloud, a Dubai-based art discussion forum that is free and open to the public.

"We were always talking about contemporary art and kind of got bored talking to each other," explains Brewin about the humble launch of such an adventurous project. But the discussion forum was not built on a whim. She and her co-founder, Trelford, are serious visual arts connoisseurs who yearned for the formal, intellectual discussions about contemporary art they often had in their native London. Thinking Cloud emerged out of their mutual passion for art and their talent for networking a year and a half ago.

The concept behind Thinking Cloud is to encourage visual arts in the UAE. To do this, Thinking Cloud holds one of its lively debates every two months or so. Every debate features new speakers and a new topic in a new location. "The name Thinking Cloud really relates to its ethereal, floating nature and the fact that it doesn't have any firm foundations," says Trelford. "It's very fluid." Both Brewin and Trelford moved here in early 2007 for their respective careers. Though they are both art lovers, they come at Thinking Cloud from different angles. Trelford studied art history and ran the internship programme at the Guggenheim Collection in Venice. She now works as the education manager for Art Dubai. Brewin is a painter who worked with the Prince's Drawing School, an educational charity, to bring art to impoverished areas of London before taking over as the director of START, the Art Dubai and Al Madad Foundation joint venture that supports art education in the Middle East. It's hard to believe that they have time to work and manage Thinking Cloud on the side.

When Trelford and Brewin began organising the Thinking Cloud talks, there were no free, regularly scheduled art dialogues open to the general public; the Dubai contemporary art scene was still trying to find its balance as it grew at an ever-quickening rate. "Dubai is in the state where it is developing an arts scene in its very grassroots early days," says Trelford. "To bring people together on a regular basis to have an informal discussion about various aspects of the art scene just seemed to be very pertinent and a necessary component to the arts life here."

Brewin says she loves to intellectualise art and could talk about it forever. This led her and Trelford to engage other like-minded individuals in critical discussion. "There seemed to be enough interested people, but nobody had the guts to do it so we said, 'Let's give it a go'." Thinking Cloud's founders decided early on that it would be its own entity, completely unrelated to Trelford and Brewin's day jobs. No money was to change hands, no speakers are paid and the audience is not charged for admission. "We rely on the generosity of different organisations to give over their space for the Thinking Cloud," says Trelford.

In Sept 2007, Thinking Cloud held its first debate at The Jam Jar Gallery in the Al Quoz industrial area of Dubai. A number of resident artists, many of them also art professors at UAE universities, came to the talk which posed the question: "Is there contemporary art in Dubai?" In that first debate, the artists bounced around the idea of exhibiting together, and last month they actually did. In Situ, an installation and sculptural show at the Jam Jar, was the fruition of that particular idea.

"Another thing about Thinking Cloud is that it is just purely networking at its most simple level," says Trelford. "A lot of ideas and other projects generate on from that, which is exactly our intention." Topics have included everything from what opportunities the Gulf region offers to artists working today to one called "Are you the audience?", which helped shed light on who is buying and collecting contemporary Middle Eastern art. With Thinking Cloud's guileless and open attitude towards speaking about art, the debates have become a salon of sorts, an avant-garde meeting place for UAE artists, gallerists and collectors.

At their last meeting, held with the help of the Sharjah Museums Department, artists, architects, students and patrons of the arts filled the 60 seats lined up in the conference room of the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. Sultan al Qassemi, who is the chairman of Young Arab Leaders, a group that helps promote opportunities for Arab youth, and a columnist for The National, moderated the panelists at the museum.

While Trelford and Brewin hurried around working on the logistics, which included hustling to get extra chairs for the rapidly expanding attendees, guests mingled with each other, looking happy that they managed to snag a seat. Speakers included Manal Ataya, the director general of the Sharjah Museums Department, Mishaal al Gergawi, the projects and events manager of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and another National columnist, and Hoda al Kamis-Kanoo, the Founder of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. The discussion centred on the role of museums in preserving the cultural heritage of the Emirates.

This was a unique opportunity to put questions to the some of the most influential members of the UAE's art scene. They fielded questions such as: "What can we do to encourage families to take their children to museums?" Later on, an architect in the audience asked politely but directly about how to get funding for his projects. Afterwards, attendees chatted with speakers more informally while sipping tea.

The women say that most discussions draw around 30 to 50 people, and the Sharjah talk was the first time the discussion group ever had an audience of 100 people. But the two knew their project was a success when they chaired another talk during London's Frieze Week in Oct 2008. Brewin says the talk was "packed" with participants. "So many people wanted to know what's happening in the Middle East in terms of contemporary art and Dubai obviously has captured international imagination," says Brewin. "It was standing room only and we were worried it would just be our mums and that was it," she says, laughing.

The success of their London talk encouraged Trelford and Brewin to think about going more international. Trelford mentions Jordan, Bahrain and Lebanon as likely places for upcoming talks and a panel discussion in Doha has already entered the planning process. The only problem they have encountered was with a problematic Dictaphone. "We tried and failed miserably to get transcripts during the talks," says Brewin. "Tape recorders just never seemed to work." Instead of whingeing about the lack of documentation, Thinking Cloud saw this as an opportunity and is currently in the process of making a book based on their previous debates.

"We've gone back to the speakers and given them the topic that they spoke on again such as: 'What did you learn at art school?'" says Brewin. "Then they've written back to us on that topic, essentially rethinking it and giving us a blurb." Thinking Cloud doesn't have a fixed date for this publication, but hopes to have it ready by March. The two women will be fronting their own cash to make the book and plan to give their proceeds to START. "If anyone buys the book, the money comes straight to START and we will be using that for our workshops in Jordan," says Brewin.

Thinking Cloud is particularly deft at helping young artists figure out their next step and has devoted a few of its talks to the process of becoming a working artist. "I think we're focused on that because I studied painting and I am really keen to encourage people that have just come out of art school to continue and not just become a graphic designer or a banker," says Brewin. "I think in the UAE it is quite hard to find ways into the art sector. It's not clear what you can do, so it's rewarding to have panelists spell it out."

The next discussion, which will be held in March during Art Dubai, is going a step further to encourage young artists. The talk will be geared towards children under 18. Kids will be able to ask internationally renowned talents in town for Art Dubai about how they became successful working artists. Trelford and Brewin are particularly keen on corralling teenagers who are taking their A levels now and plan on taking the artists to the area schools directly. "Maybe they never say anything, but it's good for them to see that you can rigorously talk about art," Brewin adds.

After all, taking the Thinking Cloud series overseas and the book project are secondary to the two women's true aim: fostering the art community in the UAE through intellectual discussion. "For me, the whole point of art is to encourage people to think on another level and, in an Arab country which has such strong oral traditions, to do that through debates seems to make sense," says Trelford. "Thinking Cloud makes people look again at the different galleries, experience new art forms, think about things in a different context."