Dubai hosts University of the Arts MFAs

Post by Lauren McCarty

Mohammed Kazem, an artist from Dubai, arrived in Philadelphia last June as the first Artist-in-Residence in the UArts low-residency MFA program.  Last month, a group of 12 UArts MFA students traveled to the United Arab Emirates to exhibit work in the juried Emirates Fine Arts Society’s 29th Annual Exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum, as part of the exchange between UArts and the Dubai-based Emirates Foundation.  One of those students, Lauren McCarty, wrote this report about the cross-cultural exchange.

UArts MFA Group in the United Arab Emirates.


This was the first trip to the Middle East for all of the artists in our group. Admittedly, I knew very little about the culture and history of the United Arab Emirates outside of what I had learned by talking with Mohammed during his residency in Philadelphia.

This journey afforded us the opportunity to be shown a glimpse of the nuances of a place that many of us never expected to see and speak with individuals who have already changed us. In one day we visited the Barjeel Foundation (in Sharjah, another of the emirates), traveled to the desert, and visited the tallest building in the world (in Dubai).

On Sharjah television:

As visitors we were touched by the generosity and kindness of our hosts from the Emirates Fine Arts Society: Mohammed Kazem, Curator of the Exhibition Layla Juma Rashid, and Emirates Fine Arts Society Administrator Osama Motalib. At the Sharjah Museum we had a spectacular installation team, who incidentally are all related and trained by each other.   It was a privilege to discuss our work at the opening reception with Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, H.H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qassimi.  And the exhibit is accompanied by a beautiful catalog, with an essay by UArts MFA Director Joe Girandola, who created and fostered this cross-cultural exchange.

SharjahNews Coverage of Exhibition with MFA Students Carrice McKinstry, Michele Kishita and AJ Bredensteiner

Unlike the dwindling attention given to the arts by the United States’ press, newspaper and television coverage of the exhibition was extensive.

The Flying House

The Flying House Art Center

Dubai is becoming an international art hub but the history of fine arts there is short. The first art exhibition in the UAE was in 1971 at the Emirates Fine Arts Society. The current generation of home-grown artists, many of whom are training in masters programs around the globe, are pioneers. The Emirates Fine Arts Society was founded by Hassan Sharif, member of the Flying House, a collective of Emirati artists and a force in contemporary art in the UAE and abroad.

Hassan Sharif at his Flying House studio

We visited Hassan’s studio in the Flying House collective. Hassan continues to produce a staggering quantity of work while also writing prolifically about philosophy, his own work, that of his Flying House peers and students, and the modern and contemporary artists that have informed his work, like Marcel Duchamp and Sol LeWitt.

Images from Window, by Mohammed Kazem (2003-2005)

My understanding of the UAE began with a work called Window (2003-2005) by Kazem, a photo and video work exhibited last summer at the University of the Arts. Kazem was born in 1969, two years before the UAE was established as a nation and eleven years after oil was discovered in the Emirates. He has personally experienced the rapid development of the now famed metropolis, Dubai. Window uses photography and video to trace Kazem’s witnessing of the construction of a hotel. We see his window that once framed blue sky is now filled by one of many luxury hotels in Dubai.

Artspace Gallery, Dubai

There’s been an explosion of private galleries recently in Dubai. We visited a bunch in the Dubai International Finance Center and spoke with Maliha Al Tabari of ArtSpace Gallery and Bashar Al-Shroogi of Cuadro Fine Art Gallery. Cuadro was especially notable, showing examples of outstanding contemporary Arab artists. The design of the large gallery itself was innovative. Al-Shroogi explained his intention to provide multiple autonomous installation spaces. One space features swiveling walls. The poured concrete floors of the gallery actually have a soft material underneath that is meant to cushion the feet of gallery goers. Al-Shroogi has also begun an artist-in-residence program that includes a cultural education component, giving artists an understanding of the region that can then inform their work.


The Barjeel Foundation, Sharjah

An exciting development in contemporary art in the UAE is the very new Barjeel Foundation which we toured with gallery manager, Mandy Merzaban. The galleries are brand new and excellent and show works by members of the Flying House alongside other accomplished contemporaries from around the Arab world.

Abu Dhabi

The construction of the Louvre, Abu Dhabi in progress

This contrasted with what we saw in Abu Dhabi, another emirate, in our visit to Manarat Al Saadiyat, the cultural visitors’ center on Saadiyat Island. Like the Barjeel Foundation, everything was brand new and the design of the building arresting. But unlike the Barjeel Foundation’s emphasis on local talent, the Manarat Al Saadiyat showed non-Arab works –the current exhibition has works from the private collection of Larry Gagosian, works by Rauschenberg, Ruscha, Serra, Twombly, Warhol and Christopher Wool.

The construction of the Gugenheim, Abu Dhabi in progress

Also in Abu Dhabi, we toured the construction sites for the new Louvre and Guggenheim Museums as well as the soon to be completed five-star hotels and luxury villas on the artificial extension of Saadiyat Island.

It’s been a privilege to be part of this creative and cultural exchange. See images from the exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum and more commentary about the trip at the blog we set up.  In addition to Uarts professor, Joe Girandola, here are the Uarts MFA students who were able to travel to UAE to be part of this exhibition: Eric Abaka, Marjorie Albano Renno, AJ Bredensteiner, Carrice Chardin McKinstry, David Chatfield, Harry Matti Hukkinen, Michele C. Kishita, Guy Loraine, Lauren McCarty, Kristine Sullivan Strawser, Andrew R. Walker, and Taegyun Yoon.