Words by Art Dubai Director, Myrna Ayad
Women working in the arts and culture sector is not new to the Middle East and Arab world. We’ve had a lot of pioneering women predecessors to learn from and who continue to serve as examples for us to follow. Some of those who have paved the way include HRH Princess Wijdan Al Ali, who established the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in 1979; the Sultan family, who founded the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait in 1969 and which continues to promote Arab art; HRH Princess Jawaher Bint Majid Bin Abdelaziz Al Saud, who formed the Al Mansouria Foundation in 1988 to support Arab and Saudi artists and now heads the Saudi Art Council, which stages the annual 21,39 cultural initiative in Jeddah; Janine Rubeiz, who founded Dar Al Fan in Beirut in 1967, which acted as a salon, attracting the country’s intelligentsia and which her daughter Nadine Begdache now runs (and renamed); Syrian sisters Mouna and Mayla Atassi, who established a library-cum-gallery in Homs in 1986. Mayla then founded Green Art Gallery in Dubai in 1995, now run by her daughter Yasmin, and three years ago, Mouna fled Syria and created the Atassi Foundation, registered in Lichtenstein and based in Dubai, to support Syrian modern and contemporary art.
Looking at the local cultural landscape today, women dominate the scene. In Abu Dhabi, Sheikha Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan established her namesake foundation that acts as Commissioner of the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (the first Commissioner was Emirati art patron Dr. Lamees Hamdan); the Sharjah Art Foundation that puts on the ambitious Sharjah Biennial and other notable exhibitions is run by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi (and her team of many women!); Sheikha Lateefa Bint Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is Vice President of Dubai Culture; Sheikha Lateefa Bint Maktoum established Tashkeel; Sheikha Manal Bint Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum created the Dubai Women Establishment and runs the Little Artist Programme at Art Dubai; Antonia Carver, my predecessor, now runs Art Jameel. The majority of Dubai’s galleries are run by women too.
As for Art Dubai, women dominate the fair! Aside from our CEO and Founder Ben Floyd, and Artistic Director Pablo del Val, the rest of the team is comprised of women. Why do women orientate towards the arts? I think every woman has a different objective and mission. I began my career in the arts as a writer and editor, working across newspapers, magazines and books for 15 years before I joined Art Dubai. Personally, I feel compelled to promote the language of art and believe in its ability to foster greater understanding and tolerance. Having lived in Dubai for 37 years and having had access to a multitude of cultures, I also had the privilege of witnessing not only the city, but the arts scene develop and feel a duty to defend art from and about the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Working in the arts requires thick skin, passion and curiosity – the same could be said about working in other industries, but remember: the art world is all about stories and I believe that we feel responsible to share them.