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Outside the Triptych: Artists Reframe the UAE
There are two central tropes that often define the UAE in popular media and scholarship. The first is that the UAE (like its neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula) is depicted as a cultural and historical tabula rasa. Building on this trope of the lack of history is the misconception that Emirati citizens and two sets of relatively short-term foreign workers - white professional expatriates and South Asian manual laborers - constitute the UAE’s population. Attending to the UAE’s artistic community, however, troubles these easy tropes. First, many members of the UAE’s art world do not carry Emirati citizenship, but are long-term residents who contribute to the scene both as professionals and as artists. This community is often of South Asian, Iranian or Arab descent - groups outside the standard triptych. Recent exhibitions created and run by this community, which focus on the work of Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Kazem, Nujoom al Ghanem, Vivek Vilasini and others, also track the history of art-making in the UAE dating back to the 1970s. Secondly, with the growth of the UAE’s art scene, particularly since the inauguration of the commercial art fair Art Dubai in 2007 and the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, the UAE’s “arts boom” has reinvigorated cultural circuits across South Asia. These connections include patronage support for the Kochi and Lahore Biennials, an exhibition celebrating UAE-India connections at the 2016 Kochi Biennial, and a series of 2019 exhibitions in the UAE as well as the establishment of the Ishara Foundation. Following these linkages reveals both the longstanding contributions of Dubai- and Sharjah-based artists to the country’s record of cultural production, as well as the diverse nature of the UAE’s population. Such connections and contributions highlight the longstanding connections between South Asia and the UAE, including the region’s colonization by the British and the Islamic trade networks that preceded it. Indeed, these connections reveal how those based in the UAE semi-permanently have substantially contributed to its art, culture, and these deeply embedded histories of connection, albeit in ways the government often does not acknowledge. These re-emergent networks with South Asia and contributions of residents offer another view of the UAE, one that does not align with the ethnocentric narrative propagated by the state.
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Arabian Peninsula
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