Emirati painter Noor Al Suwaidi is stretching herself, technically and artistically
The moment Noor Al Suwaidi knew she wanted to be a painter was when her tutor told her she was better at drawing. Not deliberately rebellious, the young Emirati simply wanted to give herself a challenge. Ten years on and happily set up in an airy painting studio in her house on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, she is looking to challenge herself again, this time by enrolling on a Masters of Fine Art (MFA) course in the US and taking herself out of her comfort zone.
“I get my inspiration from change,” says the 32-year-old. “I like to push myself and I like to surround myself with new influences. I am in transition right now, which is a really positive thing, and I am ready for my MFA – meaning that technically I am comfortable with my medium so I need to be in a place where I can be free to make mistakes.”
There is a confidence in her tone and in her practice that she says has taken a long time to emerge. After graduating from the American University in Washington DC, she took a job in Dubai Holdings as a kind of safety net when opportunities in the art world were slim. In 2008, she travelled to London to study for a master’s degree in curating and since then she has secured places on residencies in Berlin, Rome and upstate New York.
It wasn’t, she says, until a self-driven residency in London in 2011 that she felt confident to call herself an artist. “There was a moment when I was walking to the studio one morning when I realised that this was it. I knew then that if an artist can’t say that they are an artist then they can’t even start. So in a way, this was my first step.”
Al Suwaidi is often her harshest critic. Her work, usually abstract depictions of the figure that rely heavily on contrasting colour palettes, are aesthetically competent and prove popular in the art market. Her latest show, The Light in Their Eyes at Cuadro Fine Art Gallery, was almost a sell-out, and she has fans all over the country.
“But it doesn’t matter about sales,” she says, laughing. “For me the show in Cuadro made me realise that I still have many areas I need to work on in my practice.”
Perhaps this underlines the point that she is facing more change, and that this forthcoming MFA course will address this problem, but when the subject switches to her spacious studio, she lights up.
“This is a funny story, actually,” she says. “In 2007, when I was moving from the corporate world into the cultural world, someone asked me where would I be in five years time and without thinking I told him, I would be in my studio painting. I know it is not much, but here I am.”
With an easel in every corner and a towering shelf unit filled with acrylics, Al Suwaidi admits that the studio can sometimes look like “a war zone” when she is in full swing. She also calls it a private space that only a few friends are allowed to enter when she’s working. “Even my dog Darcy knows not to get in the way,” she smiles.
“I always think that space is important because at one point, while I was still working at Dubai Holdings, my workspace was a corner of my apartment but I know now that it if it is cornered in my house then it is cornered in my life, so when I came back from London I changed everything, I got rid of all the couches and it became a bigger studio. I did that consciously to make space for it in my life.”
Currently working on a research project with New York University Abu Dhabi and collating a summer series of collages, Al Suwaidi says that she is in a refuelling stage. “That doesn’t mean I am not working, I am just thinking about the next series and what shape it will take.
“The most important thing for me is to work on the conceptual elements of my work so it can take on new meaning. I think then I will consider myself to have truly grown.”
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