Why great art is flourishing in the Garden City


Toomas (far left) and Yiannis (far right) with students and colleagues at Abu Dhabi Art

Artists, students, teachers, audiences, the government – we all have a role to play in developing the local arts scene, according to these Al Ain professors

From family festivals to pop-up exhibitions in historical sites, Al Ain is certainly heeding a call for easier access to cultural activities – and much of this revolves around visual art.

Whether it’s in the form of paintings, photography, film or even handicrafts, art is popping up everywhere. It’s the result of a demand that’s coming from all angles, too.

Those of us who live here are keen to learn more about UAE culture and heritage, local artists are eager to showcase their work and even government entities are ready and willing to provide more opportunities for local artists.

And at the heart of it all are the educators, who are pushing for more to be done to help grow the arts scene in Al Ain.

Having helped hone the talents of local arts students, Greek artist Yiannis Galanopoulos and Estonian artist Toomas Altnurme, both professors of fine arts and visual arts at Al Ain’s United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), have seen first-hand the changes in the industry and the opportunities that lay ahead.


Yiannis Galanopoulos

“It’s building up an identity so fast that we cannot even identify the changes,” Yiannis notes. “I’m seeing better and better work all the time. When there is a context like that, everyone becomes better.

“At the beginning there where not enough shows but now you see galleries everywhere popping up like mushrooms, so now it’s getting real.”

Toomas adds, “This place is like Estonia 100 years ago, because 100 years ago we started educating artists and art teachers, and universities for art arose. It’s the same thing now here.

“I think everywhere in the world people have some sort of identity crisis because the world is changing so fast,” Toomas continues.

“Since I came here, I’ve heard many calls for creating UAE identity. Fine art helps to build it; it becomes part of the country’s identity. We don’t live in the past, we live in the present; life is always changing and we need to create new things.”

He adds, “In a way, the awareness of art is not there but it’s changing fast. Especially now that Louvre Abu Dhabi is open, that will change mentalities.”

But changing mentalities isn’t just about opening up minds to different types of art, according to Yiannis and Toomas. It’s about the idea of artists being able to have a full time career as a painter or photographer; it’s about members of the community actively seeking out art exhibitions; it’s about educating local artists so they can become teachers; it’s about educator, artist and viewer sharing and giving back to each other to create a support network.

While UAEU currently only offers a minor in fine arts and visual arts, work is underway to create a major and even a separate art college, something Yiannis says is based on direct feedback from students.

“Students are a sample of a society,” he says. “For me it’s good because I am looking for their needs and I learn how to manage properly. I’m in this position, I’m an artist… This is now an opportunity for me to see this from behind the scenes and create something valuable for them.

“I had artists in the past that were looking down on art education, saying ‘I’m an artist; good artists are good artists, they’re not teachers’. This is a myth,” Yiannis admits.

“You learn better the process when you know how to communicate and go back to the bone; you know not only to do it but how to do it and be able to share it. Yiannis continues,

“Just because we are teachers doesn’t mean we stop learning; it’s a process but, here because now there is a lot of backing in the arts, everybody benefits at the end.”

Naturally, artists wouldn’t get far without their viewers, who also need to be part of the education process, according to Yiannis: “People have now started learning what it’s like to go to an exhibition; it’s more about the overall educational experience. This will catch up with the overall education that we are building; we are targeting more viewers, not just artists.”

But with big attractions and events like Louvre Abu Dhabi, Dubai Design District, Abu Dhabi Art and Art Dubai, Al Ain viewers are at risk of being lost to the big cities.

Toomas Altnurme

Toomas Altnurme

“There is a local scene in Al Ain but now they need to catch up and accommodate this new demand,” Yiannis observes.

“Al Ain, because it’s a smaller community and has fewer art venues, slowly the crowd will start going away to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

“Okay it’s not going to be, soon enough, a contemporary art scene, but there is a lot of culture. It’s going to be given priority soon; I see the shift and this is why I think all of us should contribute to that.

“There are a lot of heritage sites, the [palaces and forts] that are going to have exhibitions… With a good community outreach and cooperation you can feed contemporary art as a dialogue of heritage between the past and the future. It will be interesting but it needs effort from everybody, from us and from the people there, from the new artists, the students…

“I see great things for everybody, because everybody will benefit: the state is backing the arts, schools and government are backing the arts; all the people who are here, I hope they are like me and want to give because it’s meaningful for them to be part of that.”

WORDS Rachael Perrett

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2 thoughts on “Why great art is flourishing in the Garden City

  1. Tom Tacker

    The two instructors that are identified in this article spoke a lot about identity, but somehow they didn’t identify the two other instructors in the picture! These two guys have real self confidence issue! I seriously doubt it was an accident!


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