RAKFAF: the unusual arts festival

The Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival is back for its ninth annual edition, running 6 February to 3 April at three RAK locations and carrying the theme of Hope. As Festival Director Suqrat bin Bisher put it: “As we begin 2021, it is more important than ever that we come together as a community, in a safe way, to celebrate art, culture, and creativity. We must unite to share the challenges of the past year, to rebuild, and to exchange dreams for the future.”

RAKFAF is an interesting element in the UAE’s art ecosystem. Unlike some of more specific and often more cerebral events in the calendar, the Festival combines exhibitions and film screenings with a strong emphasis on community (it includes events that wouldn’t normally be fitted into a definition of ‘fine arts’, like the Pet Day that is being introduced this year) and a commitment to promoting the emirate’s image as a visitor destination generally and nascent cultural hub in particular.

In 2013, Natasha Ridge (the founding Executive Director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, a think tank that focuses on education, public health and urban development in the emirate) and Suqrat bin Bisher (the Al Qasimi Foundation’s Arts & Culture Manager) were discussing the lack of exhibition opportunities for Ras Al Khaimah art and design students, who were graduating from university in the UAE but had no place to showcase their work locally. “The arts scene in RAK at the time was almost non-existent,” says Suqrat.

The Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival was their response. It started small, exhibiting around two dozen artists at RAK’s National Museum; it grew over the years and in 2019 transitioned to an international rather than a local festival – accepting artists from beyond Ras Al Khaimah as well, though still focusing on the community. This year sees work by 111 artists (and 130 artworks) from some 49 countries.

2019 was also the first year the Festival became an outdoor exhibition at Al Jazirah Al Hamra Heritage Village; Suqrat says the concept was inspired by La Gacilly Photo Festival, an outdoor display of photography in a small Breton village.

“At its core, RAKFAF is a community art festival,” says Suqrat (right). “Even though it now has an international outlook, it exists to serve the community by supporting locally based artists and providing UAE residents a space to enjoy art from around the world.

“We’re really excited for the Community Art Day and Pet Friendly Day, two new full-day weekend events that open the Festival up to those who may not go to a traditional art exhibition.”

Suqrat bin Bisher says the aim is also to put Ras Al Khaimah on the global art map, but as a rather special kind of event. “The fusion of contemporary art and cultural heritage makes it a one-of-a-kind Festival. When people visit, they are not just seeing exquisite art – they’re discovering the history of Ras Al Khaimah”.

He cites the Oral History project as an example. “Amid the contemporary art, we will be screening five short films each focusing on a former resident of Al Jazirah speaking about what it was like to live there.

“It’s not your traditional gallery experience. It’s an open outdoor space with something for everyone.” Three outdoor spaces, in fact, now that two new mini-exhibition sites have joined Al Hamra – the display areas on Al Marjan Island and the public viewing deck of Jebel Jais will each be exhibiting 16 artworks.

Al fresco exhibitions are not common in the UAE, perhaps because of the occasional inimical weather conditions. But it does make for a pleasant, kid-friendly viewing experience; and RAKFAF can legitimately claim that the open air means the festival is significantly safer COVID-19 wise then many other exhibitions in the UAE.

It also aims to help promote Ras Al Khaimah tourism. Says Suqrat: “Over the last few years we have partnered with RAK Hospitality and RAK Tourism Development Authority, and we have been a key stakeholder in the restoration of Al Jazirah Al Hamra”.

This is now a candidate for inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites – “the only historical pearling town in the Gulf which survived the modernisation and fast development after the discovery of oil. It is an exceptional testimony to the long established architecture and town planning of the past …” as the UNESCO citation puts it.

So how will the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival be judged? The usual metrics might be visitor numbers, or maybe social media mentions or press reports. Someone will undoubtedly be counting those, but Suqrat bin Basher has a grander measure in mind: “the success of this year’s Festival, like in past years, will be whether the Festival brings joy to people’s lives. Our goal is to serve the community. If people leave happy, if they return for multiple events, if they recommend it to their friends and family, we will know that the Festival has been a success. And if artists can use the Festival as a platform to further their careers, that is our job too.”

The Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival runs from 6 February to 3 April (the 5 February opening reception is by invite only). Most events are free, but pre-registration (via the website or by email) is required. The Festival’s Opening Day is on Saturday 6 February at Al Jazirah Al Hamra Heritage Village, 10am to 11pm (and it is really rather special there after dark).

Sample artworks:

The principal events:

Art, photography, sculpture Al Jazirah Al Hamra, Al Marjan, Jebel Jais Works by artists from the Gulf and from the wider MENA region. Other countries represented include India, Pakistan, Sudan, Australia, Philippines, South Korea, the USA, China, and several European states. And for the first time, there will be an Israeli presence – an exhibition of video art presented by an Israeli curator.

Oral history project Al Jazirah Al Hamra Five former residents of Al Jazirah Al Hamra have been filmed talking about daily life in the pearling village, providing a rich, valuable history and rare insights into what life was like in the Emirate decades ago.

Film Al Hamra Mall (11, 12 Feb), Al Marjan (26 Feb) The work of emerging independent filmmakers from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia, Jordan, Algeria, and Hungary will be shown throughout the first month of the Festival. The work of the 2020 Al Qasimi Foundation Film Grant’s recipients – Ukrainian-born Anna Kipervaser and Syrian Majid Alloush – will be premiered; their short experimental documentary, Synopsis (Terrain Ahead), explores humanity’s impact on the transformation of the UAE coastline over the last 100 years.

Workshops Al Jazirah Al Hamra, Al Marjan An interesting collection of workshops on practical hands-on subjects will be held in person at two Festival sites, as well as online – everything from animal photography (with live falcons!) to the art of making gahwa but also including alcohol ink painting, paper marbling and underglazed tile painting. The full schedule is here.

Guided tours Al Jazirah Al Hamra, Ras Al Khaimah A historical tour of the Heritage Village will be led by the Department of Antiquities and Museums on 19 and 27 February; there will be a walking tour of Old Ras Al Khaimah’s food and heritage sites with Saqr Al Malki and Max Eckert on 18 and 25 February.

Virtual workshop (via Zoom) on Learning Rhythms of the Arabian Sea by Ghazi Al Mulaifi from fusion band Boom.Diwan (and a day job at NYUAD). Al Mulaifi’s workshop is part of a residency that includes class visits at NYUAD and virtual workshops for school groups across the UAE.

The schedule in summary:

6 FebOpening Day Al Jazirah Al Hamra 10am-11pm
6 Feb – 3 AprArt, photography, sculpture Al Jazirah Al Hamra, Al Marjan, Jebel Jais 10am-11pm
11, 12 FebFilm screenings VOX, Al Hamra Mall 7-8.30pm
12 FebWorkshops Al Jazirah Al Hamra
13 FebCamel Rides Al Jazirah Al Hamra
13 FebWalking tour Al Jazirah Al Hamra 3-5pm
14 FebVirtual workshop Learning Rhythms of the Arabian Sea: Ghazi Al Mulaifi (a collaboration with The Arts Center at NYUAD) online 7-8pm
18 FebWorkshops Al Jazirah Al Hamra
18 FebOld RAK Food and Heritage Walking Tour RAK city 4-6pm
19 FebCamel Rides Al Jazirah Al Hamra 3-5pm
19 FebWalking tour Al Jazirah Al Hamra 3-5pm
20 FebPet Friendly Day: A chance to hang out in the main exhibition site in the company of furry (and possibly some scaly) friends and around 20 specialist vendors, surrounded by art Al Jazirah Al Hamra 10am-4pm
20 FebCamel Rides Al Jazirah Al Hamra 3-5pm
25 FebOld RAK Food and Heritage Walking Tour RAK city 4-6pm
26 FebTalk – the regional arts festival scene: Hala Khayat, Art Dubai’s Regional Director Al Marjan 6-7pm
26 FebCommunity Art & Film Day: A family-friendly day of creativity and liveliness featuring music, food, workshops, live art Al Marjan 2-8.30pm
26 FebOutdoor film screening Al Marjan 7-8.30pm
27 FebWorkshops Al Jazirah Al Hamra
27 FebCamel Rides Al Jazirah Al Hamra 3-5pm
27 FebWalking tour Al Jazirah Al Hamra 3-5pm

Five from the photography exhbition:

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