DUBAI: Ten years ago, about 20 artists and curators in the UAE’s Ras Al-Khaimah conceived the Ras Al-Khaimah Fine Arts Festival, relying solely on contributions and volunteer support to showcase the fledgling arts and culture scene in the emirate. A decade later, the festival, nestled in and around the preserved coral stone and mud houses, marketplace and fort of the historic pearling village of Al-Jazirah Al-Hamra, has morphed into a two-month-long collaborative space with a display of more than 150 artworks from over 45 countries, walking tours, workshops and activities.
Titled “The Journey,” the festival’s 10th edition, which runs until March 31, pays homage to the enduring efforts by creatives in the country to develop a platform for cultural exchange and artistic development while also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UAE.
Lining the sandy walkways and structures of the venue, the large-scale photographs and art printed on weather-resistant material and interactive installations and sculptures delve into their creators’ interpretations of ancestry, migration, national identity and personal growth. They also chronicle the transformation of the Emirates from Bedouin tribes and the founding of the Trucial States to the melting pot of cultures and technology that it is today.
“As one of the founding members of the festival, I remember a time when we had to rely on donations and volunteers for the event. When we set up a website for the festival, no one knew where Ras Al-Khaimah was. Ten years later, with the rapid development in the emirate, we have artists from all over the world exhibiting at the festival now. The destination that we are at today, both as a country that is constantly seeking to preserve its culture and heritage and as a festival that has made its mark on the international art scene, is befitting the journey,” Suqrat bin Bisher, festival director, told Arab News.
Visitors to this year’s festival will, for the first time, be able to access an additional 1-km stretch of the older part of the village to experience curated exhibitions with artworks from citizens, residents, and regional and international artists. There are also displays from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the US Mission to the UAE and the NYUAD Art Gallery. The festival has also partnered for the first time with Cinema Akil, Gulf Photo Plus and Warehouse421 for a diverse program.
Arresting images portraying the UAE’s people, heritage and landscape by the festival’s featured artist Yousef Al-Zaabi greet festivalgoers as they enter the fort. The self-taught Emirati photographer from Ras Al-Khaimah says this exhibition is an opportunity for him to share his journey of identity with the world.
“My photos are a window to the past and the future. I’ve photographed all over the UAE, in Ras Al-Khaimah, Liwa, Dubai and Hatta, in an attempt to capture moments that authentically illustrate the country and its people. Every photo tells a different story of the UAE and I want visitors to uncover these stories with me,” said the founder and president of the Emirates Falcons Photography Society and vice president of the Union of Arab Photographers.
The award-winning photographer, whose work was also featured on the cover of National Geographic Arabia, believes the festival plays a critical role in fostering cross-culture dialogue.
“There’s a lot to learn from the experiences of the artists who attend and showcase at the festival. It’s a platform for knowledge-sharing that nourishes and strengthens the UAE’s arts and culture scene.”
Other Emirati artists presenting at this year’s festival include Abdullah Lutfi, depicting the UAE’s skyline and landscapes in his distinct black and white drawings; Medyyah Al-Tamimi, who captures the everyday bustle of the city in photographs and writings; and filmmaker Sara Al-Hashimi with her thought-provoking documentaries on the region.
Equally telling photographs of the Emirates by residents, such as the striking black and white composite portrait of several generations of Emiratis in Filipino photographer Mario Cardenas’ “Emirates Legacy” series, offer a rare perspective of self-discovery among the national population.
The Al-Qasimi Foundation’s special exhibition “Travel in COVID,” curated by the festival's director - bin Bisher, Azza Al-Nuaimi and Ji Young Kim and displayed across three houses in the village, is a comment on the shared experience of humanity in challenging times. The exhibition features imagery of canceled visas, postcards exchanged during global lockdowns and drawings of solitary moments that led to heightened creativity during the pandemic. “Longing Be-longing,” curated by independent art curator Sharon Total from Tel Aviv, explores the influences of post-orientalism in Israeli contemporary art.
The festival extends beyond the heritage village with two satellite exhibition sites at the UAE’s highest peak, Jebal Jais, and Al-Marjan Island’s Open Park. The line-up also includes workshops, tours, entertainment and activities that will take place every weekend until the end of the festival.