x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The nation is now her canvas

Passionate artist Noor al Suwaidi, recently driven by the death of her father, dreams of exhibiting and promoting the varied work produced in her homeland.

Noor al Suwaidi with examples of her work at the Art Connection gallery in Bastakiya, Dubai.
Noor al Suwaidi with examples of her work at the Art Connection gallery in Bastakiya, Dubai.

Even before she knew the meaning of words, Noor al Suwaidi could form the shape of letters in English and Arabic. As a very young child she would spend hours tracing the patterns from greeting cards sent to her parents and copying the intricate curves of the letters. Drawing was her passion.

As she grew, this love matured into a deep appreciation for all forms of art, which has led her to where she is today - a respected artist with ambitions to become a curator promoting the artwork of her homeland. Like most young Emiratis, Miss al Suwaidi, 28, has seen many changes over the past 20 years. In the art world, in particular, there has been a transformation. "Even four years ago when I said I was an artist people thought I would come and paint the walls in their house... or perhaps do pencil drawings for children's books. But now things are very different. People ask questions. They are genuinely interested."

Miss al Suwaidi is quick to point out that the people she refers to are locals: the Emiratis in her community. "Of course expatriates who have been brought up going to galleries or exhibitions have a different appreciation or at least awareness about art. "But my focus has always been on the art scene for locals and will continue to be," she said. Born and raised in Abu Dhabi, Miss al Suwaidi attended Al Khansaa government school in Al Bateen. With three sisters, one brother and a close relationship with her parents, she decided to stay in the UAE for further education and went on to study visual communications at the American University of Sharjah.

"At the time everyone else was going into careers in banking, engineering or real estate," she said. "That was where the money was. But art was the only thing that made me happy. Even when I was upset, the first thing I would want to do was paint." Her family were very supportive. "My father, particularly, always encouraged me. When I was 10 years old he took me and my siblings to a summer art class at the Cultural Foundation. The others went to scribble in the kids' class but Dad fought for me to be allowed into the adult class. I was only small and had pigtails - someone said I should use them as paint brushes - but Dad made them take me seriously and I spent the whole summer drawing still life and learning to sketch with people twice my age."

Ten years later, in 2000, when Miss al Suwaidi was one year into her university course, her father died from cancer. It was devastating, both personally and professionally, and she struggled. "I felt dead inside when he died," she said. "And due to financial difficulties I couldn't continue with my course. It was a very difficult time." However, her father was in the Trucial Forces and her British grandfather was an engineer with the army; it was a military background that instilled her with the attitude that giving up was not an option.

"I was even more determined to succeed after my father passed away," she said. "If not for me, then for him. I owed it to him for the support he gave me." In August 2003, she approached the Ministry of Education and secured a scholarship to study fine art at the American University in Washington, DC. "America was like my Everest," she said. "It was daunting to leave home and the family but I also knew I needed a fresh start. If I conquered America I felt I could do anything."

After 18 months, Miss al Suwaidi returned to what she called a "very sleepy art scene". There were few galleries, even fewer curators and almost no employment opportunities. "Times were hard," she said. "I moved to Dubai and stayed at a friend's house and took every opportunity I could to be close to art. I helped out at the Dubai film festival and approached Art Connection ? a small Dubai arts management and marketing company."

Working in the security department at Dubai Holdings to make ends meet, Miss al Suwaidi tenaciously pursued contacts in the arts world. Her persistence paid off when she was invited to be one of the founding members of the Cultural and Arts Authority in Dubai. In December 2007, she took the decision to study curating. "People asked why I was choosing curating when I was so creative with my art, but I didn't see curating as moving away from being creative. In fact it was the opposite.

"Curating is not just about throwing up a stand and hanging a painting, it is about taking your viewers on a journey. "As a painter you choose the colours, the themes and the shape of the canvas, but as a curator you make the same decisions using completed artworks as your colours and canvas. After someone leaves your exhibition you want them to feel exhilarated, like they've seen a good movie. "The opportunity to be able to present art from my country in such a way as to capture people's attention is what drew me to curating."

In September last year, Miss al Suwaidi went to London's Kingston University to study a master's degree in curating for contemporary design. She was the first student from the Middle East to take the course. During the year she travelled to Shanghai, New York and Venice to learn her trade, while at home her work was shown with some commercial success in the Emirates Expressions show at the Emirates Palace hotel and the Suhoor exhibition in Bastakiya, Dubai.

Due to complete her course next month, Miss al Suwaidi is positive about her future, and that of Emirati art. "We are still in the beginning stages of developing our art scene," she said. "But there is a lot of potential. As a curator I hope to have contact with students coming out of art school and to encourage them to push themselves. It's no good telling young artists that their work is the best because they won't try harder. They need support."

But the opportunities nowadays extend far beyond those of Miss al Suwaidi's youth. "I was at the UAE stand at the Venice Biennale this year and it was inspiring," she said. "Obviously we have some way to go to improve but we are heading in the right direction and I hope it is people of my generation and younger that help to place the Emirates firmly on the world artistic stage." aseaman@thenational.ae