Union of Artists: How five Emiratis pulled together to create one giant artwork in Dubai

Large-scale installation 'represents unity' and will be a 'permanent statement' for the UAE

Union of Artists comprises seven crisscrossed pillars, representing the seven emirates. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

When the time came for Dubai Culture to decide who would be tasked with creating the first major work of the Dubai Public Art initiative, the shortlisted artists proposed something organisers were not expecting. They suggested the commission go to all five of them.

After all, the Emirati artists were familiar with each other's works. Some have even been longtime friends. It seemed like a stroke of fortune that they would all be joined in the shortlist together, especially given that there were more than 250 applicants. They wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

For a piece that was set to be installed at Al Hudaiba Public Park – overlooking Etihad Museum and Union House, a pivotal location in the story of the UAE’s formation – a collaborative piece not only made sense, but added a certain symbolic credence to the installation.

Union of Artists was officially unveiled on Monday, in the run-up to the opening of Art Dubai, itself a collaborative partner of the initiative. The sculpture was developed by Afra Al Dhaheri, Shaikha Al Mazrou, Asma Belhamar, Khalid Al Banna and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim.

Union of Artists comprises seven crisscrossed pillars, representing the seven emirates. The pillars lean on one another in a unified arrangement, suggesting that if one fell, then so would the entire edifice. The structure alludes to the Areesh, a traditional Emirati house that is made entirely from palm materials, weaving fibres and stems together in a sturdy design.

The pillars of the artwork are engraved with motifs that have become idiosyncratic of Ibrahim’s work, including the sculptural pieces the veteran artist presented at the 2022 Venice Art Biennale as part of his exhibition at the National Pavilion UAE.

The aesthetics, construction and monumentality of the work, meanwhile, blend the expertise of the quintet, much like the traditional Areesh, which is built upon collective effort.

The idea of working together grew its roots soon after the artists found out who else made it to the shortlist. “Last year, at Art Dubai, we were asked to attend the talk, which was going to be the reveal of the shortlisted names,” Al Dhaheri says. “As one after the other started coming in, [we] were surprised who the other shortlisted artists were. It was very interesting, because I'm like, 'How are we competing against each other?'”

Camaraderie and etiquette took hold as Ibrahim suggested pulling out from the shortlist to give the newer generation of artists a chance to present their work.

“It was an instant 'no',” Al Dhaheri says. “If [he] wasn’t doing this, then we were not doing it either. I then suggested that we propose each other’s projects. It was the playfulness of the situation. Then Ibrahim suggested we propose one work.”

At that point, the idea was just a suggestion uttered in the spur of the moment, but as the artists went home and digested the notion, it didn’t seem so outlandish. In fact, it seemed like the perfect way to respond to the circumstance. “We decided that it's a fantastic idea,” Al Dhaheri says. “And why not? It's definitely going to be a challenge.”

The group then met with Dubai Culture and proposed their idea. The proposal pivoted on the fact that in an arts scene as rapidly developing as the UAE’s, it was important to capture the spirit of this particular moment.

“We told them this is a great opportunity for us to highlight what's happening in the UAE art scene right now, and how much of a tight-knit community it is. The location encourages that as well because it's adjacent to the Union House. This will stand, you know, for years and history to come. In the future, people can look back and understand better what the art scene at this time looked like.”

Then came the matter of actually developing an idea that cohesively brought the quintet’s practices together. The group, save for Al Banna, knew each other well, but working together on a single project was another matter. The group brought their individual proposals together and contemplated whether there was a way of combining them into one. “But we soon agreed that we wanted to create a work that was a collaboration,” Al Dhaheri says.

Contemplating on the notion of working together, it made sense that the project drew inspiration from the traditional Areesh. “To make one wall of Areesh, a group of five people have to sit on it and tie it from their side. The actual process of making it has to be done by a group, it cannot be made by one person. We felt like this is an amazing kind of analogy to what we're trying to do.”

The artists met at Ibrahim’s studio in Khor Fakkan, drafting maquette and suggesting materials to work with. “Khalid [Al Banna] was actually the one who came up with the sticks, and they're intersecting. Shaikha [Al Mazrou], on the spot, drew it with its bands. It was almost like a workshop.”

However, bringing the ideas to fruition were challenging, especially given that the project became contingent to the schedules of five people. “There was frustration at the beginning where we were trying to all meet, and it doesn't work because someone shouldn’t make it,” Al Dhaheri says. “In the working process, we realised that it made more sense pass the torch every time someone is able to take the load.”

Ibrahim says working on Union of Artists was a revitalising process, particularly because it made him acutely aware of how well-tuned the current generation of Emirati artists are with today’s world.

“The collaboration between five Emirati artists from three different generations represents unity,” he says. “I always say my generation is the bridge between what came before the Union [of the UAE] and after,” he says. “Then there’s the generation that came in the beginning of the country’s formation. Then there’s the current generation. This is to me the power of the installation, how it encapsulates the different historical segments in our society. We wanted to present this concept in a visual and metaphorical sense.”

Ibrahim also stressed the importance of the project being a site-specific work. Being situated near Union House, it reflects upon the area’s historical significance and the importance of collective effort in building Dubai as it exists today. “We can even say it alludes to a futuristic component,” he says. “An imagining of what the future of the city looks like. Of course, this extends to the entire UAE.”

Ibrahim says he is looking forward to seeing how the Dubai Public Art initiative develops over time. Proliferating art within public spaces is key to spreading awareness about its benefits and importance. “Public art enlivens, gives a sort of spirit to spaces,” he says. “Its mere presence attracts people and life to any given space. It also helps shape the visual sensibilities and awareness of audiences.”

Benedetta Ghione, executive director at Art Dubai, assures that Union of Artists is a precursor to several “high-quality” commissions that are set to decorate Dubai as part of the Public Art initiative. “It's the first time that there is really a multiyear strategy put in place at a government level to develop and deliver several major public art commissions,” she says. “What is important to us is that this would be a sustained initiative. We are planning for the next cycle. There are plans for [the initiative] to continue over the years, and for it to grow.

Union of Artists is the first landmark commission of this initiative. It is going to be a permanent artwork and a permanent statement for the Emirates. It's in a very significant location because it is in conversation with Etihad Museum and notions of unity. It's a structure that is held together in a sort of playful, organic way. It is made stronger by the elements coming together. In a way, each [artist’s] practice is present, but it all merges into one very seamless language.”

Ghione adds that the significance of Dubai Public Art became ever more apparent when the five shortlisted artists decided to collaborate on the initiative’s first major work. “What they told us is that ‘it’s OK if one of us wins, but it’s so much better if we all win, because if we all win, so does our art scene’, and I thought that was a really powerful statement, considering that they represent the breadth of generations of UAE artists. When they came to us, and they asked for the opportunity to work together, we felt that this was a wonderful statement.”

Ghione says she hopes the artwork will “inspire pride” in the local arts scene as it is reflective of the pool of talent bustling within Dubai’s cultural fabric. “I also hope that it will act as a beacon of what the power of art can be, so that it's inspiring, and that hopefully, it creates more support and more enthusiasm towards arts and culture.”

Updated: February 27, 2024, 2:17 PM