Bringing art education to the forefront: 'What Sharjah Art Foundation is offering fills a gap'
Not enough people in the UAE are interested in the arts, but Sheikh Noora Al Mualla, director of learning and research at the Sharjah Art Foundation, is trying to change all that
Several of the bronze sculptures housed in the Sharjah Art Museum depict birds. Smoothly carved, with few identifying characteristics, the pieces are nevertheless recognisable and are undoubtedly the work of one artist: Adam Henein. The Egyptian’s bold and strikingly non-traditional statues, of which he has made many during his 60-year career, are placed throughout the museum’s alcoves, narrating the story of his oeuvre.
Standing amid the presentation and reflecting on the significance of Henein's recurring use of birds as a motif is Sheikha Noora Al Mualla, the exhibition’s curator and director of learning and research at the Sharjah Art Foundation.
At 31, she is one of the youngest senior staff at the foundation and the Henein exhibition – entitled Lasting Impressions: Adam Henein and runs until Saturday, November 16 – is the first solo show she has curated. “We see the bird throughout his career,” Sheikha Noora explains. “It almost sums him up as an artist; it represents freedom, movement and experimentation.”
Included in the exhibition is a large survey of the artist’s paintings and sculptures from the 1950s until the present day. There are 70 works referencing themes such as Egyptian heritage and Ancient Egyptian symbols and, perhaps most notably, there are rare sketches and paintings that display his interest in Modernist forms and lines, which Henein investigated throughout his career.
“Generally, what I love about solo shows is looking at the artist as a human being,” says Sheikha Noora. “I have always found art an interesting door through which to look at psychology and human behaviour, so curating a solo show gives me the opportunity to tell the story of the artist.”
Sheikha Noora joined the SAF in 2015. She has a deep interest in research and worked alongside the SAF president and director, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, during her curation of the National Pavilion of the UAE for the Venice Biennale in 2015. At that time, Sheikha Noora spent hours in the library of the Sharjah Art Museum, exploring the artworks in storage.
“I felt like I could learn anything through art and particularly Arab art,” she says. “I became immersed in the history and politics of the region simply by looking at the artworks.”
That experience was what spurred Sheikha Noora further in her career and encouraged her to delve into the importance of education. In January, she was one of 20 Emiratis selected to train with a mentor to develop their skills as part of the National Experts Programme in Abu Dhabi. The six-month initiative was launched by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and helped participants work on a sector-specific project that would eventually contribute to boosting a knowledge-based economy. Sheikha Noora focused on education.
“I was always interested in the education aspect at the foundation and wanted to be closer to the community, but working within the National Experts Programme helped me to discover that this is my true passion,” she says. “Education gives more value to what we do generally.”
She says the UAE offers a high volume of content. With a strong programme of year-round exhibitions and events in Sharjah, as well annual art fairs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and a growing institutional presence across the country, the arts and cultural calendar is almost always full. “The problem is that people are not always interested in what we are offering,” she says. “I see this as stemming from the fact art is not part of education for the children of this generation or, at the very least, it is not consistent.
“I think the issue is that our country grew at a fast pace and education in the UAE is still in the experimentation stage. People have been focused on different things, such as business and economy or national identity, and I feel like art has been a bit lost in the middle. Now, I believe there is an appreciation for art education and that is where we come in.”
This summer, the SAF launched its autumn 2019 education and community programme, which includes workshops, courses, talks, excursions and other activities tailored to children and adults of all backgrounds, ages, abilities and skill levels. There are more than 130 events being led by art professionals and cultural practitioners in subjects as broad as photography, painting, music and performance hosted across the SAF’s venues.
“I feel it is our responsibility at institutions to promote the culture of going to museums,” she says. “Art education is all about having that creative mindset and we need it now more than ever.
“We are a very diverse country and art gives you a channel of expression, as well as tools of communication to use with other people. Art is a common language and, when you can learn that there are forms of expression other than simply words, that creates a person who is more open-minded and accepting, as well as being able to think outside of the box.”
Some of the classes Sheikha Noora and her team have devised for the coming months include how to create manga comics and graphic novels, as well as drawing classes held inside the Rain Room, where participants will create a piece that reflects on their experience of walking through the project’s continuous rainfall without getting wet. There are also talks held in conjunction with the SAF’s exhibitions, with artists such as Lebanese filmmaker and photographer Akram Zaatari and the curator of his current solo show, Hiuwai Chu, who will discuss the exhibition’s themes and the definition of photography.
“One of my goals is to offer something for everyone,” Sheikha Noora says. “We want to attract the public and remove any intimidations they might have. It is also key to work with educators and to offer learning resources for schoolteachers. We support teachers to deliver information by using material in an artistic way.”
She says the UAE could offer more degrees or postgraduate programmes in art specifically, so students are able to rely more on institutional support. “I think what we are offering does fill a gap in the formal education system, but it is important to recognise that education in arts has a much wider reach than to those who are talented in art or who want a career in the field. Arts education is a way to nurture critical thinking.”
The next event on Sheikha Noora’s brimming calendar is Focal Point, the foundation’s annual art book fair, which will run from Thursday, November 14 until Saturday, November 16. The fair caters to the interdisciplinary nature of art publishing and allows independent and alternative publishing houses to present their content individually or within curated sections. It is one way in which Sheikha Noora is creatively bringing the experience of learning to the public.
“Every day I feel that it is a huge responsibility to filter what goes into people’s heads,” she says, “We impact lives and I hope I never forget that.”
Updated: November 5, 2019 12:10 PM