GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Engendering Change: Charting the Art Scene in the UAE
Paper Proposal Text :
This presentation explores the intersection of gender, identity and art in the United Arab Emirates by charting the work of six UAE-based female artists. The jil al-ruwad (pioneers generation) began making art in the 1980s in the UAE, which was then a newly formed nation. This generation included very few women artists; Dr. Najat Makki was the exception. Alone among her generation, Makki was the first Emirati woman to earn a PhD, and returned from her studies in Cairo to practice in Dubai. Makki works mainly in painting but also in sculpture. Later, Ebtisam Abdulaziz rose to prominence with her groundbreaking performance works in Sharjah in the early 2000s. In subsequent years, the gendered trend amongst artists in the UAE reversed, and now female artists dominate the scene in the UAE, including Cristiana di Marchi, Hind Mezaina, Areej Kaoud, and Afra bin Dhaher.
Tracing the work of these six women artists based in the UAE between 1980 and 2017, this paper explores the political, economic, and cultural changes leading to the rise of arts in the UAE and the gendered shift from largely male to largely female cultural producers that occurred in the mid-2000s. The announcement of major arts initiatives on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi in 2007 spurred a younger generation of artists who work in different mediums and languages. Given the increased public visibility of the arts after the government’s support of the Abu Dhabi initiatives and the institution of arts programs at universities in the UAE (and therefore the possibility of studying art in university), commercial art galleries began to open in Dubai. The not-for-profit arts center Tashkeel and the commercial Art Dubai fair were established in 2008. These crucial infrastructures gave artists a place to study art, to work and to exhibit. Yet the work of those rising to prominence after 2007 tends to be photography, performance and new media. They also present their work largely in English, rather than Arabic, given the shift to English-language instruction in many UAE schools. Compared to Makki’s abstract paintings and Abdulaziz’s performances, Di Marchi and Mezaina also explore the changing role and visibility of women in the UAE in their works, which utilize embroidery and found footage, respectively, to elucidate these questions. Kaoud’s work, which often focuses on emergency provisions, provocatively questions the movement of bodies in space and elements of danger or safety as they are variously accorded. Bin Dhaher’s complex, layered photographic collages reframe domesticity, a sphere traditionally accorded to women.
The work of these six artists offer a productive lens to examine questions of national representation and national pride, and the roles that women play in producing the nation as civilized and cultured, especially women who reside in the country but are not citizens. By exploring how and where women artists could receive an arts education, and in which language, this paper also charts changing centers of knowledge production for the Emirati community. It addresses rapid demographic and infrastructural change, particularly as it has affected artists’ abilities to have a studio, produce work, and exhibit it, but also the ways that these shifts drive the concepts behind the work of many UAE-based artists, including Mezaina. Finally, it captures movements within the field of art in the UAE, revealing the shifts in media and subject material that correspond to broader global political economic transformation.