The Art of Dialog in a Time of Rapid Change

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Nov 07, 2019
by Claire Kidwell
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The Art of Dialog in a Time of Rapid Change

How artists and innovators from the UAE are using arts as a bridge to connect the Gulf region, the Middle East, and the world From left: Ayehsa Hadhir, Safiya Al Maskari, Laila Binbrek. (Photos: Herman Seidl)

“They might have certain stereotypes or preconceived ideas about [us], they might not even know the UAE per se, but just of the region as a whole… Arts and culture is a very non-threatening way to have dialog,” says Laila Binbrek, the director of the National Pavilion UAE. Binbrek oversees the organization’s operation and participation with the Venice Biennale. A resident of the UAE for 13 years, Binbrek has seen how its art sector continues to expand, flourish, and bridge divides.

She spoke while attending the sixth program of the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. For the first time, thanks to support from the Salama Bint Hamdan al Nahyan Foundation, the multi-year series welcomed participants from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to its program. Binbrek was joined by the manager of Lest We Forget Safiya Al Maskari and Warehouse421 program coordinator Ayesha Hadir.

Al Maskari’s work involves archiving oral history, art, and photography. She says, “We had a lot of people coming to our exhibitions and saying, ‘Oh, we used to do the same thing, or we had the same thing…’ We're different but very similar in some ways. And we did that through art.”

As part of a government initiative to create more arts within the gulf region, the UAE has made significant in-roads in the sector over the past decade. In 2007, Abu Dhabi agreed to pay $520 million to attach the Louvre’s name to a museum being built on Saadiyat Island, which opened in 2017.

Changes in the arts sector have come at a quick pace, according to Binbrek, and sometimes it’s hard for people’s mindsets to keep up with the times. She says, “People, in general, are not really good with change, but with such rapid change, it requires sometimes some difficult conversations to happen or introspection to happen a lot quicker than maybe anticipated and really through the arts… is one of those ways to bring up those topics that even internally within, let's say, families or communities or workspaces where you can have those discussions that are not necessarily so politically charged.”

Throughout this year’s program in Salzburg, the inaugural members of the YCI Abu Dhabi Hub networked with other innovators, discussed topics including mental health, and planned solutions for growing the arts sector internationally. Hadir says the experience showed her how much pressure she was putting on herself and her work. She says, “I feel like everything is just hectic back home and to be here and just to pause…that was very powerful for me.”

Al Maskari shares Hadir’s sentiments. She says, “It's just it's an eye-opener and it's nice to learn how people approach their project and thinking outside of the box. I think that's one thing that's I go back with.”

Binbrek says the program gave her validation. “What you realize is that we all have very similar struggles. And sometimes what that individual has used to overcome their problem is something that you can use in any environment, whether it's personal or a work environment.”

Stereotypes, forms of oppression, strict government controls, and racism are some of the challenges participants at this year’s YCI Forum have faced. Al Maskari says you can learn a lot by merely listening to someone else’s story.

“I feel like it really helps to sit with other individuals. Just listen to them, and then sometimes they make you think of things that you never thought of. So it was helpful sitting with everyone and listening to what everyone has to say and hear their background, their stories, and what they do.”

Despite the diversity of personalities, projects, and passions at this year’s YCI Forum, Binbrek, Al Maskari, and Hadhir suggested a common thread existed, which enabled fruitful discussions to take place. Hadhir says, “[YCI] really built like a whole different family that you never expected.”

Binbrek adds, “I mean, everybody here, even though we all come from different parts of the world, we come from different echelons of society and, you know, work, but we've all come here with a particular intention to be present in this moment in time and take the most that we can from all the workshops and the different individuals who are sharing their knowledge with us. So we're really lucky in this atmosphere. But the thing is, you can create that wherever you go. You just need to identify and don't be afraid to ask to meet somebody for a coffee and just talk.”


The Salzburg Global Seminar Program, Cultural Innovation, Leadership and Collaboration: A Global Platform, is part of the Young Cultural Innovators Forum annual program. The program is held in partnership with Adena and David Testa, Arts Council Korea, Arts Council Malta, the Bush Foundation, Canada Council for the Arts, Japan Foundation, the Korea Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Nippon Foundation, Salama Bint Hamdan al Nahyan Foundation, Shalini Passi Art Foundation, and World Culture Open.