When Mariam Al Nuaimi got her first camera, she couldn’t stop taking pictures. Next, Al Nuaimi became immersed in cinema, devouring film after film. "I started watching movies and I told my mom, ‘I want to do that,’" said the 25-year-old college student from Dubai, clad in a flowing Emirati abaya and black wrap-around headscarf.
Al Nuaimi has gone on to direct short documentaries, including one that won an award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year, and is now at work on her first horror film. She stands among the ranks of young artists in the Arab world that saturate what experts are calling a great cultural renaissance in the region.
At a time of political upheaval and social change, this generation of Arabs are turning to various modes of expression, conveying their realities, and in some cases, pushing the envelope with their subject matter. It comes when some countries, particularly in the Gulf, are making massive investments into the arts and entertainment industry, while other nations are struggling to preserve arts of the past.
Critics say more needs to be done to cultivate local talent and expertise, with more opportunities and recognition afforded to up-and-coming artists and art scholars. At the same time, elders are imploring young artists not to forsake their tradition and integrate what their heritage has to offer. Others argue to let flow what comes from this globalized bunch, regardless of where their influences may originate.
On the outskirts of the United Arab Emirate’s capital of Abu Dhabi is the Khalifa City Women’s College, where 1,500 women study. An angled room at the college is filled with photos and frames under the words "Students’ Artwork." It’s a window into the themes pervading these young artists’ minds, with some sticking to familiar terrain, and others experimenting in form and content.
Among the snaps are magnified sand granules grazing shells; the Doha skyline; deep shadows cast over burnt-orange sand dunes; and stacks of bubble gum boxes with a close-up of the made-in-Japan label. There are several portraits of children, including a smiling boy wearing a clown wig in the colors of the Emirati flag, entitled, "I Love My UAE."
Sheer floral designs painted on glass also hang from pillars. At the other end of the room, square prints of student paintings — which also appear on lockers throughout the college’s hallways — cover the walls. There are landscapes, empty boats, henna designs, tools, Bedouin jewelry, urns, mosques, camels, horses and a golden pitcher. Musical instruments are also prevalent, including the stringed oud, gilded with blue paisleys. The paintings bear the artists’ signatures, some in large English and Arabic lettering, a departure from traditional nameless objects that fill Islamic art exhibits.
These young women’s work along with other contemporary amateur and professional artists fall into what Jeremy Johns, an Islamic art history professor at Oxford University, considers an "extraordinary Arab cultural renaissance at the beginning of the 21st century."
"No time in history has it been possible to listen to as much Arab music, to see as much Arab architecture, to read as much Arabic literature as is in the case today," Johns said during the Festival of Thinkers conference, at a panel hosted at the women’s college. "The renaissance that’s happening in the Arab world is fundamentally…changing the whole world."
Even so, Johns said that as an art historian, he also cautions that this could be as a "dangerous moment," wherein the continuum with a rich cultural past could fray. He said studying art could bridge the gap, helping link traditional arts and current aesthetics, which emerging artists are adopting.
"There are many artists working in the Arab world today, many architects, many writers, many musicians, who are drawing upon their classical traditional Arab-(identified) heritage, building upon it in an immensely exciting way," Johns said. "Embrace the new, exciting, globalized culture, but for heaven’s sake, don’t lose track with tradition because that’s where you’re grounded, that’s where you come from."
It’s this kind of negotiation, both conscious and unwitting, at play in the likes of Al Nuaimi, the filmmaker. In her work, she said exploring tradition is essential. "Usually, when I pick a story, I try to find something that will hold on the Emirati culture, because we are a minority in our own society," she said. "The ‘Emiratization’ is very important to me, because globalization is taking over and lot of our generation are actually forgetting their roots."
However, she doesn’t merely propagate tradition or settle on didactic messages. Her work looks at a culture in flux, couched in modernity and under fire from external forces. In her award-winning film, Lahjatna (Our Accent) she looks at how the Emirati dialect is being shaped by other Arabic accents pressing at their borders and within their melting pot society. Meanwhile, another of her films, Second Wife, covers what she dubs as the young Emirati male "love affair with their cars," in a place where Ferraris and Lamborghinis speed down highways.
Al Nuaimi doesn’t limit herself in her content, even tinkering with taboo issues in her repertoire. She’s done a short on the burqa face-veil worn by older women and an advertisement on human trafficking, a sensitive issue in the Gulf.
As part of her applied communications major, she also takes courses on production, photography, journalism and graphic design. In a magazine at her school, she said they wrote a feature about incest among Emiratis. These are topics her grandparents wouldn’t have broached publicly and audience reaction initially is that of shock, but she said over time, people express an interest and are accepting of the art.
"We ‘re putting our hands and feet and everything we can in the dark side of the water," she said. "Our generation is more expressive because the world is growing and we’re trying to grow with it."
Arts Investments Grow
The wave of artistic expression from Arab youth is situated within a larger move to create and draw cultural institutions to the region. In recent years, major institutions have been working to build a presence here, especially in the Gulf, including the Guggenheim and the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Other efforts have also included Qatar’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Islamic Art designed by renowned architect, I.M. Pei. In addition, Sotheby’s auction house features annual "Arts of the Islamic World" sales and has planted specialists in Doha.
In addition, some institutions in the region, such as the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization in the UAE, which opened in 2008, are also working to create global dialogue and connections through their programming. In November, the Sharjah museum opened, "iCover," an exhibit with images from Chicago-based photographer Sadaf Syed, showing the lives of veiled women in the United States, from a grandmother who drives a semi-trailer truck to a one-time competitive boxer.
Nasser D. Khalili, a prolific collector of Islamic art whose collections comprise 25,000 pieces, said there’s a need for deeper expertise in the Middle East, from curators and researchers to experts in fields as specific as coinage and glass. That goes for preserving the body of traditional arts as well as toward the development of new art and cultural institutions in this part of the world.
"I think most of the infrastructure is in place, what is missing is human resources," Khalili said. "There has never been a time more important than now for universities, colleges and institutions to teach and bring a group of new academics in the field of Islamic art, who are going to be instrumental in (the) future of opening of all these galleries, museums around the world."
When it comes to nurturing fledgling artists, film and TV producer John Heyman, who worked on movies like The Go-Between and brought financing for dozens of others pictures, said during a recent visit to the region that there’s a fascination here with the idea of a brand. Heyman said that has resulted in an imbalance when wealthy Arab investors, such as those in the UAE and Qatar, make hefty investments in brands such as National Geographic and Hollywood studios like Warner Bros., but then fail to equally fund indigenous talent.
"I think it essential that not only from an economic standpoint, a political standpoint, and from a job creation standpoint that those who can afford it start encouraging local filmmakers in some more (candid) manner," Heyman said.
He said it’s critical to foster new voices — outside the Western world — that must be heard globally. "Everybody knows an enormous amount about the United States," he said. "We know very little about the rest of the world."
Breaking Out Genres
As a new crop of artists seek to tell their stories, some proponents say they should be left free to draw upon multiple sources and not be boxed in by labels such as "Islamic" and "Arab" genres.
Lina Lazaar, an international specialist at Sotheby’s whose efforts resulted in the auction house’s first European sales in Arab and Iranian contemporary art five years ago, curated the first pan-Arab contemporary art exhibition, "The Future of a Promise," at the Venice Biennale this year. She said organizers received about 800 applications from across the Arab world for that pavilion, demonstrating overwhelming interest. They ultimately showcased more than two-dozen works in the manner of photography, video, sculpture and painting.
"Every single artist in there was developing, answering questions to very universal themes in their own capacity," Lazaar said. And yet, each time a journalist would visit the space, she said: "The very first and only question they would ask was, ‘How and why would you define this artist as Arab? And what is the ‘Arabness’ of it? Can you try and tell us how this artist is perhaps more Arab or less than this other artist?’"
This reaction baffled Lazaar. Although it’s important to know one’s roots and embrace new influences, she said there seemed to be a need from the audience to define the Arab-generated art in narrow parameters. "I think there’s this obsession with the West of trying to almost scientifically trace where this creativity is coming from, which I don’t think is necessarily healthy," she said.
As rising practitioners in the Middle East and North Africa write new chapters in the artistic realms of their cultures, challenges remain in terms of creating habitual connoisseurs to consume their artistic output and whether they will be able to make a living from their pursuits.
For now, one thing is clear: they are not short on fervor for their fields. For her part, Al Nuaimi, the director, continues to bury herself in directing, cinematography, scriptwriting and production. She said she hopes she can parlay her studies into a career in film.
"The more I do, the more I feel passionate; it’s become part of me," she said. "I’ve always seen that media is the eye of the world, and for me, it’s not just expressing myself, it’s expressing the people around me."