Briton showcases 1970s UAE art show in Dubai
At a time when there were uneven, single-lane roads full of pot holes, Caroline Bancroft and her two young children could be seen zooming along in a red-and-white MGB convertible sports car, a rarity on the UAE roads even today and much more so in the 1970s. But there was one modification that made Bancroft's car even more distinct.
"We had a huge 'Marlboro' printed on our car. We were a travelling advertisement for cigarettes," says Bancroft laughing as she recalls some of her fondest memories from when she lived in the UAE.
Then Mrs Jackson, she had moved from the UK to Dubai in 1974 with her family after her husband landed a job as a manager at a Spinneys supermarket.
She spent six years in the UAE – two-and-a-half years in Dubai and the rest in Sharjah – before going back to the UK. But those six years had left such a strong impression on her that, for the next three decades, Caroline kept revisiting her time in the UAE through her art.
"They were the best years of my life. There was a real integration, where the expat community all knew each other and mixed with the Emirati community," she says. "We were one big family."
It was a time where the Dubai airport had a single conveyor belt for luggage, when people didn't have maids but "house boys". Bancroft's family house boy, Azem, was from Kashmir, was in his 30s and did everything from cleaning to gardening to fixing the car.
"Life was hard and easy at the same time. Electricity was unreliable, we didn't have freezers, food variety was limited, many of them arriving stale from the port. I would soak the fruits and vegetables in bleach after I would collect them from the market," she says. "If you saw the state of the market you would use bleach as well."
Born in the UK in 1947 where she studied art and pottery at Winchester before teaching art, Bancroft found that she had "plenty of time" where she wasn't doing anything in the UAE.
"So I started to sketch what I saw. I would use pen and ink and sit for hours in a spot to capture its soul on my paper," she says.
Bancroft is now back in Abu Dhabi for a special event; what she sketched and how her pieces evolved over time will be open to public viewing and for sale as part of the Inspired by the Emirates exhibition at the Dubai International Art Centre (Diac). The free exhibition, which opened on Wednesday, runs until December 12 at Gallery 76. The number in the gallery's name has a special place in Bancroft's heart - she is one of the founders of Diac, which was established in 1976; back then it was called Dubai Art Society.
"We wanted a place where all the artwork in its different forms can be displayed and its artists can meet and learn from each other," she says.
That is how it all began. Bancroft would be seen with a friend sketching away in the oddest places across the UAE. She has been spotted on the grass at Rolla Square in Sharjah, where once a massive Banyan tree stood and under which "men for hire" would stand, waiting for work.
"If you were looking for workers, you went there," she says.
Believed to have covered at least 30 metres with its branches and stand more than 10 metres tall, with thick roots at the bottom, the Rolla or Banyan tree stood out from the rest of the smaller desert trees. It is believed to have been the first Banyan tree to be planted in the UAE - transported by ship from India in the early 1800s by the then Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan.
It became the centre of gatherings, with people from across the UAE coming for special occasions including Eid and weddings. The tree survived in its new home in the UAE for more than 150 years before it fell sometime in the late 1970s.
Bancroft also captured scenes at ports, such as in Umm Al Quwain or Ajman, where she would be drawing the dhows and their builders while her children played nearby.
"The amount of skill and dedication that went into everything they built was so inspiring," she says.
Some of her most famous sketches capture the traditional souqs, including the tiniest details such as how their roofs made of palm fronds were falling apart and how the doors to each stall were large garage doors.
"In one of Sharjah's oldest souqs, near the corniche, was a maternity ward. Arab women would go into it, give birth in one of the small rooms and then the whole family would sit around the mother, cook food on coal while she rocked the baby in a hammock-like bed dangling from the ceiling," she says.
Established in the 1940s by the American missionary Sarah Hosman, Bancroft remembers how the ward was already on its way out, with bulldozers parked near the site. It was demolished soon after she visited it sometime in the 1970s.
Many of the places captured by the artist are long gone. But some of them have survived and were renovated, such as old homes of prominent Emirati families and the Souq Al Arsa in an area clearly marked as "Old Sharjah". A house with the UAE's only circular wind tower is prominently featured in one of Bancroft's sketches and, according to her, at one time there were talks about making this wind-tower the tourist logo of the Sharjah Government.
"I was very lucky, I was here at a time when the country was still developing and so we could feel the Emirati culture and connect with its people," she says.
She recalls getting fertilizer and potted plants for her garden from the Dubai prison, which had a plant nursery and manure for sale.
"We would say, 'thank you prisoners' as we left the place," she says. "It has those giant metallic gates that would close with a loud boom. It was quite eerie."
Looking back, Bancroft also admits that she had a "secret key" that allowed her access to many Emirati homes and even mosques.
"My tickets were my two, very beautiful, blond children. People would pet them on their heads and simply wave us in and welcome us into their homes. They were the key into people's home," she says.
Bancroft explains that while she didn't speak Arabic, when she found herself sitting with an Emirati woman the two would communicate with their eyes and gestures.
"One time, an Emirati woman looked at me and laughed. She understood that I was wondering what she looked like under her burqa and so she took it off and there was this beautiful older woman. Every line on her face just made her more beautiful."
One of Bancroft's children, Thomas, was just over 16 months old when he first arrived in the UAE, yet he has fond memories of "popping" black street bubbles formed when the heat interacted with the tar on the roads, and snacking on roasted peanuts that were handed out in folded newspapers.
"It was a remarkable place to grow up in as a child. I remember sitting on the roofs of cars during camel races and then water skiing over waters that had turtles swimming in them," says Thomas. "We were always out playing, we never bothered watching TV or staying indoors much."
The family left the UAE in 1981, but, as adults, the children have returned to work here. Newly married, Thomas, who works in the defence industry, came back to the UAE in 2005 and said it felt like he was "coming back home".
"Once you live here, you can't forget the place. There is just something special about here, it gets under your skin," he says.
Over the years Bancroft has returned to the UAE several times on visits. She was supposed to turn her sketches into a book back in the 1980s but the project took a back seat due to her divorce. It didn't come up again until 2009, when her son took her sketches to the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and got them published in The Desert Knows Me Well.
"The romance and simplicity that were once here are gone," she says. "The new buildings are like amazing sculptures, they create a totally different landscape, but somehow, I find myself always going back to the 1970s when I first fell in love with the UAE," she admits. "You can't ever forget your first love."
Inspired by the Emirates runs until December 12 at Gallery 76, Diac near Mercato Mall, Dubai. For more information about the artist and the exhibition, go to www.carolinebancroft.com
See Caroline Bancroft recount her days in the UAE at www.thenational.ae/multimedia