x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Nurturing the region's current crop of artists

Nick March examines the web of structure and circumstance that supports creative endeavour and the range of public and private sector methods that foster talent

Ali Al Jabri, ADFF's festival director. Courtesy of ADFF
Ali Al Jabri, ADFF's festival director. Courtesy of ADFF

For any struggling artist, Saloua Raouda Choucair's story offers equal measures of hope and despair.

Choucair is currently the subject of a major retrospective at London's Tate Modern, where she is being hailed as a "pioneer of abstract art". The exhibition installs this hitherto relatively unknown Lebanese artist, at least outside the confines of her home city of Beirut, as a central figure in 20th-century art history.

Her recent "discovery" relied almost wholly on chance - a British curator spotted one of her works in the corner of a Beirut gallery a couple of years ago and felt sufficiently moved to make further enquiries - setting off a chain of events that leads directly to today's immersive retrospective and those glowing tributes to her undoubted creative powers.

The despair arrives in the bitterest form. Born in 1916, Choucair has long been waging a losing battle against Alzheimer's, a disease that has robbed the artist of any capacity to truly comprehend the magnitude of her 21st-century moment.

Questions of cultural development resonate deep within this heartbreaking story: will many of this region's emerging artists and creatives - writers, artists, filmmakers - be doomed to a similar fate and only rise to prominence years after they have stopped being properly productive? And how is that group of young creatives being fostered today, so that they can reach a wider audience tomorrow?

The development of the next generation of artists and creatives relies on an interdependent network of circumstance and structure: hard work, talent, luck, imagination, a healthy group of interlocking organisations and individuals - collectors, researchers, curators, educators, art practices, galleries, art fairs, museums - each supporting aspects of cultural production. A functioning system of patronage helps complete this network.

Several points of light now illuminate the way from obscurity to recognition within this country's borders. One finds Sharjah's Barjeel Art Foundation, whose stated aim is to "contribute to the intellectual development of the art scene" and help promote regional talent. There is also Dubai's Abraaj Group Art Prize, which seeks to "empower talented artists". Abu Dhabi's Sheikha Salama Foundation supports emerging Emirati artists and helps to champion the government's goal of making the Emirates a "global art hub".

Salwa Mikdadi, a Palestinian-American art historian, curator and independent consultant, is optimistic about the future of cultural production within and outside the UAE.

"There has always been art production in the region, but the interest wasn't there from the rest of the world. Now it is," she says, citing both the Choucair retrospective at Tate Modern and the opening of a permanent National Pavilion of the UAE at the prestigious Venice Biennale.

"Here in the UAE, government support has been phenomenal. In such a small country there is also diversity between the non-profit and the for-profit scene," she says in reference to the annual art fairs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the Sharjah Biennal and other initiatives.

"But emerging artists need support. Philanthropy is the only way for these young people to get such help. It supports alternative scenes."

Ramin Salsali sits behind his expansive desk in his elegantly appointed office in Dubai's Alserkal Avenue, the blossoming hub of a collection of contemporary art spaces, including his self-titled Salsali Private Museum.

Books, papers and magazines are scattered across his workspace, but little currently clutters his vision.

Behind the museum's clean concrete lines and its crisp whitewashed walls lies a pleasantly anarchic spirit (SPM "gives me a lot of freedom", asserts Salsali in reference to the eclectic programming his museum prefers to trail) and a determination by its owner to put something back into the country that has, he says, given him so much.

Born in Tehran in 1964, Salsali left Iran for Europe in the 1970s and began collecting art in the mid-1980s. He has been considered a central figure in Dubai's art scene - collector, patron and innovator - for well over a decade.

Describing his admiration for the UAE as "limitless", Salsali outlines his plans to sink further roots into the cultural landscape: "My idea is to create a public museum called the Dubai Museum of Contemporary Art [DMOCA]. I am ready to donate part of my collection to this project. I hope that we can get a piece of land from the Government. We are ready. We have an architect's firm undertaking the design free of charge. It will be a public space for Dubai and the United Arab Emirates."

Salsali, who has been a recipient of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Patron of the Arts award in each of the past four years, terms DMOCA as a "human-sized museum", in reference to the small- to medium-sized space he envisages - one that will complement the large institutions that are just beginning to rise from the sands on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island.

Once built, DMOCA will be multifunctional, he says, allowing space for a public library, small cinema and community centre, as well as that all important place to promote contemporary and regional art. The facility will also be democratically funded, he hopes, by a mix of public and private investors.

"We call it a museum by the people, for the people. We would like to sell shares. We hope that companies will give donations, families will donate and then on top we will sell shares. Each person is allowed to buy no more than 10 shares, so nobody can unduly influence the museum. This is my dream."

It is his dream because, as Salsali later elaborates, he believes he has a responsibility to help nurture local and regional talent.

"For any patron, the value of art and culture is fundamental to his society. It drives the development of a civilisation.

"It falls to patrons and cultural philanthropists to act as educators and encourage exposure to such things. Patrons must not place limitations on the artist, stifle their creative potential or artistic individuality, but give them the opportunity and means to realise what is already inside them."

One of the highlights of the capital's cultural calendar, Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF) trails a succession of red carpet events, world premieres and a clutch of household names. The serious business of the festival pulses behind the scenes: in its workshops, its networking events and, indeed, within Sanad, ADFF's associated year-round development and post-production fund - one of only a handful of such resources available in the region - which provides support and funding for Arab filmmakers. Since 2010, Sanad has assisted 78 filmmakers and projects, with the latest batch of 16 recipients revealed at last month's Cannes Film Festival.

Sanad is blessed with both deep pockets - grantees can receive up to US$60,000 (Dh220,000) to assist with post-production work and $20,000 towards development costs - and a deep commitment to pursuing an ongoing cultural and international dialogue. Sanad-funded films are, naturally, often shown in Abu Dhabi, but many also beat a path to the most important film festivals around the world, including Toronto, Venice, Berlin and Cannes, locations that represent the beginnings of the long march towards a mainstream audience.

Ali Al Jabri, ADFF's festival director, says that the fund has "consistently given support to films from across a diverse cultural landscape. For many around the world these filmmakers are defining and pushing Arab cinema worldwide. Sanad creates opportunities for filmmakers to think differently about ways in which they can improve and grow as artists to create a vibrant filmmaking community.

"For those films in development the fund's support helps filmmakers to continue taking on challenging subject matter that is relevant to the circumstances in their region. For those films in post-production the fund's support helps filmmakers to complete their films and showcase them to audiences at festivals around the world," according to Al Jabri.

Mahdi Fleifel's Sanad-funded feature-length documentary, A World Not Ours, emerged as one of the stars of ADFF 2012, winning the Black Pearl Best Documentary award and two further prizes for its touching and ultimately unvarnished portrayal of life, family, politics and football in Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp.

Fleifel, who was born in Dubai, is aware of the transformative effect Sanad has had on his professional life, after A World Not Ours qualified for $45,000 in grant-funding.

"We were in the position where we needed some post-production money to start editing. I had been filming for many years and had all this material that I didn't know how I could shape into a film.

"Sanad believed in me at a stage where I wasn't able to show much. I had cut some stuff together, but there was no real indication of where the film could go. And yet the committee had the courage to take risks and believe that something good could come of this."

The benefits of the Sanad award have been manifold: "It has helped me prove myself as a filmmaker", and he says, it has helped him grow his company (Nakba Productions). Most tellingly, "it has helped strengthen my identity."

It is breakfast time in Dubai. Businessmen crowd the ground-floor buffet stand at one of the legion of hotels that cluster along Sheikh Zayed Road. Amid this sea of white shirts, spreadsheets and scrambled eggs, and during a brief fund-raising sweep in the emirate, Oussama Rifahi, executive director of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (Afac), offers his assessment of the cultural scene over coffee and toast.

Established in 2007 and based in Beirut, Afac is an independent fund for artists and cultural producers in the mosaic of countries that stretch from the Maghreb to the Levant and the GCC.

Rifahi - who joined Afac in 2010 having previously spent periods as director of special projects at the Guggenheim Foundation and three years as an adviser to TDIC in Abu Dhabi during the spell when negotiations began with the Louvre and Guggenheim - says there have been "massive" initiatives in culture within the UAE.

"This part of the world has invested heavily into the infrastructure part of arts and culture. There is a nascent scene but there is [still] a huge gap," he says, referencing the 200,000 square metres and more of museum space that will begin to come on stream - and will need to be filled - once Louvre Abu Dhabi opens its doors in 2015.

"I certainly hope that those spaces are going to have major components of local, regional art. I hope that the philosophy by which those spaces are going to be operated is going to be one of experimentation and exploration.

"It is good to build facilities but it is important to promote cultural production as well," particularly as weak distribution networks can undermine even the best infrastructure.

It is just as important, he says, to invigorate and encourage the "supply" of art, as it is to build the facilities which will eventually house the end product. Both halves of the equation rely on each other and both take years to properly develop.

"There are some amazing films - creative, innovative, prize-winning - that are seen by just a few hundred people at certain film festivals. You have interesting artists that produce amazing work in Egypt or in small galleries in Morocco, but they are only seen by a very small audience and then they disappear into oblivion. So we are looking at certain ways that we can invigorate distribution."

Afac has, to date, gifted more than 100 grants to creatives in 15 Arab countries and encourages cultural producers to apply for funding. Investors, both individual and corporations, trust the organisation for both its operational transparency and its commercial leanness: less that 20 per cent of its total budget is swallowed up by running costs, meaning more money is available for distribution to artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers.

Interestingly, Afac has spent some time this year returning to the very core of its mission and engaging in a debate about the fundamental role culture plays in societal development.

There are, according to Rifahi, strong misconceptions about what culture means in this region, where judgements of the sector often polarise at opposite ends of the spectrum, either focusing on elitist galleries or popular culture. Afac's aim is to stimulate discussion about the space that exists between those two poles.

"Supporting independent culture has an enormous impact on development and conflict resolution and on building a thriving society," he says.

"One of the important things about giving grants to artists is that you are encouraging them to become entrepreneurs, to manage their own destinies. We play an important role in empowering people," he says.

One such "empowered" project is the forthcoming book Keep Your Eyes On The Wall: Palestinian Landscapes, which will be published in French next month and will be available in an English language version, via Saqi Books, in the autumn. The handbound, concertina-folded volume collects the work of seven award-winning art photographers and their combined responses to the West Bank and Gaza separation barrier. A group of four essays accompany the exquisite visuals. The project was helped to fruition by a $15,000 Afac grant.

Describing the fund as their "rock", the book's co-editor Olivia Snaije says that "the Palestinian problem is not a popular one. We approached lots of other potential donors, but Afac were the ones who set us on the way.

"At a certain point we didn't know if we were going to be able to go through this whole thing, because it was such a difficult project and because we were ambitious and we wanted things a certain way. In the end it has turned into what I hope will be a really beautiful object."

Five years ago, a group of academics and thinkers contributed to a book entitled From Charity to Social Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy, a ground-breaking survey of generosity and conscience.

Strongly nodding towards the region's traditions of benevolence and social solidarity, notably in such faith-bound conventions as zakat, the authors' noted that this was a "vibrant moment for Arab philanthropy".

Several factors have since deadened some of that early-century optimism, notably the rumbling effects of the Arab Spring and the economic distress that began to unwind regionally and globally in the latter months of 2008 as the financial crisis took hold.

Dina Sherif, who is an associate director of the John D Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo, and who contributed a chapter on the UAE to From Charity to Social Change, says that even now "few people really understand the impact that can be made by supporting organisations that support artists, musicians and cultural heritage."

In a sure sign of how far the world has turned since 2008, Sherif also says that, thanks to social media, we are currently witnessing the emergence of very new forms of philanthropy, like crowd-sourced funding.

"I think young people are really starting to understand the significance of using local resources to support their own causes and I don't think people are thinking about the potential long-term impact of this new movement and these new ways of collecting and raising funds to support social change."

Such informal patronage, and indeed the more conventional endeavours of public and private foundations (like Sanad, DMOCA and Afac), might yet ensure that the next Choucair, working in whatever creative field of the creative arts, does not have to struggle quite so hard or for so long for the recognition they truly deserve.

Contributing an essay in 2011 to a British Council series considering the State of the Arts, Moukhtar Kocache, an arts manager based in Cairo, wrote: "We need the arts more than ever, to help us imagine ways to live together in an impossibly connected and fragile world."

Two years on, amid a time of profound change in the region, the case for more expansive cultural philanthropy, fanning out from both the public and private sectors, has rarely seemed so compelling or quite so fundamental.

Nick March is editor of The Review.