The UAE enjoys a long and rich cultural heritage, which stretches back farther than many people think.
Many ancient artefacts have been uncovered in our country dates back approximately 100,000 years, leading archaeologists and researchers to conclude that humans may have arrived in the Arabian Gulf as early as 125,000 years ago.
Today’s Emiratis can trace their heritage back to the Trucial of the medieval era, who self-identified according to their tribal affiliations and inhabited the coastal region where the UAE now stands. And while modern-day metropolises such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi may seem a far cry from the quaint pearling villages of old, signs of our people’s ancient culture are still visible throughout contemporary life.
A vibrant canvas
Nowhere is this trend more evident than within the Emirati art scene, many facets of which descend directly from our cultural heritage. For instance, Crafts such as pottery, weaving, and embroidery have represented common parts of traditional Emirati life for thousands of years, with roots stretching back to our Bedouin ancestors.
Today, the UAE is home to a thriving art scene, as reflected by its plethora of galleries, museums, and creative districts. In addition, the country also hosts international art and literature festivals.
From Dubai Museum – which is located in the city’s oldest building, Al Fahidi Fort, and allows guests to experience traditional Emirati trades and pastimes – to the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization – which showcases a diverse selection of artistic and cultural artefacts – art lovers interested in exploring historical treasures are spoilt for choice. The UAE has also succeeded in cultivating an active contemporary arts community, thanks to developments such as Dubai Design District (d3), Alserkal Avenue, and the Saadiyat Cultural District.
But while many of my compatriots and I hold the traditional arts and crafts of our ancestors in the highest regard, to what extent has Emirati creativity helped to shape the nation we see today?
When tradition meets modernity
In my opinion, the contemporary landscape of the UAE is intrinsically linked with our heritage, but our true success lies in our creative sector’s ability to transform and reimagine time-honoured wisdom and techniques through modern-day masterpieces.
For example, UAE-based artist Julia Ibbini combines elements of Islamic geometry, embroidery, and enamel work to create beautiful pieces that were once familiar and unique. Tajrid also takes significant inspiration from Islamic culture. For one of its most popular creations, the design outfit mixes heritage and modernity by using the soundwaves of Quranic verses to create striking and meaningful metal sculptures.
Another of my favourite local artists is Zeinab Alhashemi, whose primary focus is to capture the transformation of the UAE from a desert outpost to a sprawling urban metropolis. Her stunning designs combine cityscape geometry with the softer, flowing shapes typically associated with our natural surroundings.
At first glance, the output of such creatives may seem far removed from the traditions of Bedouin artists. However, scratch beneath the surface to uncover the inspirations behind their works, and the links to our nation’s cultural heritage will soon become apparent.
That’s not to say that artists such as Ibbini and Alhashemi are simply aping the activities of their forebears. On the contrary, using Emirati heritage as their raw material, they have succeeded in creating works of art that hark back to a traditional way of life while maintaining a distinctly modern feel–much like the UAE itself.
This juxtaposition can also be seen in our nation’s architecture, where heritage and modernity meet to shape city skylines that are recognised the world over. Structures such as the Museum of the Future in Dubai and the Louvre Abu Dhabi perfectly encapsulate this philosophy, sporting designs that seamlessly blend the ultra-modern with the unmistakable styling and traditions of Arabia.
So, is the UAE’s contemporary art scene purely a product of our nation’s history, or has art played a more significant role than we may imagine in shaping our country?
Like many questions of this nature, I feel both perspectives are valid. While today’s UAE creatives benefit greatly from forward-thinking leaders who recognise the importance of investing in the arts, it’s also difficult to imagine our country in its current form without the influences of formerly well-known artists.
Ultimately, I feel it’s impossible to separate the two – neither the UAE as a nation nor its artistic community exist in a vacuum. This of course, spells good news for the future; the symbiotic relationship between Emirati society and creativity should help to maintain a dynamic and constantly evolving art scene for generations to come.