Art is entree into Arab world in turmoil

    Surfing large dunes in SUVs, spraying sand all over the desert, is equal parts thrilling, beautiful, nauseating – and environmentally insensitive.

    It was also midweek punctuation to an excursion to the United Arab Emirates that I got to take recently under the banner of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.

    I was among twelve UArts master of fine arts students and recent graduates whose work was accepted into the Emirates’ 29th Annual Exhibition, an international show hosted by the Emirates Fine Art Society in Sharjah, the emirate next door to Dubai.

    It was pretty amazing, what our program director, Joe Girandola, and our school managed to set up.   Nine of us were able to travel to opening night and stay in the region for more than a week, interviewing local women and men, drinking avocado milkshakes (deliciously green) and getting to see the beginnings of construction at the new Guggenheim and Louvre outposts in Abu Dhabi.

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    But all of this excitement had a bittersweet companion; stirrings of rebellion in another Islamic country, Tunisia, were happening. That revolution and ones to follow have colored my memories of the trip and fed concerns for my new friends’ future. Now, I’m fixed to my television at night looking for the latest news on the rebellion in Bahrain, a country just northwest of the U.A.E.

    A long flight into fascination

    We boarded the plane in Philadelphia in January, and after a connection at Heathrow, and later flying the length of Iraq — my flight status screen showed us above Kirkuk at one point — we landed in the polished chrome and marble Dubai airport.

    Mohammed Kazem, who had been a resident artist from the Emirates at University of the Arts this past summer, met us and began our introduction to the region. Mohammed is a well-known artist from the Gulf area, and a leader of Flying House, an artist collective and residency program. According to Joe Girandola, Mohammed is at “the forefront of contemporary art in the Middle East.”

    The next day we stood with him, shocked and thrilled, in front of the beautiful Sharjah Art Museum, home of our show. Designed to look like the ancient architecture of the region, the building is only about 20 years old. Tall, with towers at the corners, the museum had huge posters announcing our exhibition, and inside had spacious galleries for each of us, flawless marble floors, and an installation team to help us hang our work.

    To the college artist, this is a dreamlike occurrence that makes one keep turning to the next person to ask, “Is this really my life?”

    Friendships fashioned

    Next, we met two “let’s turn your expectations on their heads” characters:

    First was the person most helpful to me in installing my piece _ a handsome, soft spoken man named Osama Salama. Irony noted.

    Another person I met has become a close friend: Layla Juma Rashid. I didn’t expect a 35-year old woman to be in charge of the fine arts society in a Muslim country. There, in her traditional dress, was a person who had shown cutting edge work in the Singapore Biennial.

    As I peppered her with questions about everything from wearing the hijab (“my choice”), to whether or not she liked her country’s leadership (yes), to whether she felt oppressed at all (not particularly), she patiently answered each question and left me with a very different opinion of her life.

    She had independence, wielded authority and liked her chances in the world. But, she confessed that she and her friends were worried about the instability spreading across the Arab world.

    Before the trip there was a concern among the women of our group that we would have to cover ourselves with the hijab (head scarf) and abaya (a black robe) while in the Emirates.  We wondered how much our behavior would be limited.

    A quick look at my Lonely Planet guide dispelled most concerns, but it was clear that our clothes would need to be “modest.” A street in Dubai will have a few people in western dress, but many of the men wear elegant traditional robes, the scarf (ghutra) and rope head dressing (aghal). Traditional women wear the black abaya and hijab, but often, as with the artists we met, this clothing had beautiful metallic details or stitching — and underneath were jeans and a T-shirt.

    A heightened awareness

    Now, as I follow the multiple regional uprisings in Muslim countries, I return mentally to the opening night of our show. We mingled with the crowd, in our Sharjah-purchased pashminas and dresses, ahead of the arrival of a member of the royal family, Crown Prince Sheik Sultan Bin Mohammed Bin Sultan Al Qassimi.

    We were encouraged to clear a path for him and show respect. Later, we each stood at the gallery sites of our work and he visited with us, one by one. It was formal and dignified and I felt I’d been shown his respect.

    For my art career, this may have been a seminal moment foreshadowing great experiences to come. For my new friends, the crown prince and the Islamic countries of the Gulf I wonder how the rebellions will settle.

    My friendships are for life — I’m along on their journey now, but thousands of mile away. I won’t be able to look away or be indifferent to what happens to them next.

    Kris Strawser is a graduate student in sculpture at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  She can be reached at

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