January 2019, Canvas : Art and Culture from the Middle Rast and Arab world

Vilma Jurkute, Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, HE Noura Al Kaabi, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, Shobha Pia Shamdsani at the Ishara exhibition in Concrete. Image courtesy of Alserkal Programming and UAE Unlimited. Photography by Abbi Kemp
The annual UAE Unlimited exhibition is arguably one of the best places to discover young, raw UAE-based talent. Executive Director of the platform and art advisor Shobha Pia Shamdsani reveals some of the inner workings of this mentorship programme.

UAE Unlimited was born in 2014 out of a decision by HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan and I to establish an annual exhibition for emerging UAE artists. We looked to Mohammed Kazem and Cristiana de Marchi to curate our first exhibition in 2015, Public Privacy, which mediated the tension between our public/exterior and private/interior lives. As UAE Unlimited continued to develop, we decided to include all three art capitals of the UAE – Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah – by holding our exhibitions each year in a different city with a different partner in that city.

I soon learnt that we are particularly unique in this respect, as a satellite platform orbiting the three cities. Every year we work with another partner, another curator and another team – always with a fresh group of artists as well as a Senior Guest Artist. In essence, that is the core of UAE Unlimited: working with partners to provide the tools for cultural development. It is illuminating, in the process, to discover the diverse methodologies of arts organisations, our differences and similarities and especially the self-imposed boundaries and limitations. We are “Unlimited”, which implies multiple possibilities, whether in location, theme or scope. The only restriction is that the exhibition has to have an Arabic title, which I insist on.

For example, Tashweesh is the title of our upcoming exhibition, looking at white noise by exploring indirect avenues through materiality and everyday systems and structures. Themes in the past have included different forms of communication for Ishara (2018), while Bayn: In-Between (2017) examined shifting identities from past to present and Al Haraka Baraka (2016) traced the influx of influences and movements that have spanned UAE history.

Knowing it was paramount for UAE Unlimited to evolve, we have gradually been adding elements to our mission. Our attention can be focused on the calling of a truly gifted artist, a graduate who can curate intellectually, not just aesthetically, the art of writing and of analytical, critical thought and design – not just the physical aspect of an exhibition but also the catalogue, accompanying materials and website. UAE Unlimited gives these opportunities to aspiring artists, curators, writers and designers.

In 2017, I visited documenta in Athens and realised that we needed to do more to encourage other professions in the sphere of art, specifically curators and writers. Munira Al Sayegh was curator of Bayn (2017) in Warehouse421, very much the “emerging” Emirati curator with Maya Allison as her adviser. Munira introduced a new standard of academic writing to the catalogue, and last year in Ishara with Karim Sultan and his adviser Laura Metzler, we looked at how to encourage and develop analytical and critical writing through the inclusion of essays by brilliant young writers.

For our next exhibition, Nujoom Al Ghanem is the mentor, and she has welcomed all the artists into her studio on a regular basis for long sessions of exploration, discussion and development of their artwork, assisting them in understanding the theme. For the last edition, Rokni Haerizadeh, Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian held regular reading groups in their studio for our participating artists. Not only did these prove to be forums for important discussions, but they also provided exposure to the fields of philosophy, psychology, politics, poetry, photography, history, geography and travel.

I have also added a programme to further artistic empowerment in the industry. This looks at important tasks for artists such as photographing their work, writing their artist statements, preparing their proposals, and presenting their work to journalists through media training, as well as handling social media effectively. These are all necessary tools in our world of instant communication.

For the upcoming exhibition, we have been fortunate to have Tarek Al-Ghoussein on the team, giving a photography workshop, Laura Egerton leading a writing workshop, Suheyla Takesh writing essays for the catalogue and Laura Metzler from the Maraya Art Centre as the curator. It is very rewarding to see the growth of the artists, curators and our partners as they move forward from our collaboration, hopefully having grasped the possibilities of doing more in a novel way. We are a young and developing nation, writing our own cultural history. Knowing that UAE Unlimited is making a significant contribution to this process is constantly gratifying.