Add art to community: the Al Qasimi Foundation resident artist

An artist’s residency looks like a win-win: the organising institution gets the kudos and probably some of the resulting art, the artist gets time and space to work without the distractions of needing to make a living. On the other hand, some residencies come with very precise and often unrealistic strictures; and there’s no guarantee that the resident artist will produce good art.

A couple of years ago the Al Qasimi Foundation started an Artist In Residence programme, providing six months’ support and studio space in Ras Al Khaimah with a final solo exhibition at the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival.

Perry El Ashmawi is the second artist to benefit from it, and her closing show – RE-Living: An Homage to Old Traditions in Modern Society – is open for a few more days in Bayt 9 at the RAKFAF site at Al Jazirah Al Hamra Heritage Village. We spoke about the A.I.R. programme, how it worked for her, and what she felt she got out of it.

Perry was born in Bahrain to Egyptian parents, took a BA in Fine Arts from Concordia University, Montreal, in 2009, and has lived in Dubai for the last ten years. She’s a painter whose style owes much to both the naturalism and the wit of urban art, with its characteristic lack of background or perspective and bold use of colour. As it turns out, this is a useful combination for commenting on the contrast between tradition and modernity in the UAE today.

The basic aim of the Artist-in-Residence programme is to provide opportunities for an artist to engage with the Ras Al Khaimah community, to explore the possibilities of cultural exchange and produce new work as a result. Community development in the broadest sense is the Foundation’s raison d’etre, and the programme obviously allows the community to share aspects of its culture with an artist who can apply an outsider’s eye; the results should benefit both parties.

At the same time the Foundation is able to position itself as part of the local art ecosystem – RAK has sometimes been regarded as one of the more traditional emirates, but this is one of several ways in which it is now presenting a more outward (and forward) looking approach.

For the resident artist, the benefits are equally clear. The Al Qasimi Foundation covers expenses – accommodation, a “modest” monthly stipend for living expenses, a budget for art supplies. The artist gets the use of the Foundation’s studio and gallery; this is a modern purpose-designed space on the mezzanine floor of a tower in RAK city which can be used for outreach projects and engagement activities (like a more or less permanently open studio) as well as art-making.

Residency artists are encouraged to draw inspiration from the local community – “essentially the programme involves research, basically being a part of the community, gaining inspiration from that” says Perry.

Artists can pay back by leading workshops or classes, but mainly by producing a body of work that draws on the experience and which will be exhibited in RAK. And though they’re obliged to donate one piece to the Foundation, the rest of work remains their own property.

And this is clearly not one of those residencies that can feel a tad prescriptive, with the organiser being very explicit about what they want to achieve and how the artist should fit into that. For a start, its objectives are presented in very broad terms – “promote the value of all the arts through meaningful engagement with local residents, organizations, and the broader Ras Al Khaimah community … Provide opportunities for artistic creation, exchange, reflection, and learning … Promote cross-cultural exchange that sparks curiosity and new ideas and also facilitates deeper understanding and appreciation” – and Perry says in practice this meant a good deal of flexibility. “I felt they didn’t want to constrain me. They just asked me to write a proposal covering the things that I would be interested to explore. I gave them that list and they said, ‘ok, we can help you here and maybe point you at the people who would know about these things’. But it wasn’t at all controlling – they were very laid back in terms of they wanted to explore, provided it represented or maybe related to the community and the people of Ras Al Khaimah.

“It also helped that there are around 40 people working at the Foundation in different departments, and I was not limited to dealing with just the arts and culture team – which made the research easier and helped to identify the people to talk to”.

Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, with Perry El Ashmawi at the opening of her show

At first Perry was doing the daily 90-minute commute between her home in Dubai and the studio in RAK, but she came to realise that she needed to be there – not just to make the most of the working space, but getting to know the emirate and its people. “Who are definitely different, much calmer, more laid back. Easy to approach, easy to get on with.”

In learning about the communities of RAK, it soon became clear that there were distinct differences. “I was told RAK was based on families in the three broad groups – the mountain tribes, the desert tribes, the sea tribes. Researching that was intriguing; although they’re all in the same place, all in RAK, each felt like they had a whole different world with different families and different heritage.

“So the mountain tribes are distinguished by craftswomen who weave palm fronds, the khoos. The sea tribe were a family known for pearl diving. And the desert tribe, of course, was famous for camel herding and camping. I came to know each of them, studied their background. I wanted to see how I could incorporate their craft, their knowledge, with mine.”

The immediate access point was the clothes the women were wearing. “I was intrigued by the intricate embroidery and the patterns found in handwoven materials, especially Al-Sadu, a hand-woven textile with a distinctive geometric pattern that is made by tribal women and used for traditional Bedouin tents. I took the same materials to use as my canvas, painting on top of it to emphasise the continuities between heritage and contemporary life here.

Shopping for source materials in downtown RAK Photo Marisa Engelbrecht

”Same with woven palm fronds; could I paint on to a panel made from that? Some of the women in the mountain tribe even taught me how to do the weaving so that I could better understand the material.

“So it’s basically taking parts of what they had – a collaboration where their skills and mine, their background and mine, were combined in the artwork.

“As for the pearl divers, it was the stories that engaged me. Diving without equipment, without even goggles, is so risky – and there’s barely a 60 percent chance of finding a pearl. These days the equipment available means it’s so much simpler and safer. So I looked for ways to express that, to contrast the old and new ways.”

Perry completed a total of ten pieces during the residency, and they’re currently on exhibition at the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival in Al Jazirah Al Hamra Heritage Village. And what does she feel she got out of the programme, apart from getting a solo show? Perry (who normally has no problem maintaining a steady stream of conversation) pauses for a moment. Then she lists some of the pluses, starting with a greater sense of awareness: “I would say that it was genuinely educational – like I wasn’t taking the local culture for granted any more, I was more aware of what it involved and how it came to be.”

Then there’s the practical advantages of being an artist spared the need to hustle. “It’s definitely something that you could say you’re proud of, that you were awarded a grant that would support you financially while you get on with the work. When the basic costs of living are taken care of, you’re able to do better work.”

She also made new friends: the social interaction was clearly a major part of the programme and “it took a big social effort from my side” to be a part of the Foundation’s family. And she regarded the whole exercise as an interactive relationship with the community. “I wasn’t just painting alone in the studio, finishing a painting and saying ok, I’m done, here it is. Instead I was going back to the people I spoke with, showing them the work: telling them, you gave me this kind of knowledge and I’m showing you now what I did with it. That was very rewarding.”

Interestingly, she doesn’t feel that the residency has affected her core practice. Did it change the way she works? “No, I stayed true to my ways. It was the subject matter and to some extent the technique that characterises the residency painting, but my style is my own.”

Perry El Ashmawi’s exhibition – RE-Living: An Homage to Old Traditions in Modern Society – is open until 28 February, 8am to 6pm (to 10pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday) at Bayt 9 in the RAKFAF site at Al Jazirah Al Hara Heritage Village.

Applications for the next Al Qasimi Foundation Artist-in-Residence cycle opens 1 April – check the website for details.

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