By Mckenzie Laird
An ambitious twenty-something, my host Taleyah embodied the intricate knot of local tradition and expatriate influence that undergirds much of the contemporary, cosmopolitan Middle East. In her sleek black hijab and lively pink lipstick, she generously ordered several extravagant, tasty items from the menu for us to share at the gourmet Japanese restaurant she had selected as our dinner venue in Abu Dhabi.
A mutual friend had connected us while I was in the capital city as an Artist-In-Residence, and I was eager to hear about Taleyah’s experience as one of the United Arab Emirites’ selected protégé artists in their emerging Artist Development Program.
As I flipped through her sketchbook—her most vulnerable and priceless possession, wrought with ideas, written and drawn—I recognized the mind of a true artist: elastic, open, observant. I stopped at a page containing a form resembling a shapely Russian Kachina doll. On the next page was the same form, repeated over and over again, and consuming the remaining pages. I could tell by her smile when I asked her about it that she’d been waiting for the question.
“This piece won Best in Show,” she answered, running her hands over the page full of small thumbnail sketches.
“These are all women. I made them. Each one, I made. Handmade with clay, I formed each woman as she is here.”
Looking closer, I could see that each one of her small women was a different, color, and shape—at least 200 little forms lined her paper.
Taleyah stopped stroking the page and looked up at me. “I have many brothers,” she shared, “and they ask, ‘Taleyah, Taleyah, why do you want to be an artist?’” Eyes focused on her empty water glass, she answered, “Because, I can be one. A woman can be whatever she wants to be.”
In times of great transition, we need fluid, cross-disciplinary, strategic thinkers to help us make meaning from things that aren’t, on the surface, necessarily connected. Artist do this naturally; it’s in their training to connect the seemingly disparate phenomena of liminal spaces. Such was the case with Taleyah. Economically light years ahead of most women her age, she lives in the uncharted territory of learning to apply her newfound empowerment in a society that has never previously allowed it.
Global strategist Parag Khana claims we are in the throes of the first major systems shift since the Industrial Revolution, one where digital technology and connectivity is transforming our relationship to power, authority, community, and exchange. Social constructs such as education and politics—for centuries, honed and calibrated toward our previous understandings of order—are experiencing the upheaval that might be expected while trying to make sense of this newly hyper-connected world. It just may be that artists are some of the best people equipped to navigate the divide.
Visual acumen, spatial and metaphorical thinking, empathy, synthesis and divergence—the world and work of the artist and designer has often involved uncovering and communicating the subtle underpinnings of collective, contemporary consciousness in visible and courageous ways. Today, we find artists integrating themselves into established systems of education, political discourse, science, and business—actively helping others adapt to the present age. The thriving contemporary art culture in the Middle East provides us one such example.
Recognized as a nation in 1971, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) exponential net growth has the country spinning in a complex web of tradition, modernity, and global attention. Emirati grandfathers who once walked the desert with camels and falcons, today watch their grandchildren driving off in Maseratis and studying to become nuclear engineers. With stark differences in literacy, tradition, culture, and infrastructure among generations, the UAE is expanding, molding, and shaping its national identity. In such an uncharted and impressionable time, the country also faces problems so complex that they can’t even be adequately diagnosed, much less solved. In the midst of this change, contemporary art spaces are bridging gaps and meeting needs in a society that has been forced to reach twenty-first century modernity in a third of the time afforded western countries.
Despite the discomforts of life in this liminal space, the tensions nevertheless engender a strong creative energy that is inspiring new artists and spaces such as Warehouse 421. Born out of an old warehouse in the industrial region of the capital, this interactive public space serves as a platform for art and design, while also functioning as a safe public arena to ask questions, reflect, and challenge political topics. Beyond promoting diplomacy and discourse concerning UAE national heritage, this Middle Eastern gallery space also generates functional structures which support it. For instance, when eight female Emerati students from Zayed University joined forces as a grassroots arts initiative, the organization Lest We Forget emerged as an archival vehicle for collecting and centralizing records of family lineages which trace the origins of the local Emirati people. This interactive exhibit is comprised of photographs exploring the early experiences of the Emirati people from when the nation was first formed—the anthropological outgrowth of artistic thinking. The range of photographs gathered from government, oil companies, missionaries, and travelers was not originally intended to serve as social commentary yet these previously private records yield invaluable information regarding the origins of a people in the midst of a rapid paradigm shift. The director of the project, American curator Dr. Michele Bambling believes, “It’s very hard for people to be able to simply recount something from the past without a physical, tangible link to the intangible.” Thus, these photographic records supply the tangible link.
As creative people of faith, we can learn a good deal from these artists who are actively partnering with the country to help shape this new nation. The twenty-first century artist is, in fact, more than just a documenter or commentator but a participant in culture. My friend Taleyah understands that artistic agency relates directly to personal agency and recognizes intuitively that her work serves as an infrastructure to a way for others to follow.
Mckenzie Laird is an emerging mixed media artist and illustrator. Currently teaching high school, she regards it as one of the highest of arts. Outside of the studio and classroom, you will find her with a surfboard, ball, or book in hand. She resides in Santa Cruz, California.