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A Cultural Icon in the Making

March 2016

An Exclusive Interview with 

HH Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum

For Her Highness Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice Chairman of the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, culture is an enriching collective of constantly evolving experiences that integrate the past, the present and the future.  

Her vision for Dubai?s cultural context has been shaped by the deep insights she gained from her father, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, and from the lasting legacy of her grandfather the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. She also serves as the Vice Chairman of the Emirates Literature Foundation and support its flagship event, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. She is a patron of Downtown Design, guiding the city?s creative artscape across all disciplines.  

An EMBA post-graduate with Honours from Zayed University and a graduate in Business Sciences specialised in Marketing, HH Sheikha Latifa has participated in numerous leadership training programmes. She started her career at Dubai Culture since its inception, after interning at Dubai Holding.

What do we actually mean by Islamic art?

Islamic art has been interpreted liberally by many art historians to describe the entire body of visual arts that pertain to the periods, countries and cultures that are related to the Islamic world. It celebrates the emphasis of the distinctive cultural identity that evolved through Islam. Islamic art encompasses architecture, paintings, murals, calligraphy and even the intricately woven carpets and attire. All these are representations of how the arts and culture has thrived in the Islamic world over the past several centuries. Islamic art does not necessarily have religious connotations; it is rather a reflection of the dominant culture of the societies that emerged and evolved in the Islamic world and its regions of influence.  Arts and culture in the Arab world certainly did have abundant expressions since the advent of civilisation here (the examples of these early artworks are evident in archeological excavations, especially in pottery, the rock art and jewellery). However, they evolved through the seventh century, influenced by the societal changes.

Artists enjoyed the patronage of the leaders and the early mosques, for example, were a starting point in Islamic architecture. It is not surprising that the Islamic art style became popular in newer geographies, such as in India & China, where travelers and merchants from the Islamic world frequently visited. 

What is noteworthy about Islamic art is that it has retained its distinctive identity – one that continues to be celebrated in the Arab world today. 

Why are space and depth represented differently in works of art from many Islamic regions than they are in Western paintings? 

Islamic art has always abounded in the concept of symbolism. The metaphysical and spiritual elements that are associated with Islamic art, naturally, called for a new style of expression that is different from existing/prevailing approaches. For example, in interpreting space and depth, typically, the approach had been to define it from reality or the perceived sense of reality. The non-physical dimension of space is what shines through in Islamic art, as it derives inspiration from the spiritual aspects of Islam. 

Space in Islamic art, therefore, does not conform to Western interpretation of space. There is a transcendental dimension to space and depth in the works of art from the Islamic world. Further, Islamic art has grown and evolved from diverse cultural influences – ranging from the Arab world to Spain and Africa, and from India to China and beyond. The Islamic artforms therefore creatively interpreted geometric artforms and focused on motifs and patterns, and in the process avoiding idolatry associations. This gives a different dimension to space and depth in Islamic art. 

Most people have probably heard that Islam prohibits representational art, and Muslim artists only engage in calligraphy. Clearly that is not the case - why do you think there is such a misconception about Islamic art?

This is a matter of debate and one can contend that, as mentioned briefly in my previous comment, human depiction in Islamic art was less common due to the fact that depicting and immortalising people within artworks could be an inclination of idolatry, which is prohibited in Islam. Therefore, anything that potentially had proximity to idolatry was avoided. Yet again, this goes back to the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of Islamic art. At its core, Islamic art is considered a union of human creativity with spirituality. The misconception of calligraphy as being the only form of Islamic art could be due to the fact that it has been the most prominent form of Islamic art created and practiced from one generation to the other, until this day.  The Arabic language has always been one of the strongest and most elaborate forms of expression in both the Islamic and pre-Islamic Arab world; and still today.  The text of the Holy Quran was revealed in Arabic and therefore a great deal of respect and reverence has been associated with the Arabic language within the Islamic community and sub-cultures, especially towards verses of the Holy Quran. It is a normal transition to find calligraphy as an extremely common form of artistic expression and continuation throughout the region.

Are there many platforms within the GCC for Islamic artists?

I know that there are a number of institutions within the region dedicated to collecting and displaying Islamic art. The same goes worldwide and not just within the GCC. There are around 20 museums around the world that either specialise in Islamic Art or have a major section within them specializing in Islamic Art. As for Dubai, since the beginning of 2013, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, announced plans to establish Dubai as the Capital of the Islamic Economy, through the supervision of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown Prince and Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council. There are significant plans put in place to drive this vision forward, including plans to strengthen the Islamic art sector within Dubai.  This will drive the support for artists specialised in Islamic Art within the Emirate and beyond in a significant way.

Does the Gulf have its own signature style of Islamic art?

I believe that many young artists are majorly influenced by modern and western forms of art and they often attempt to express the tradition and culture of the region in a contemporary way. It is an interesting evolution; art reflects the current perceptions within society, its outlook and aspirations. But what is fascinating is that culture and tradition continue to be deeply inspiring for our young creatives.  I believe that is how art should evolve; it should reflect the society, times and perceptions.

I can see that artists within the Gulf most definitely have a certain style associated with their art mainly stemming from the culture of the region and the influences introduced to it from the open, embracing and innovative & progressive nature of its culture.

What is your favourite period of Islamic art? Any particular pieces that are a personal favourite?

I don’t necessarily have a personal favourite. I tend to appreciate all kinds of Islamic art for the significant historic and cultural value associated with them.  There are forms of art that have both been instituted and preserved over generations, and those forms of art have their own significance, in my opinion. There are also other art forms that have evolved and developed over the years taking on cultural changes and influences too and I also appreciate the relevance of those forms of visual art.

There have been forms of Islamic art that paved the way for societal and cultural progress through innovation and invention, and I believe those forms of art, such as Islamic architecture, and the art of Islamic gardens have a special significance due to the introduction of new methods of creation and operation, as well as their influence on the overall progress of the society as a whole.

Has the government made a conscious effort to support local artists and artisans in expressing their creativity?

In Dubai there have been significant and visible efforts taken to support artists and artisans in their creative endeavours. One of the main aspects of the Dubai Plan 2021, which was launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, and that we, at the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority (Dubai Culture), are responsible for achieving, is to strengthen our cultural scene. This is based on the fundamental approach that people “have always been, and always will be, the bedrock of the city.”  

One of the fundamental pillars of the Dubai Plan 2021 directly addresses the people of Dubai, aiming to foster a “City of Happy, Creative & Empowered People,” and to this end we have developed a comprehensive plan to empower and encourage creatives within the cultural industry and provide them with robust platforms that help them display and share their creations as well as gain insight and knowledge from experts within their fields and exposure to their peers, both within the UAE, the region and worldwide.  

In fact, most recently, we have launched Creatopia (www.creatopia.ae), the UAE’s first government empowered virtual community for creatives. It aims to mobilize, activate and inspire talents within the region, starting from Dubai, while promoting a new level of partnerships, engagement and collaborative communication within the culture, arts and heritage sectors. This is a comprehensive platform that we hope will establish Dubai as a new global centre for creativity and enhance the city’s cultural identity. It will aim to strengthen opportunities & resources for creative professionals to unlock their imagination and true potential.

What are some of the platforms available within the MENASA region for artists to exhibit and share their work?

Within Dubai we have a number of major platforms for artists to exhibit their work in different fields including Islamic Art. One of the most recent platforms we have launched is the earlier mentioned Creatopia that acts as a doorway for creative talent from across the region.

Furthermore, Dubai Culture organizes ‘Dubai Art Season’ that brings together several arts and culture initiatives covering practically all artforms. SIKKA Art Fair, another Dubai Culture initiative, shines the spotlight on contemporary art by regional, emerging talent. Art Dubai is an international arts showcase that also celebrates works from the region and beyond. Design Days Dubai is focused on collectible and limited edition design objects. We also support Dubai Design Week that has created a worldwide platform for the design community to showcase their designs and to promote emerging talents within the design industry. 

In calligraphy, we host the Dubai International Calligraphy Exhibition that, in its 2015 edition, displayed works by more than 50 accomplished artists from across the world.  We are planning to continue this initiative by having it run across different locations and evolve with more diversified artwork within the field.  Moreover, to ensure continued access to a wider range of viewers; and to extend the reach of the knowledge and appreciation of Islamic Art, we have specified a virtual tour of the Dubai International Calligraphy Exhibition on the Dubai Culture website.  This virtual tour will continue to show both existing and previous exhibitions and document the evolution of the exhibition and the artists featured within it.

Do you believe the general public within the MENASA region have an appreciation for Islamic art? And why?

I believe the general public within the region have a stronger appreciation for Islamic Art than any other form of art considering it stems from their personal heritage and culture. It also has significant connotations within their perception that links these forms of art to a period where their religious roots originated from, making it more valuable to them and appreciated.

If not, should the different interpretations of what is permissible within Islamic art to be taken into consideration?

There will always be a debate on this subject and I believe every generation will come up with their own parameters of what is acceptable within the wider context of Islamic Art.  It is a concept that will evolve organically and there will always be different opinions that will be considered and will clash within this topic that is open to interpretations.  

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