The Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival is growing into its role. About to get under way is the eleventh edition, running from 3 to 26 February; it’s developed from early days as a somewhat ad hoc celebration of tradition in the Emirate (the key feature was an exhibition of works by 30 RAK-based artists at the National Museum) into a substantial event – more than 120 artists this year – with its own permanent site at the Al Jazeera Al Hamra heritage village and a well-founded claim to be the UAE’s largest open air festival of culture.
The official raison d’etre remains a catch-all – the Festival is “designed to showcase the work of local and emerging artists, photographers, and filmmakers and engage the community through a diverse calendar of cultural and creative programming … We established RAKFAF to bring the community together to celebrate art, create opportunities for cultural exchange, and support the creative and artistic sectors of the emirate”.
More specifically, however, there’s a solid appreciation of the value of the Emirate’s culture heritage – and especially the risks it faces from ‘modernisation’ and globalisation; and an understanding of the need to provide a platform for little-known artists and makers, and to give the local audience a chance to see what’s happening and what’s possible.
This year’s RAKFAF focuses on one of the distinct aspects of RAK’s personality, its environmental culture. RAK has some of the most interesting and unspoiled terrain in the UAE; it’s in the Emirate’s interests, and indeed everyone’s, that this environment should be sustained.
Festival Curator Alfio Tommasini (right) says this has provided the theme for RAKFAF 2023. “The perception of nature around us always starts from a journey that begins inside of ourselves. In the case of those who transform it into artistic forms, a personal sensibility is shared with us to stimulate our curiosity and show us the many possibilities of representing it … ” Tommasini is a Swiss photographer and curator, co-founder of Verzasca Foto Festival, and he has long had a special interest in the relationships people have with the territories they inhabit.
So artists, filmmakers, photographers, and poets were invited to consider their relationship with “the landscape, plants and animals, fellow human beings, our planet, and the universe” via questions like ‘what is our place within nature? How does nature empower creativity? How can art converse with nature?’
The results are on show in the bayts of Al Jazeera Al Hamra and also at the visitor viewing area for Jebel Jais (always well worth the trip even when there’s no art on show there).
In the village a dozen bayts are showing art, a mixture of paintings and photography with a few prints and 3D pieces. The quality this year looks very good, and this year six of the bayts house special exhibitions in collaboration with cultural partners – the US Mission to the UAE, the Netherlands Embassy, the Korean and French Consulate Generals, the foundation of Croatian collector Marinko Sudac, and FLICK Camera.
RAKFAF has long had a film programme, too, and alongside the shorts this year is the Middle East premiere of The Chocolate War, a powerful 2022 documentary of one man’s fight against the child labour exploited in the billion-dollar cocoa production industry. The screening is followed by a panel discussion including the director, Miki Mistrati, and the film’s protagonist, human rights lawyer Terry Collingsworth (above).
Other outdoor screenings include Foreign Film Nights hosted by VOX Cinemas with films from the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea, the French Embassy, and Institut Français.
In keeping with the community orientation there are three themed weekends at the Festival site – Pets (10-11 February: pet centred events, pet-relevant stalls, pet yoga and more); Family (17-18 February: films, games, stalls and a ‘family photo scavenger hunt’); and a Culture Weekend (24-25 February: traditional arts and crafts including ghawa lessons, embroidery, Al Ayala and scent-making).
The official opening runs from 9pm to midnight on Friday 3 February. Otherwise the Festival is open every day except Mondays, 9am to 6pm (to 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays). The best news: admission is free, even for the special presentations, films and talks.
For more information go to www.rakfinearts.ae.