Shedding light on the matter: the arrival of the UAE light festival

Regular readers will know that magpie has always been a fan of the Sharjah Light Festival, the 13th edition of which runs 7 to 18 February. Key locations in the emirate are being lit up – sustainably, of course – with illuminated spectacles created by artists and specialist studios from around the world. It’s all free to view, and last year’s 12th edition apparently attracted nearly 1.3 million visitors (although it must be difficult to count the number of people who turn up to view something that has no admission controls and runs for a few hours each evening across 10 days).

It looks like the rest of the UAE is catching up with Sharjah. SLF has been joined by two more light festivals that have emerged in the UAE over the last few weeks – Manar Abu Dhabi, which is running now to the end of the month, and Dhai Dubai Light Art Festival at Expo City Dubai from 26 January to 4 February.

They both look like becoming exceptional additions to the calendar, but as it happens they are very different constructions to SLF. The newcomers are mainly based on stand-alone artworks that have been created for the specific sites by specific named artists, and they have been specifically curated by named arts professionals. (It’s not that SLF doesn’t use artists or – presumably – curators, just that naming them isn’t part of the promotion.)

So the curators of Dhai Dubai, Amna Abulhoul and Anthony Bastic, have commissioned seven big names from the local arts community – Mattar Bin Lahej, Najat Makki, Mohamed Yousif, Abdalla Almulla, Maitha Hamdan, Khalid Al Shafar and Reem Al Ghaith. It all opens this weekend, and it looks like being a lot of fun; as well as the seven artists’ light installations (“proud symbols of Dubai’s diverse cultural fabric and its compelling narratives) there’s the Sisters of the Desert exhibit of projected art by Rene Kulitja (aboriginal Australia), Esther Mahlangu (South Africa) and Dhabia Jumaa from the UAE (who also happens to the mother of Mattar Bin Lahej).

Al Wasl Plaza in Expo City, at the heart of the Dhai Dubai light festival

Dhai Dubai is also running a strong programme of panel discussions and talks about the role and uses of light art – we think these are free to attend – plus evening workshops for kids and adults. All in all it’s looking like a full-throated festival of light, and we have big expectations for its development.

Manar Abu Dhabi went international and even more substantial, while limiting itself to a more explicit exhibiting approach. With the theme ‘Grounding Light’, curators Reem Fadda and Alia Zaal Lootah selected more than 20 artists from around the world, including the likes of Ayman Zedani, Carsten Höller, Jim Denevan, Latifa Saeed, Luciana Abait, Mohammed Kazem, Jim Denevan and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The results, which are distributed around the city’s waterfronts and coastal locations, are well worth the trip (and the expense of the commissions); all are impressive, some are really exceptional.

Manar Abu Dhabi is also part of a larger commitment, the Public Art Abu Dhabi programme, which will include other events throughout the year.

The artworks in the Dubai and Abu Dhabi installations stand alone, even when they are site-specific. By contrast, the Sharjah Light Festival generally takes a more conventional approach – the kind of thing we’re familiar with from some of the European city light festivals, which typically means illuminating iconic cultural (and some natural) landmarks.

This year’s Sharjah Light Festival features light shows crafted by around 15 international artists in a dozen locations – three of them new to the schedule this year: Kalba Waterfront, the General Directorate of Sharjah Police, and the General Souq at Al Hamriyah. They join Khalid Lagoon, Al Majaz Waterfront, BEEAH Group Headquarters, Al Dhaid Fort, Sharjah Mosque, Sheikh Rashid Al Qasimi Mosque, Al Noor Mosque, and Al Rafisah Dam.

The SLF displays may not bear artspeak titles, and the festival doesn’t carry a theme to which all the light artists and technicians involved had to comply. The resulting displays are perhaps more decorative in intention, too. But essentially they are no less artistic – aesthetically pleasing, but also capable of tweaking the viewer’s intellectual or emotional curiosity.

Perhaps that’s because the light show is overlaid on an underlying structure that already has its own characteristics – often functional, sometimes redolent with history or tradition, inevitably defined by the materials that have been used and the architects’ interpretation of their original brief. We know what that buildings are supposed to look like, and in fact they do look like that during the day. But in the evenings the light displays change what we’re looking at, removing some of that rigidity and preconceptions, adjusting our perceptions while we soak up the retinal pleasure.

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