Female Artists and Female-First Platforms at the Forefront of Art Production in Abu Dhabi

Anna Bernice
4 min readMar 14, 2021

This story is originally published in Arabic on VICE Arabia.

Teaser Trailer, Tawahadna Episode 02. Video Courtesy of Stavros Antypas/Tawahadna.

Over the last 5 years, Abu Dhabi has seen a rapid emergence of grassroots artistic initiatives that have fostered the growth of the UAE’s cultural production. Abu Dhabi is a breeding ground for young artists with a critical eye, artists with experimental creative practices that are developed in critique and interrogation of their society and culture. Many of these artistic initiatives are led by local women in the arts and homegrown female-first platforms. These creatives have identified gaps in the UAE’s cultural landscape that can be filled with productive discourses through the experience of art.

Upon returning to Abu Dhabi from her undergraduate studies in London, Emirati-Honduran curator and artist Sara Bin Safwan “felt a lack in community and space to speak freely [about Arab womanhood]” and a high demand for a safe space for creative expression. This catalyzed her to create Banat Collective, a “creative community that discusses intersectionality, feminism, gender and identity politics in the Arab world.”

“Grassroots are so important to the cultural landscape of the UAE,” shares Sara, who is also a curator at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. “It means that people are independent and taking responsibility into their own hands. They seek social action, positive change and provide a voice to those who don’t have one.”

Since 2016, Banat Collective has “actively foregrounded conversations, art practice and research often done in private spaces,” shares Sarah Al Agroobi, Emirati artist and Banat Collective co-curator, who feels female-driven platforms like Banat Collective “amplify female voices [to] work towards dismantling single-minded narratives”. Through their creative initiatives, Banat Collective creates space “for creative women by creative women” to demystify and reclaim the often sensationalized narratives of Arab women.

In the same vein, Abu Dhabi-grown storytelling production house Tawahadna centers the narratives of female artists in the MENA region. Tawahadna films documentaries in rural locations and home studios that root the female artists’ heritage. Post-production, Tawahadna screens the documentaries in art galleries that host public exhibitions of the artists’ works. Introducing Khaleeji art instigators to international audiences, Tawahadna adds nuance to the discourse of Arab female identity. “Tawahadna seeks to tell the stories that have been ignored,” says Syrian-Greek filmmaker Stavros Antypas, the Abu Dhabi-bred founder of Tawahadna. “We want to give female artists the opportunity to [discover] the talent that can shape the cultural landscape of the UAE — the first step of shaping this landscape.” As it continues creating documentaries and pushing for visibility in the digital space, the Abu Dhabi-born production house fosters a collaborative community uplifting female artists in the MENA region.

Outside of these collectives, Abu Dhabi-based female artists take inspiration from the social and environmental landscape of the emirate to inform their practice. In her work, Emirati-American artist and writer Aliyah Al Awadhi captures the subtleties of growing up in Abu Dhabi. Her paintings, which often depicts the portrayal of female bodies in the context of Emirati upbringing, also acknowledge her hyphenated identity and experience of the Arabic language in the creation of her works.

“I think my inability to define my Emirati identity [largely] plays into my role as an artist. I use my art to reconcile things…about often not fitting in and relating to cultural practices or traditions. I didn’t know how to speak Arabic fluently, or to relate to cartoons on Spacetoon.” Thus, Aliyah utilizes her work to create a visual language that dares not alienate others in the way she has been by spoken language.

In conversation, Emirati artist Afra Al Dhaheri’s work is grounded in her experiences growing up in Abu Dhabi and around the UAE, using art-making to “draw out notions of time and adaptation, rigor and fragility”. Afra’s work allows for the introspection of the physicalness and materiality of the female identity within the context of dynamic cities like Abu Dhabi. As an active creative instigator in the UAE’s art scene, she is also the co-founder of Bait15, Abu Dhabi’s first artist-run studio and exhibition space in Abu Dhabi’s Al Zafranah area. Dubbed to be the “beating heart of Abu Dhabi’s emerging art scene”, over the last four years the artist collective has hosted a number of artist exhibitions and provided residences for local artists, creating an artist space that isn’t tied to an institution.

It’s collaborative spaces like these in Abu Dhabi where Emirati artist Zuhoor Al Sayegh finds home. A new member of Bait15, Zuhoor, who primarily works with fibers and ceramics, takes inspiration from her upbringing close to the coasts of Abu Dhabi in the colors and textures she utilizes in her work. The nostalgia for the Abu Dhabi she grew up in is reflected in the materiality of her work, which takes into consideration the environment and resources of Abu Dhabi as a natural space.

These are just some of the artists and creative initiatives that bring Abu Dhabi’s creative scene to life. Through their eyes, Abu Dhabi has grown to become a space for widening discourse about Arab womanhood in intersection with its context and environment. The existence of hyphenated identities as a result of being a non-homogenous cosmopolitan city, makes for more enriched and nuanced conversations surrounding identity and belonging. However, the sustenance and constant support of these artistic inquiries and interrogation is crucial as the city continues to evolve in its transiency.



Anna Bernice

Filipino multidisciplinary creative currently based in the UAE. NYU Abu Dhabi 2020.