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United Arab Emirates Art Exhibition Is All About Cultural Diplomacy

For the last six weeks, North Texas has been home to a collection of works by contemporary artists from the United Arab Emirates. “Past Forward” is a traveling exhibition on cultural diplomacy.

Before the tallest skyscraper in the world was built there, before the oil and gas boom, and before Ski Dubai, there was a grassroots art scene in the UAE that dates back to the 1950s.

“The UAE’s pioneering artists, such as Abdul Qader Al Rais and Dr. Najat Makki, pay homage to our traditions through their art,” said Emirati native Dana Al Marashi. “And they were basically role models to the young artists that we have today.”

She’s also the cultural historian at the UAE Embassy in Washington D.C.

“The new generation of UAE artists portray the psychology of modern life,” Al Marashi said. “Their work and the mediums they use speak about modernity, while still trying to hold onto their roots.”

In the collection are black and white pinhole photographs. One piece features a father and son posing in front of a rural desolate town square. There’s also a three-dimensional animated cartoon about four Muslim grandmothers. And a painting by one of the country’s acclaimed artist Obaid Suroor with its canvas of abandoned old buildings covered with green polka dots.

“The polka dots, they’re a local fabric,” said Curtis Sandberg at Meridian International Center, a nonprofit that helped to bring the exhibition to the United States. “Jalabiya cloth, it’s a particular kind of fabric. He uses that as canvas and then he’s painting contemporary scenes, so he’s sort of encapsulating tradition, earlier things, things that matter to him and his spirit. But then he’s also painting his landscape and his home and thinking forward.”

Past Forward, that’s the name of this first-ever traveling exhibition of Emirati art to this scale.

“Ultimately you can tell a story,” Sandberg said. “And that is really the basis for cultural diplomacy. It’s finding a neutral space, showing them something remarkable and thoughtful from another culture, and then creating a framework for discussion, for commentary, and for learning.”

Brooke Baumgardner has learned a lot about contemporary Islamic art. The assistant director of Artspace111 in Fort Worth stands next to a portrait of a young man ready to feed a falcon--- the UAE’s national symbol, but instead of talking about that painting, she turns to a sculpture on the floor.

“It’s a bug,” she said. “These are actually made up of these old aluminum jars that you to transport camel milk in, and so the camel milk would be filled up in these jars, and you would take it home. And the legs of the bugs are actually made of the necks of these long spoons.”

Many visitors to the gallery, she says, had preconceived notions of what the United Arab Emirates is.  

“And frankly some of them have been not the nicest of notions, and they come in here, and I think they see that these people are far more similar to us then they are different,” Baumgardner said.

The last day to see the exhibit is Monday at Artspace111 and the World Affairs Council offices in Dallas.

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.