Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

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The collective’s book “In the Middle of it All”.
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Jana Ghalayini’s work at Art Dubai invited visitors to draw on their responses.
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Features artists such as Nasreen Shaikh Jamala Lail.
Updated 25 May 2019

Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

  • Female-led art collective wants society to rethink the way women of color are perceived
  • Banat Collective publishes artworks in print and online and hosts events to encourage debate

DUBAI: Sara bin Safwan founded the Banat Collective in 2016 to connect with other like-minded people, championing
their art through the group’s website, banatcollective.com.
The group aims to help society to rethink the way women of color are perceived by showcasing contemporary art, poetry and other writings. The collective publishes artistic works in print and online and hosts events aimed at spreading awareness and encouraging debate.
“A lot of the artists are young and emerging and never had the chance to be either exhibited or publicized, so we interview them to offer a critical, insightful look at their work,” said Safwan, 25.


Now an assistant curator at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Safwan graduated from London’s world-famous Central Saint Martins college in 2015 with a degree in culture, criticism and curation.
It was while studying in Britain that she developed a keen interest in post-colonial theory; the Banat Collective focuses on themes relating to both womanhood and intersectionality, which is an analytic framework to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those most marginalized in society.
“The mission is not only to connect artists but open up discussions about Arab womanhood in the region, because there’s not necessarily any other place to do so. We do that through art, poetry and other writings,” Safwan said.
“I use the word ‘womanhood’ to make it a more accessible term because if I use ‘feminism,’ it’s a very politically charged word that has almost been tainted by Western ideologies. And those Western ideologies don’t necessarily fit within our context as Middle Easterners.”
“In the Middle of it All” is the collective’s debut publication. Released in 2018, the book is a 31-artist collaboration of visual art, writing and poetry. Our book is a means to help us stand out — it’s thoughtfully curated and tackles a specific issue, which is ‘coming of age’,” she says.
“It’s a notion that’s taboo in the Arab world and either unheard of or misunderstood. It was a chance for female artists to tell their own story.
“Throughout the book, we go through many topics such as puberty, identity, sexual harassment and abuse, sisterhood, motherhood, beauty standards and all these other societal expectations.”
The collective held its first exhibition as part of March’s Art Dubai fair, showcasing a short film, “Ivory Stitches & Saviors” by member Sarah Alagroobi, which she describes as an “unflinching glimpse into identity, colonialism and whitewashing.”
Says Safwan: “It’s a tribute to all women of color who have been marginalized and, all too often, erased.”
Another work by Palestinian-Canadian artist Jana Ghalayini is comprised of a 26-meter-long piece of chiffon on which visitors can draw with chalk pastels in response to questions posed by the artist including “How does your environment affect your identity?”
Safwan adds: “The themes we explored were vulnerability and community — it was a way to introduce ourselves in person because previously we only had an online presence.”
Born and raised in the UAE to Honduran and Emirati parents, Safwan is now working with Alagroobi and Ghalayini to brainstorm ideas for future projects that include a podcast series on the notion of shame. The collective is self-funded and run by volunteers.
“I hope there will be more opportunities to showcase our work and collaborate with others. This year, we will be publishing more content,” Safwan said.

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of The Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


Photographers reveal Egypt’s hidden gems in show for a good cause

This is the group’s fourth charitable exhibition. (Supplied)
Updated 21 November 2019

Photographers reveal Egypt’s hidden gems in show for a good cause

  • Cairo Saturday Walks are a group of photographers who go on adventures every week to take pictures across the city
  • The team is now exhibiting its work for charity at a gallery in the city

DUBAI: The Cairo Saturday Walks team, a group of photographers who go on adventures every week to take pictures across the city, are now exhibiting their work for charity at a gallery in the city.

The exhibition brought together more than 50 local, international, professional and amateur photographers who are displaying their work in the Maadi district until Nov. 22.

The youngest participant is 13 and the oldest is 60. (Supplied)

All proceeds from the gallery will go to the restoration of a public facility in one of the underserved areas that the group has walked in and photographed during the past, according to the founder of Cairo Saturday Walks Karim El-Hayawan.

This is the group’s fourth charitable exhibition.

El-Hayawan described the practice as an “organic experience,” during which photographers discover the city’s hidden gems.

The group is displaying its work in the Maadi district until Nov. 22. (Supplied)

What started off as a one-man weekly walk is now a practice shared by 500 photographers.

El-Hayawan’s journey began after he took a basic introductory course in photography. “I did not have time during the week to work on my photography assignments. I used to go out every Saturday to take pictures and I used to post on my account. Then a lot of people started asking me ‘Where are these places? Where do you go? We want to join,’ although (these places) exist 10-15 minutes from anywhere in Cairo, but people did not notice them or had forgotten them,” he told Arab News.

The photographers walk around and discover the city’s hidden gems. (Supplied)

The group has a library of more than 15,000 pictures accessible on Instagram through #cairosaturdaywalks.

“We ask people who join us to share their pictures on that hashtag, with the intention of having a long-term documentation of Cairo,” El-Hayawan said. “Everyone takes pictures from his/her own perspective. It is extremely neutral; everyone takes pictures of whatever they want.”

In two to three years, people can go back to this documentation and see that Cairo looked this way at this time,” he said.

All proceeds from the gallery will go to the restoration of a public facility in one of the underserved areas that the group has walked in and photographed during the past. (Supplied)

A typical Saturday for the photographers starts off at a cafe. “We meet in the morning at a coffee shop and we take a little bus that we rent every Saturday and we just hit the road to somewhere random and we get lost. We call them to pick us up from wherever we reach at the end of the day. The idea is that it has no structure and I really aimed at that from the very beginning,” El-Hayawan said.

What started off as a one-man weekly walk is now a practice shared by 500 photographers. (Supplied)

The youngest participant is 13 and the oldest is 60, but El-Hayawan said that anyone can join the walk and share their pictures.

“I found out about Cairo Saturday Walks from Instagram. The spirit of people I walk with is just amazing. Also, the fact that I am Egyptian yet I still get amazed by Cairo’s streets is what pushes me to explore more every week,” Yara Wael, a 17-year-old photographer, told Arab News.