By Denise Marray
“We can be pioneers — we are today’s culturepreneurs!” These words, spoken by Louna Bou Ghanem from Qatar, summed up the mood of positive, creative energy channelled by ten young artists from the Gulf who were celebrating the culmination of a two-week art odyssey in the UK.
The artists from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, earned their place on the trip by winning a Create and Inspire competition aimed at finding Gulf talent. Their artworks were inspired by the theme ‘Public Art: Re-imagining Your Community’.
During their UK trip they experienced creative industries in London and Yorkshire. On the final evening of their expedition, the results of their work were presented and celebrated at the Edge of Arabia art gallery in London. The sponsors for the event included Qatar-UK 2013, Qatar Museums Authority, the Crossway Foundation, the British Council, Etihad Airways, Saudi Aramco, Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives, Edge of Arabia, MSFF and the berry company.
One of the most striking aspects that emerged when talking to the artists was the great emphasis they placed on maintaining their unique cultural identities. While greatly inspired by the art they viewed and experienced in the UK, they all expressed a wish to hold onto their artistic traditions and forge paths unique to their Arab cultures. They seemed keen to absorb elements of what they saw but to create something new and fresh.
Louna Bou Ghanem, who has just finished her schooling at the International School of London and Qatar and is about to take up her place to study Architecture at the University of Kent and Canterbury in the UK, said the experience had been very intense. “There’s been a lot to take in; we were constantly exposed to knowledge. We didn’t do what usual tourists do — we didn’t go shopping!”
Her winning art work was inspired by the traditional batula face-covering, worn mostly by older generation women in the Gulf. She pointed out that the women who wear this face-covering do so out of respect for their culture and noted that in ancient poems, the batula is described as an accessory that adds mystery to the face. Her piece called: ‘This is not a Mask’, is inspired by the Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte, whose work challenges observers’ pre-conditioned perceptions of reality.
She said she wants to challenge “cultural prejudice” and maintains that “the veil is not an infringement of women’s rights but rather a celebration of culture.” She added that in her view, “globalisation is not about erasing but celebrating and taking pride in culture.”
Ghanem came to Qatar in 2006 at the age of ten when her family fled Lebanon after the Civil War. She expressed her sympathy for the plight of the Syrian people and said: “I hope the war ends because it’s very inhumane.”
She said that Qatar had been “a huge influence” and while acknowledging that the face veil was not part of her Lebanese culture she had formed her opinions about its significance by listening to the views of women who choose to wear it.
Engy Hashem, a graphic designer at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art — Qatar Museums Authority, spoke about the challenge of trying her hand at Street Art. Noting that it is mainly young men who engage in this type of art which is not at all typical in Qatar, she found herself drawing some bewildered reactions when she transformed a street sign into an artwork by overlaying a vinyl sticker.
Watched over by her husband she admitted that she was quite outside of her comfort zone and acknowledged that had she been standing by a wall spraying graffiti her purpose might have been clearer to passing drivers. But her work is very striking and also an honest reflection of what she described as ‘car acrobatics’ that are a regular feature on certain roads in Doha.
“My work is called 2-Wheeler and there are certain streets in Qatar where you can see guys doing 2 wheeling on roundabouts — so this sign is telling drivers to beware,” she explained.
Hashem, who is Egyptian born and raised in Qatar, is impressed by the way artists in London utilise space in an imaginative way. She observed that there is a tendency in Qatar to go for “big and luxurious monuments” and an absence of small galleries where people can develop their shared interests.
“I always say, ‘go back to authenticity’. We should start from the roots — take an old building in Qatar and turn it into a gallery space or a cafe/gallery,” she said. She doesn’t want Arab artists simply to look West and emulate the art they see. She noted that “People in Qatar and the Middle East are very in tune with their cultures.”
A very thoughtful art installation called ‘Caution’ reflected the vision of Saudi artist, Abdulaziz Al Harbi. He had placed philosophical works by great writers from the cultures of East and West within a space that was cordoned off by yellow and black sticker tape. He said that some people cautioned younger generations against exploring the ideas of thinkers outside of their culture — but that such exploration should not be discouraged or depicted as entering a danger zone.
“We of the young generation should read widely. We must discover truths ourselves,” he said. He added: “As a Muslim I note that the first word of the Qur’an is ‘Read’; so, I must read and when I know how to think, I can see life from a new perspective.”
Harbi, who resides in Jeddah, is a Business and Administration student at the King Abdulaziz University. Clearly, he has a great affinity for art which he sees as being a powerful tool in shaping society.
“Through art we can make a change in a peaceful way — not just in the Gulf but everywhere in the world,” he said. This is his first trip to the UK and he commented that the highlights for him were the visits to the Tate Modern and to the Yorkshire countryside which he found inspiring.
Fellow Saudi artist, Mohanna Tayeb, also from Jeddah clearly has a well-developed sense of humour.
His intention was to hold a live ‘hair-cutting’ session at the event but sadly this did not happen. His artwork called ‘Cut Your Hair’ was inspired, he said, by the constant admonitions throughout his school days to get a hair-cut and comply with the school rules on appearance. He was very funny when he confided that when he told his mother about his winning trip to the UK, she responded, “Before you go, you have to cut your hair.” At the age of 23, he found this astounding!
On a more serious note he said that he would like art to be valued as a professional career in Saudi Arabia. “There is a lot of talent but without support it remains a hobby”, he remarked. “We need to have more professional artists because the whole of life is about having a vision and art influences everything,” he added.
UAE artist, Nour Abuhayeh, spoke about her work entitled, ‘The Arab Youth’. She took well-known symbols — the bar code (for identity), soundwaves (for the voice of Arab youth) and the wheel (to express momentum) — and applied an Arabic design.
“I’m trying to emphasise that our communities can take from something that already exists from countries that are developed; take from them, learn from them but input our own identity,” she explained. She was particularly inspired by the York Sculpture Park which took the experience of art into the open and outside of the gallery space.
“These artworks, seen in a natural setting, opened so many doors and added to my thoughts about art,” she said. Abuhayeh, who is Palestinian, grew up in Dubai and studied Visual Communications at the American University of Sharjah. She wants to blur the line between graphic design and art and combine both practices. Of Dubai, she said: “It’s very modern and going very fast but I want to make sure that our community retains its identity and is not too influenced by the West.”
Stephen Stapleton, Director and Founder of Edge of Arabia, who encouraged all the artists to expand their horizons and fulfil their potential as producers rather than consumers of culture, said: “I think the journey has given them the confidence to pursue their dreams.”
Louna Bou Ghanem at the Serpentine Gallery, London.