Najat Makki is one of the foremost painters of her generation and something of an unsung hero.
Portrait of the artist: Najat Makki, one of the Emirates' foremost painters
The precise black polka dots populating the circular yellow canvas in Najat Makki’s painting, currently on display in the newly opened Ajyad Gallery in Dubai, carry many connotations. Like the work of the famous Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, they can be interpreted as symbols of infinity; their roots could also be found in Impressionism, when neat brush strokes were replaced by rougher, more obvious blobs; or more obviously, they could be compared to the Ben-Day dots so prevalent in pop art from the 1950s.
But Makki is having none of that. The pattern, she explains, is from the item of clothing similar to a jalabiya that was known locally as an “abu dagga” or “abu teela” that her mother used to wear when she was a child. “Now it is becoming a fashion again and people are using the material,” she explains. “But whenever I see that pattern I am reminded of her, may God rest her soul.”
Makki is one of the foremost artists in the UAE. In 1977, she was the first Emirati woman to be granted a government scholarship to study art abroad and she travelled to Cairo and obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in relief sculpture and metal. When she returned, she began working for the Ministry of Education conducting art workshops and teacher training and finally in 2000, she returned to Egypt to complete her doctorate in the philosophy of art.
But question her about her doctorate and she moves you quickly along. “My first goal was to complete my studies and thanks to God I completed that, but it doesn’t mean anything to me as a title or a credit; it is nothing if I don’t give from my heart to others. I want to spread art in the community.”
A glance into Makki’s studio is enough to see where her true passion lies. Piled high with canvases of all shapes and sizes and a table overflowing with acrylic paints, the room is where she spends all of her spare time and feels incomplete if she does not enter it every day. “Art is the rhythm of my life. Like I drink water, like I eat food and like I need to breathe air, I have to practise art.”
Despite her notable academic achievements and prolific catalogue of paintings, she remains a somewhat unsung hero of her generation. Certainly well known and respected within the Emirati art community, Makki remains relatively under the radar on the international circuit.
In fact, her work wasn’t seen by anyone from outside the country on an official art platform until 2008, when Al Anood Al Warshow, the founder of Dubai’s Hunar Gallery, began exhibiting it at the second edition of the city’s art fair.
Now, Makki is one of two artists whose work is being shown in Al Warshow’s Ajyad gallery in Dubai International Financial Centre, where the polka dot-covered canvas is hanging. That painting is joined by a selection of her more abstract works, which are more typical of her style. In many paintings, Makki uses bright and vibrant colours to reflect the energy and patterns of nature and often focuses on the power of the sea.
“I was born in old Bur Dubai by the souq in the area behind the sea,” she remembers. “Every day I saw the sea and I felt its rhythm – it is sometimes peaceful but sometimes rough and always powerful. One should never challenge the sea even when it is calm because the roughness will always come, it can be dangerous and that is like life, too. Even if life is peaceful you cannot let your guard down, so in that way, the sea can be taken as a piece of wisdom.”
With such spiritual reflections, it is easy to see why Makki chooses to depict the waters she grew up next to. She also says that she began her relationship with colours at an early age.
“My father owned a shop for herbal medicines and when I used to go with him, all I saw were the colours of the different herbs. I would use them as paints on the paper bags,” she recalls. “At home, too, my sisters would sew with bright coloured materials and my mother, who didn’t have an iron, would smooth the dresses out with her hands. By watching the folds of the material, I learnt about light and shadow.”
As Makki reflects on her childhood and explains with enthusiasm the story behind each painting, she says that art was her destiny and she couldn’t have avoided it even if she had wanted to. “Many people presume that because I am an Emirati woman and I travelled alone to study art that it was a difficult choice for me to make, but it wasn’t,” she says. “I love art and when you love something you do it with conviction, so it wasn’t a difficult path because I had dreams to fulfil – and without dreams you are not alive.”
Najat Makki’s art will be on show in Ajyad Gallery, DIFC until September 15
The Ajyad Gallery: a new space for Emirati art in Dubai
In August, at the tail end of the summer lull and with no ceremonial introduction, Al Anood Al Warshow made a significant step forward for the UAE national art scene when she opened Ajyad Gallery, the first dedicated solely to Emirati art in Dubai. In 1998, Al Warshow founded Hunar Gallery, which is still open in the Rashidiya area of the city and has a leaning towards promoting Emiratis; but until this year, there was nothing only for Emirati artists.
“At the beginning in my gallery, I was representing international artists from all over the world but during the first edition of Art Dubai [in 2007, when it was called the Gulf Art Fair], I noticed that there was no single gallery representing UAE artists. It made me very sad. We have really good artists here so there was no excuse,” she says.
Since then, Al Warshow made it her mission to promote Emirati artists at the national art fairs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. She had been planning Ajyad for some time but was waiting for the opportune moment and now, finally, the space is up and running. Currently, Najat Makki and Abdul Qader Al Rais – the grandfather of UAE art – are the only two artists on display.
“These are the two leading artists in the UAE,” says Al Warshow. “And up until now they have not been shown in DIFC, the most prestigious place for art galleries in Dubai. The art fairs are a great platform but Ajyad will be specialised all through the year for Emirati art – that’s what will make it special.”
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