8 March 2022
Layer upon Layer
A large stone ball held in place by an oversized yellow elastic band, balanced only by the weight of another ball hanging on the other side was a memorable installation showcased in a 2015 exhibition by UAE Unlimited. It was Tension II (2014) by Shaikha Al Mazrou, a then little-known young Emirati artist and was a powerful visual illusion that masked the real weight of what were, in fact, terracotta-coated steel balls held together by a powder-coated steel band.
Al Mazrou’s piece was part of UAE Unlimited’s inaugural, statement-making exhibition Public Privacy. Back then, Al Mazrou’s work felt foreign, strangely intriguing in a visual arts landscape dominated by more ‘traditional’ contemporary art. Today, this piece is instantly recognisable as the work of this rising Emirati talent, and is being showcased as part of Wamda (A Glimpse), UAE Unlimited’s exhibition at Alserkal Avenue from 5-13 March.
Tension II (2014) by Shaikha Al Mazrou
“Public Privacy laid down the foundation in our interest in installation art,” says UAE Unlimited Executive Director Shobha Pia Shamdsani. “Every year after that, we’ve featured more and more contemporary art by artists creating their own techniques. In fact, there are no paintings in Wamda, but we have kinetic and light installations, 3D sculpture, audio, and more.”
Running during Alserkal Art Week, Wamda is a celebration of the UAE’s Golden Jubilee, which marks 50 years since the unification of the country, and is a highlight reel of some of UAE Unlimited’s most consequential showcases since its inception in 2015.
Many of these artists are now key figures in the UAE, regional, and global art scene; they include Al Mazrou, Vikram Divecha, Zeinab Al Hashemi, Ammar Al Attar, Hazem Harb, Talal Al Ansari, Maytha Al Shamsi, Sheikha Al Ketbi, Saba Qizilbash, Amna Al Dabbagh, Salem Al Mansoori, Rawdah Al Ketbi, Tor Seidal, Zara Mahmood, Majd Al Loush, Saeed Al Madani, Ahmed Al Mannai, Ali Almaazmi, Hassan Najar, and Shamma Al Bastaki.
The UAE’s Golden Jubilee year is an interesting and critical point in time to look back on the work of UAE Unlimited, the satellite platform founded and supported by His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, one of the youngest prominent patrons of the arts in the country, and managed by the Executive Director Shamdsani, to support emerging Emirati and UAE-based artists. “His Highness Sheikh Zayed and I have had many discussions over time as to what we could do to support artists in the UAE,” says Shamdsani. “We made the decision early on to fill a gap that existed in the cultural ecosystem by supporting emerging artists in the very early stages of their careers through holding an annual exhibition with a curator and a theme.”
UAE Unlimited also offers professional assistance in developing, producing, and promoting artists’ work through strategic collaborations with art organisations and cultural practitioners across the country, thriving on creating opportunities for young talent, and as a result, contributing to the overall cultural landscape in the UAE. The platform expanded its scope in 2019 with the Stellar Programme, an initiative to include training sessions in writing, photography, and media, to ensure its young artists are acquiring a variety of new skills. “This teaches artists the different aspects of the business of art, such as writing for their portfolios and presentations, pricing, working with galleries and PR companies, and even photographing their own work,” says Shamdsani. “This has grown, and we’ll be adding yet another layer.”
Each of the artists featured in Wamda have taken part in one or several of UAE Unlimited’s past exhibitions, which include Public Privacy (2015), Al Haraka Baraka (In Movement There Is Blessing) (2016), Bayn (The In-Between)(2017), Ishara (Signs, Symbols and Shared Languages) (2018), Tashweesh (Material Noise) (2019), and Intimaa (Belonging) (2020).
Al Haraka Baraka and Tashweesh were organised in partnership with Sharjah’s Maraya Art Centre, Bayn and Intimaawere held in Abu Dhabi with Warehouse421 and NYUAD Art Gallery respectively, while Ishara, like Wamda, was held in partnership with Alserkal Avenue. “[When we founded UAE Unlimited], we also made the bold decision to create a unique satellite platform to partner strategically with organisations across the three main capitals of art (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah) on a rotating and orbiting basis,” explains Shamdsani. “We hoped that by doing so, it would stimulate interconnectedness.”
Masan'a Alrijal, (2016-17) by Talal Al Ansari
Interconnectedness is certainly the name of the UAE Unlimited game, adding layer upon layer of connections and associations. Every year, the platform selects mentors to advise artists during their program cycle, allowing both mentor and mentee to experiment, test new processes and techniques, and to venture into the unexplored. Mentors have included Rokni Haerizadeh, Ramin Haerizade, and Hesam Rahmanian, Manal Al Dowayan, Mohammed Ibrahim Al Mansoori, and Nujoom Al Ghanem.
Visual artist and former Alserkal Residency artist in residence Mona Ayyash took part in the Tashweesh exhibition, under the mentorship of Al Ghanem. “We would spend time in her [Nujoom’s] home-studio, talking about our practice, learning about a variety of artists and poets, sharing tips for our projects, and just getting to know each other,” says Ayyash. “It was a really special and energetic time. UAE Unlimited truly supports emerging artists by giving them all the tangible and intangible tools to work towards an exhibition.”
In the seven years since its inception, UAE Unlimited has expanded its reach to support not only emerging artists and curators, but also poets and writers by engaging Emirati and UAE-based art writers and critics to contribute to the initiative’s annual publications. “We have been evolving by widening our scope of interest,” says Shamdsani. The publications, which this year feature essays by Salem AlSuwaidi, an Emirati writer and photographer and Founder & Editor-in-chief of SWALIF Publishing House, and Nadine Khalil, an independent arts writer, researcher, and curator, are produced with the aim to serve as a launch pad for the country’s young artistic voices, and to promote critical discourse and scholarship production around contemporary art.
As Khalil writes in her essay, UAE Unlimited’s 2022 exhibition [following a pandemic-induced 2021 break in scheduling], isn’t a retrospective. Rather, it does something else: “Wamda represents the culmination of an exhibition model that, like a living organism, shifts and responds to the needs of the local art ecosystem, where creative incubation and art production are as important as artistic exchange and cultural transmission.”