Qasr Al Hosn reopens with landmark survey of UAE contemporary art

Hassan Sharif, Spoons 5, 2008
Abdul Rahim Salim: Face, 1980

Abdul Rahim Salim: Composition, 2015

Mona Al Khaja: Eternity, 2015

Khulood Al Jabri: Woman in a Burqa, 2014

Salma Al Marri: Tales of Land Collection, 2015

Obaid Suroor: The Circle of Heritage and History, 2018

Najat Makki: Rhythm, 2011

Mahmoud Jameel Al Ramahi: Mahmoud the Bedouin (self-portrait series),1987

Abdul Rahim Salim: Blame, 2000

The Qasr Al Hosn cultural centre reopens on 7 December in Abu Dhabi as a museum commemorating the history of the structure and city’s development around it.

The much-anticipated opening comes with a week of performances and demonstrations, the start of a yearlong series. There’s also an opening exhibition worthy of the event – even if it carries the slightly-less-than-dramatic (but commendably explicit) title Artists and the Cultural Foundation: The Early Years.

This features more than 100 works by Emirati artists who were active in the Foundation in the 1980s and 90s, including works from that time plus some new commissions. “The exhibition will be a visual and symbolic representation of the artistic diversity of the UAE”, as the press release puts it.

Artists and the Cultural Foundation: The Early Years will trace points of connection and divergence among these early cohorts of Cultural Foundation artists, inviting visitors to reflect on the past and present of Abu Dhabi’s home-grown art community.”

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi (the Dept of Culture and Tourism), summarised the exhibition like this: “The Cultural Foundation was a gathering place, a home for exchange and debate and a beacon for intellectual inspiration. Many of our UAE artists had their firsts there – their first introduction to art, first exhibition, first sale of an artwork. With its reopening, the Cultural Foundation is now a modern heritage building that will once again celebrate all forms of culture and regain its status as the cultural heart of Abu Dhabi.”

Artists and the Cultural Foundation: The Early Years is curated by Maya Allison, Chief Curator and Executive Director of NYUAD Art Gallery, along with Alia Lootah, Senior Curatorial Assistant at Louvre Abu Dhabi. In her tenure at the Art Gallery, Allison has become immersed in the development of contemporary art in the UAE in general and must be regarded as one of the leading commentators on the scene; Alia Lootah’s day job is complemented by her background as an interesting (and successful) working artist. These look like great choices for what could be a landmark show.

They have certainly created an exhibition that includes examples from most of the big names – Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Yousif, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Mohammed Al Astad, Abdulraheem Salim, Abdel Qader Al Rais, Mohammed Al Qassab, Mohammed Mandi, Mohammed Yousif – to more recent work from the likes of Jalal Luqman and Obaid Suroor.

Maybe there could be more female artists on show: Mona Al Khaja, Azza Al Qubaisi, Najat Makki and Salma Al Marri are there, but it seems the relative newcomers like Ebtisam AbdulAziz and Maisoon Al Saleh didn’t have a connection with the Cultural Foundation or weren’t commissioned by DCT Abu Dhabi (a commission has gone to Khawla Darwish, to be fair). But as it stands, Artists and the Cultural Foundation: The Early Years is like a crash course in UAE contemporary art. It’ll be a while before we see so many significant artists from the Emirates shown together in the same place at the same time.

Three other artists have been commissioned – Hamdan Al Shamsi, Obaid Al Budoor and Rashid Al Mulla – each invited to respond to a piece in the main exhibition. A programme of public talks with the exhibition curators, and with key Cultural Foundation artists and cultural practitioners, will run through to Spring 2019.

On the ground floor, the main exhibition hall has the sculptural works, all by artists who have previously exhibited here. In the adjacent hall is a series of monumental paintings, also from artists who have a history with the Foundation. On the first floor, one gallery explores artworks from an early cohort of Emirati artists who studied in Cairo in the late 1970s; a second gallery surveys artists who came to their practice through other courses of study, including calligraphy, graphic design and individual mentorship. Many from this second group reside in Abu Dhabi and worked closely with the Cultural Foundation in its first three decades.

Salama Al Shamsi

The exhibition runs under the aegis of Salama Al Shamsi, who has been appointed as the director of Qasr Al Hosn. Her remit includes the original fort building, the House of Artisans, and the Cultural Foundation – the principal site for exhibitions and workshop, established by Sheikh Zayed and an important community site in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Salama has been a valued member of the DCT team for many years,” said Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak. “Since joining the Qasr Al Hosn project, she has been instrumental in driving it forward and realising our vision for the monument.”

Al Shamsi has been with DCT Abu Dhabi since 2009, latterly as senior project manager for the Zayed National Museum on Saadiyat. Qasr Al Hosn looks like a realistic use of Al Shamsi’s experience on the stalled project; the designs for the Zayed National Museum were unveiled way back in 2010 but the weight of its costs and the fluctuating price of oil means that building work has yet to begin. In the meantime, Qasr Al Hosn will be showing what sounds like a similar range of exhibits, albeit on a smaller scale – “personal objects from the rulers of Abu Dhabi, historical objects on loan from the Al Ain Museum and other DCT collections,” as Al Shamsi told The National.

“Some of the collections are re-creations of original ones. We also have tactile objects for people to engage with, and a media collection of archival footage and archival images.”

There will also be oral histories collected from the royal family and from people who worked and lived at Qasr Al Hosn, told for the first time in video and audio installations throughout the museum.

The arcade passage at the newly renovated Cultural Foundation. Photo: Roland Halbe

The new House of Artisans should provide another direct link with the UAE’s past, providing a permanent locus for heritage crafts and practices via workshops, demonstrations and exhibits.

“Some of the handicrafts are related to the oasis, some are more coastal, and some are related to the desert,” said Al Shamsi. “Part of the coastal handicrafts, for example, is fishnet making, things to do with oysters and pearl-diving, fishing, and boat building.

“Handicrafts from the oasis are related to the material found in the oasis, which is palm trees. So we have khoof weaving [using palm fronds], for example.

“Other handicrafts relate to the desert, such as weaving in weaving wool on looms, on which they would depict objects from daily life.”

Al Shamsi will also be supervising a programme of artist talks and residencies, as well as an educational programme for children and families. The Cultural Foundation will additionally be running grants and scholarships for cultural producers “to support and nurture the development of art and culture in Abu Dhabi”.

More information about Qasr Al Hosn is here.

The Cultural Foundation’s main exhibition hall. Photo: Roland Halbe


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