When she moved here 30 years ago, Emily Gordon had to create her own opportunities to start her career as an artist – and now she’s helping others do the same
The first thing artist Emily Gordon does as I step into her home one Wednesday afternoon is ask me to sign her dining room table. It’s an unusual start to an interview, but on that basis alone we already know this is going to be an interesting conversation.
Bearing the marks of many before us with scrawls from people all over the world, the table is all at once a piece of art and personal history of the many people that Emily has met over her near-three decades of life in the capital. And so I add mine to the mix, indelibly so, inking a signature for someone somewhere to ponder in the future.
“We got here in 1989 or 1990, just before the beginning of the First Gulf War,” she tells me, later. “My husband got a job as a training captain for Sheikh Zayed’s flight department. It was only supposed to be for three months.”
An environmental scientist by profession, Emily wasn’t an artist back then. But being a female soil scientist – “an agronomist”, she gently corrects me – in the desert brought few viable opportunities for work.
“It’s the running the soil part of civil engineering,” Emily offers by way of explanation on her career choice. “There weren’t many job opportunities here for women yet. I did get a job offer to go inland and work for an oil company, but it would have been hanging out living in a hut in the middle of nowhere with men.”
Emily didn’t end up taking that job. Instead, she ditched the soil to get her hands dirty in a new way.
“I started to paint. In the beginning, I was only figuring out something to get it on the walls,” she chuckles ruefully, gesturing around her living room where we sit. “These ceilings are so high – we needed some echo-busters. It was more for my enjoyment, and then it turned into something and those three months turned into all these years later.”
Gracing boardrooms, hotels and homes alike, Emily’s artwork began to grow in popularity, and it meant that she was able to carve a career at a time when there were few galleries, few buyers and even fewer women in what was a fledging art scene.
“There wasn’t much back then,” she recalls, speaking of the cultural scene. “We didn’t have the building, the sense of permanence, the sense that people could really put down roots. For me, what was a real boon back then were the commercial spaces – the boardrooms, the hotels, the palaces. I was so fortunate in an unusual niche.
“There was no gallery to speak of – there weren’t even really furniture shops. We had to get stuff made; we all had this feeling of making something out of something back then.”
It’s this sentiment that flows directly into Emily’s artistic style. Part painting, part historical relic and part phantasmagoric city map, Emily’s art is layer upon painstaking layer of acrylic paint, resin and keepsakes such as jewellery and fabric. Overlaid with familiar street signs, iconic logos and colloquialisms, the pieces lovingly map a city in a constant state of flux.
“At the time, the people living here were tossing the old things out to replace them with new things,” she sighs. “I began salvaging them because there wasn’t really a sense of collecting and preserving some of these interesting pieces of artwork.
“The jewellery – that has always been from this wandering little fellow who comes up from Oman,” she says, warmth in her voice. “You could buy it by weight and every time he came to Abu Dhabi, we would sit for an afternoon drinking tea, sorting through the pieces and bargaining for a price.
“This was back when women wore their wealth,” she adds. “It’s so cool to think of this having been in families for generations and that this was a dowry or a family’s fabric pattern. It’s art within art.”
But while Emily has enjoyed success in the UAE, many other artists do not – and she’s quick to point out that it was the visibility of her work in locations across the capital that helped her develop her career as an artist.
“I’m really lucky; I was in the right place at the right time,” she acknowledges. “The visibility certainly [helped]. I’ve built a market here.”
This sense of her own fortune led her to co-found fine arts agency International Artists Management (iAM) in 2017. A platform designed to help local artists achieve that all-important visibility, iAM gives them the tools to promote and market themselves to launch their talent as a business while fostering a homegrown cultural scene.
“What we tell people is that making the art is the easy part,” she laughs. “A lot of artists think that their piece comes from their heart and soul, that it will appeal to everyone and that they can just paint and put it out there, and the success will come. But the marketing, the promoting and getting yourself noticed is really a full-time job. We need to learn the art of showing and exhibiting – it’s about getting the packaging, pricing and framing right. Above all, don’t take it so seriously.
“You have to have the passion and dedication to work on it every day; art is a business,” she adds. “You have to study people’s honest reactions to your work and think, ‘Is this art too much like someone else’s?’ You have to know where to start and when to put it down. When I have to paint for a commission, it’s not what I want to be doing, it’s not the colours I’d choose or something I want to make. But if you want it to sell, get it out there – get it in people’s houses.”
As the recent Louvre and Guggenheim ventures in the capital have shown, the appetite for an Abu Dhabi cultural scene is definitely there. But with much of the art on display imported from great galleries around the world, is there space to support an arts culture that is closer to home?
“There’s this sense of the highbrow here that is historical,” she nods. “There was always this sense that bringing things in from outside was better than what is already here. Back in the day, we imported everything.
“[At that time], we didn’t have the universities or the arts programmes. Now, with all this government support, we’re just starting. We have all these people that need the space and need to be nurtured. We need more venues. It’s nice that kids can go to Louvre Abu Dhabi, but we need more small venues – less polished, curated spaces for art.
From her arrival three decades ago until now, Emily has seen the capital grow up around her in all senses. The population has expanded, the buildings have slowly encroached upon the desert horizon and a homegrown arts culture has begun to blossom in earnest – something, which she reminds us, is still in its infancy and has greatness to come.
“Things are flourishing,” she smiles. “What people have to remember here is that this is such a young country and look at the accomplishments. It’s still an embryo – we’re not even rocking and rolling yet.”
To find out more about Emily’s art, visit: emodart.com