Dyala Nusseibeh, the director of Abu Dhabi Art, asks Sharjah artist Shaikha Al Mazrou about her inspiration and the progress that has allowed her work to bloom
Emirati Women's Day: In conversation with Sharjah artist Shaikha Al Mazrou
Emirati Women’s Day represents a day of recognition for the contribution of UAE women in developing and advancing the country. The annual event was established in 2015 by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, supreme chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation and president of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood.
The UAE is among the best in the region in terms of gender equality, literacy and participation in the workforce. Equal pay is enshrined in UAE law; there are women in the judiciary, police force, Government and schools. The UAE places gender empowerment as a key priority across domestic and foreign policy, and views gender equality as integral for a peaceful, secure and prosperous country. Women are active across all sectors in the UAE, not least in the production of culture. The UAE leadership has placed culture at the heart of their vision for the future of the nation.
Emirati artist Shaikha Al Mazrou, an artist and lecturer in sculpture and conceptual practices at the University of Sharjah, shares her thoughts on Emirati Women’s Day to mark the occasion.
Leading women from influential families in the UAE are admired for their wisdom, strength of character and contribution to the development of the country. Has this set an example for others in the art community? How prevalent are women in the arts here?
Definitely. The values and extensive contributions of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak have played a crucial role in empowering women and nurturing cultural understanding of women’s contributions to UAE society. Known as the Mother of the Nation, she has tirelessly advocated a progressive global perspective throughout the UAE and inspired many young women to succeed in the forward-thinking community that is the UAE today. To name other female contributions, the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation are led by women. Tashkeel, Dubai Culture and Sharjah Art Foundation in other parts of the Emirates are also run by women. They all set an admirable example.
Emirati women began entering the workforce more than 30 years ago, representing 3.4 per cent of the labour force in 1975 and rising slowly to 11.7 per cent in 1995. Today, women constitute 46.6 per cent. Do you ever remember feeling there was a limitation to what you could achieve when you were younger?
Not at all. I was brought up in a family where women pursued their education and were encouraged to enter the workforce.
Who were your role models and what did you want to do or achieve when you grew up?
As clichéd as this may sound, my mother is my role model and set a good example for me growing up. She got her degree after her third child. She worked in local government schools. Twenty-eight years down the road, she is still working.
I would also like to mention Dr Shahraban Abdulla, the first Emirati to specialise in cardiology for pediatrics. She is the head of the children’s section in Al Wasl Hospital and chairperson of the Pediatrics Society in UAE. Her professionalism, work ethic and passion are like no other. She is a person you walk away from and say to yourself: ‘I would want to be remembered like her.’
Emirati women today comprise more than 40 per cent of all employees in education. You lecture at the University of Sharjah, having completed your degree at Chelsea College of Fine Art and studied prior to that at the University of Sharjah. What was your experience there like as a student? And what were the main discoveries made when you joined as a member of the faculty?
On the one hand, I can say that my time there as a student shaped my development as an artist and helped me find my own approach. On the other hand, now that I am back as a lecturer, I really would like to give back and contribute to the further development of art education in my country. Today, being an art teacher is not a one-way process, but a reciprocal experience; I can learn a lot while instructing. Through teaching, you can inspire and be inspired. I am a lifetime learner.
Which artists or movements do you most connect to historically?
I have always enjoyed the revolution behind the Bauhaus school.
How would you describe your work?
My practice explores form, with a particular focus on use of materials.
Do you feel there are enough opportunities as an artist in the UAE?
I believe there are good opportunities here, but you should not limit yourself to what the region offers. One should work hard, seek knowledge and explore international opportunities, too.
I struggle to interpret the role of the artist in contemporary culture. To say the least, the role of the artist is probably to investigate a form of engagement.
What was the last art show that you saw?
Alberto Giacometti at Tate Modern.
What project are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on a large-scale sculpture commissioned by Abu Dhabi Art. The work will be shown at Abu Dhabi Art in Manarat Al Saadiyat this November.
A land of sand
Based in Dubai, 29-year-old Shaikha Al Mazrou embarked on her most ambitious sculptural installation to date last year when she used 225 square metres of Ras Al Khaimah’s mountainous landscape as her canvas.
Sand-Land consists of a series of perfectly executed concentric circles, enclosed within a square, all of which have been inscribed into the surface of one of the emirate’s mountain plateaux.
When seen from above, as in one of the photographs that Al Mazrou used to record her intervention, the geometry of the piece is faultless, but when viewed at ground level, it fragments among the undulations of the barren landscape, casting shadows that lend a palpable sense of change to its almost imperceptible deterioration.
With Sand-Land, Al Mazrou, not only looks to the minimalist land art of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), but also references long-standing local traditions of working with the landscape.
These began with the ancient rock-art petroglyphs and stone enclosures that can still be found in the Hajar Mountains and can also be seen in the aflaj systems that carried irrigation water down into the region’s oases and farmland.
Sand-Land offers a reminder that little in the UAE’s landscape is natural. And that life here, like art and agriculture, has always been predicated on the momentary mastery of the impermanent materials at hand.