The UAE art scene is making an impression on the world. A retrospective has been published to explore an arena that went from infancy to adulthood in less than 20 years. We speak to female Emirati artists Summayah Al Suwaidi and Ebtisam Abdulaziz, who are part of the movement.
Summayah Al Suwaidi is no stranger to it. In fact, she’s a fixture. Her many titles include artist, curator, fashion designer and boutique owner. This month, you can find her work at the Ramadan Art Bazaar, which she is curating at Nation Galleria in Abu Dhabi.
Artist, curator, fashion designer, boutique owner; what is your favourite role at the moment?
Each role is equally important to me. Not a day goes by that I don’t do all four.
Has your family been supportive of your choices?
My husband and kids are supportive of my career goals, but my parents were wary at first. There wasn’t an art scene in the Emirates to speak of during the ’90s. My parents didn’t see a future for me as an artist. Fortunately, I followed my heart and my intuition.
When did you know art was your calling?
At 16 years old I saw some work that my cousin was doing on Photoshop and I was in awe. I had to have that computer, that software. I felt the calling. The rest is history.
Was it an easy path becoming a female entrepreneur in the UAE?
Surprisingly, it was. I am fortunate to be an Emirati woman and, contrary to what many people may think, it has never been easier for a woman to blaze a trail in her given career calling here. Women immediately go to the front of the line. When we raise our hands, we are called upon first. Of course, you need financial backing, that’s true everywhere in the world of business. You need money to make money. But my gender did not hold me back. It propelled me forward.
Who influenced you to be so assertive?
I was raised in part by an aunt who had a western education. She returned to the UAE in 1984 and she was the first woman to be employed by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. She refused to wear an abaya, opting instead for a shayla with a business suit, which was shocking then, but because of the way she carried herself, it became more acceptable. She broke boundaries with fashion.
Do you believe fashion has the power to break barriers?
Yes. It is in part why I love it so much. Today, you see Emirati women wearing colourful abayas with unique embellishments. Some thought the day might never come, but it’s here. I consider what you wear to be a reflection of yourself. Fashion has the power to alter people’s perceptions of you. Dress as you would like to be treated.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
I would say, don’t postpone your dream. When you love what you do, you will do it better. Passion and talent will inspire those around you and profits will always arise from passion.
Ebtisam Abdulaziz explores numbers, systems and patterns in her art while making profound social commentary conceptually.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I was into art as a child. I believe it’s in my blood and I knew that I was born to be an artist. My father is a good painter, calligrapher and a photographer. I still remember his carton full of cameras and big lenses. And he had his own cinema, so every Friday we’d all get together and he’d play cartoons and family movies.
You studied maths at Al Ain University. When did you depart from that path to pursue art?
I studied maths because it was an interesting subject to me, and also because there was no art school in the UAE at that time. In 1999, when I finished my studies, I went to the Emirates Fine Arts Society, and I guess that day, I made the decision to pursue art professionally. I didn’t even think of how it would be received. I just followed my heart. Perhaps my family thought I would take some drawing classes and then get bored. I was the only one who was happy about this decision.
Where do you think art and mathematics meet?
There is a connection. Painters can’t paint without dealing with some maths – proportions and perspectives – but that’s not the case with my systematic art. I use maths to create equations, build systems and geometric shapes from numbers, and work from simple calculations. I merged the two parts of my brain to get those ideas, and this is how I fuse art and maths.
Describe your artistic style.
I don’t label my art. It is conceptual, and the concept behind each drives the medium. I have used installations, video, photography, system art and maps – anything and everything that is modern – in producing my work. I also deal with everyday issues, so I would say my work is very contemporary and captures the zeitgeist of
In ‘Belonging’, your contribution to the Sharjah Biennial, you appear to struggle with belonging. Do you still?
Yes, and I think most creative people do. We don’t really fit within society because of our way of thinking. We see things from a different perspective. We pay attention to other things in the world that are not materialistic. We seek perfection and utopia. My recent work, ‘Remapping the Arab world’, deals directly
Is there a local artist who has inspired you?
I would say Hassan Sharif. I love his way of thinking, his personality, his humbleness and his wisdom. He played a huge role in establishing the conceptual art movement in the UAE. I always learn new things from him whenever I talk to him. I had great support from him when I moved from painting to conceptual art.
Was it an easy path becoming a female artist in the UAE?
I don’t think there is a big difference these days between being a female or a male artist. A woman in the arts has to be strong enough to survive. For me as an Emirati Muslim woman, I need to be very careful when I’m working on a performance art project. I try not to cross any lines. So sometimes it’s not very easy, but it is part of the journey. I love to be challenged.
Art of the Emirates
Explore the creativity and vision behind Emirati visual art
The Art of the Emirates profiles Emirati artists, galleries, foundations and universities, and goes behind the scenes to explore the motivation, passion and vision of some of the UAE’s leading arts protagonists. Filled with in-depth interviews, studio portraits and artworks, this groundbreaking, luxury publication offers an insight into the career paths and practises of artists from across the UAE, including Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, Mohammed Kazem, Karima Al Shomaly, Lamya Gargash, Azza Al Qubaisi and Jalal Luqman.