Why criticism is good to boost the Emirati art scene

Al Ain artist Ahmed Al Faresi aims to open up conversations on what constitutes our shared cultural understandings, see us question our beliefs and force a frank discussion in the Arab art with more constructive criticism

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In schools around the world, the popular acronym STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has seen another letter added.

That letter is ‘A’ and it represents the arts, a subject area that might not traditionally be placed in the same context as the sciences, short of appearing on the same weekly planner of a high school student.

This shift represents the cross-discipline thinking that is permeating modern education and facilitates creative connections.

While there are certainly many proponents of this style of education, if anyone is the embodiment of the amalgamation of the arts, science and technology and even history, it is one of Al Ain’s most noted artists, Ahmed Al Faresi.

Ahmed wears many hats, from that of an artist, to university professor in IT information security and avid amateur historian, all of which find form in his intriguing artworks.

“There needs to be more of an integration between art and the STEM subjects,” says Ahmed, one of a number of Emirati artists whose work was shown earlier this year by the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (ADMAF) at Berlin Art Week in the exhibition Portrait of a Nation.

“This can produce fascinating results,” he continues. “In encryption and cryptanalysis, [for instance] which is trying to break cycles – that comes into art. It’s the art of trying to think of different ways, and out of the box ways of breaking the cipher.”

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This multifaceted approach has not always been in harmony for the Emirati.

Although artwork has always been embraced by his family as an accepted pastime, it was not necessarily seen as an appropriate career path.

He recalls early friction in the 90s when he wanted to follow a creative path.

“In some sense it was because I did not want to study electrical engineering at the time. I really wanted to study arts and I picked a university in Florence and I thought that’s where I want to go. But then my parents said you’re not going to be able to make a living out of just art, it’s going to be tough later on,” he recalls.

“Things have changed now; [society] sees that art can be applied in a multitude of areas in a variety of things. It’s not restricted. But the image they had was that it is about somebody just painting.”

Certainly, it would not be fair to classify Ahmed’s work as ‘just painting’, as the deep thinker uses a variety of medium and materials to “encrypt contemporary topics” and start discussions around faith, identity and shared cultural identities.

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Growing up in Al Ain, Ahmed admits that the Garden City played a central part in the early evolution of his artwork.

“I think the environment of Al Ain at the time, you know, it’s not a metropolitan city, it’s just raw nature. I think this raw nature has influenced my art to this day. There aren’t many visual stimulants around you, it’s just the desert, it’s just the little stones that you see on the row of houses,” he said, noting that his work is often deliberately monochromatic in style.

“So it’s all this archeological scenery that really seeped into me… I always found archeology to be a very interesting stimulant.”

Ahmed describes his exhibitions as being chapters in a book – a book with an, as yet, undetermined number of pages.

The first chapter, which culminated in the Ancient Smoke exhibition at Emirates Palace, saw him look at how incense emanating from this region was integrated into societies and rituals all along the Silk Road. “… It’s as if it is an ethereal compound that is not from earth. So all that smoke that is created is almost like a metaphor for the spirit,” he says.

“So, it’s as if I’m saying the universal theme is thinking of the divine, is universal.”

Ahmed is also interested in exploring periods of history in which there were unprecedented technological advancement or periods for which history books lack much detail.

Noting that Al Ain is one of the few places on earth that has been continually occupied since the Stone Age, Ahmed says: “There is little evidence from the Sassanid Empire, which ruled this area for a long period of time. So starting from the Abbasid Dynasty up to the Sassanid Empire, even going through all the museums here in the UAE, there’s little in the way of artefacts that reflect that except for certain monasteries.”

In the second chapter of Ahmed’s work he poses questions about our present cultural understanding by presenting historical juxtapositions that were very unlikely to have ever happened.

Inspired by a chance meeting with a Native American when he was studying in the US, in his exhibition We Are But One Thread, Ahmed envisaged a narrative in which a Portuguese ship, having reached early America, had captured some Native Americans but faced a fateful return voyage.

“I thought of a shipwreck,” continues Ahmed, “where the ship did not reach the destination, which was Lisboa, and instead it ended up in Fes, Morocco where there were Bedouin Arabs at the time.

“[Out of this] cultural infusion there comes a new belief system meshed between the values and belief system of Native Americans and the Bedouin Arabs. What would that mean?

“So I read into the Shamanistic belief system the Native Americans used to believe in, like the star and being fused with the animal because of your soul kind of transcending… So all of this brings about the question of belief again.

“What does it mean for your soul to transcend? What does it mean for your soul to feel the souls of other living things, like animals, for example? That was the second chapter.”

Ahmed is thankful for the support shown by ADMAF to local artists but says even more could be done to foster the collective creative identity in Al Ain and indeed around the region, including the establishment of Al Ain’s own version of Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi.

But he goes much further, saying that what is really holding the regional art scene back is a lack of true constructive criticism brought about by cultural sensitivities.

A much more honest conversation would allow him and other Emirati artists to hone their work.

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“The issue I have is there’s no general sense of aesthetics in which artworks are critiqued. So, I come in, I produce an exhibition. Then how do I know if I did well? How do I know how to improve? Any criticality is based on comparisons to western artists who have way more years of evolution to reach where they are.

“There’s no organically grown art criticism that is well funded. I think this is a huge missing factor. It’s just saying the nice stuff, or not saying anything at all.”

Ahmed is more than happy to lead thew way on this concept. “I think there is a mix up,” he says.

“That mix up comes from the idea that I think in many Arab cultures they think criticism is just a negative thing… I do agree that the culture is not very receptive of criticism, but we have to change that.

“We need this awareness that criticism is really good for you, and criticism will help you improve. Maybe that’s the first step. Then the second step is to be free to criticise, without having it taken personally.

“Yes, I’m willing to open up and say let’s criticise my artwork.”

So as Ahmed continues to develop his third chapter of work and plans to exhibit it soon, he would love nothing more than a frank and open discussion of his vision and people’s genuine interpretations, be them positive or negative.

WORDS Julian Pletts

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