Anna Bernice
6 min readNov 16, 2020

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VICE ARABIA

Youth Curating Youth: Encountering the UAE’s New Artists at the Jameel Youth Takeover [EN]

Originally posted in Arabic on VICE Arabia.

Photo by Augustine Paredes

In the dusk of a breezy October night, the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai buzzed with the opening of The Jameel Youth Takeover 2020, the culminating exhibition of the art institution’s annual Youth Assembly Program. The nine young curators of this year’s Assembly have been gearing up to take over the contemporary arts institution with 21 works from 25 young and emerging artists, installing artworks of various forms and activating interstitial spaces of the centre.

Commissioned by the Assembly members during their year-long program, the artworks responded to the collective theme of “Re-Assigning Values,” which sought to survey how society continually re-interprets thoughts and ideas across belief systems and disciplines. From quilted blankets to sensor-activated installations and architectural interventions, the exhibit showcases a rich body of work produced in the UAE despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Luis Carlos Soto Ruiz, Photo by Daniella Baptista

The young energy of the exhibition reverberated through the walls of the museum despite social distancing measures. Friends, collaborators, and families graced “the Jameel” — as UAE creatives fondly call the space — gathering a community of creators and art appreciators where emerging artists intertwine with highly acclaimed international artists. Only at the Jameel can you find a Michael Rakowitz exhibition co-existing with a piece from his former studio assistant Talal Al Najjar, or films by Larissa Sansour interspersed with video installations by Sari Al Taher, Mariam and Nasser Alzayani, graduates of the American University of Sharjah. Daniel H. Rey, a Paraguayan-Colombian curator and Assembly member, highlights this intergenerational conversation. “This gives the featured artists equal footing, presence, and value by virtue of being in the museum space…no one here is more important than the other, rather they are all equally relevant.”

Launched by Art Jameel — a leading arts organization in the Arabian Peninsula — in 2018, the Youth Assembly platform was conceived to address the economic, social, and cultural challenges of UAE-based youth to pursue their passion for the arts. Antonia Carver, Director of Art Jameel, believes that the program is a catalyst for “empowering and building opportunities for youth to create their own independent, discursive and dynamic futures across all artforms.” With the growth of the UAE’s cultural sector, Carver believes that the program will cultivate cultural leaders who “have a deep knowledge of this part of the world, its histories, as well as broad international awareness.”

Khawla Al Marzooqi, Photo by Daniella Baptista
Hassana Arif, Photo by Daniella Baptista

Trained in filmmaking, architecture, design, visual arts, poetry, theater, among others, the diversity of Assembly members makes the program an eclectic mix of cultures, practices and research veins. “Our diversity is our biggest strength,” declares Assembly member and Emirati-American artist-curator Aliyah Alawadhi. This sentiment is echoed by fellow Assembly member Saad Boujane, highlighting that “there is great value in being different yet seeking a shared goal.”

The curatorial intent of the Assembly had to adapt with the sudden interruption caused by the pandemic. Their ideation started with Kaizen, a Japanese business philosophy focusing on methodological and gradual improvement. “Through workshops and discussions within ourselves, we started focusing on the aspect of gradual change within Kaizen… then, the pandemic started taking full effect,” recalls Assembly member Mohammad Mhaisen of when their in-person ideation process halted. “Kaizen reflects incremental change, [but] there was nothing incremental about the pandemic,” relays Assembly member Dina Khatib. Re-Assigning Values, then, is a realization that change is influenced by and exists in different values that are constantly transforming. From numerical values to belief systems, the Assembly then began to ask, “what are values, and what do they mean?”

Zuhoor Al Sayegh, Photo by Daniella Baptista

Like most collaborative platforms in 2020, the Assembly had to transition online and away from Jameel’s library of resources. For Assembly members like Brazilian filmmaker Arthur de Oliveira, who was ecstatic over the idea of artist community-building through the Assembly, it was dubious how they could “transport the same energy” of in-person meetings over Zoom. However, through generating sub-themes they can collaboratively or independently research, working through the virtual world triggered the possibility of transnational collaboration. Featured artists like Luis Carlos Soto Ruiz and Uthra Varghese respectively created their commissioned work in Guatemala and New York City.

“The pandemic made us realize that our experience as young makers is very much tied to how we use technology to maximize our experience with arts and culture,” relays Rey, who found his commissioned artists Talal Al Najjar and Zuhoor Al Sayegh on Instagram. Through their virtual collaborative process, the Assembly members designed and developed the Verticals blog, which delves deeper into the curatorial intent and artist responses of the Assembly youth. However, Art Jameel’s Strategy and Outreach Manager Murad El Zagal (who also conceived the Assembly programme) shares that the virtual tracing of the Assembly’s process was actually ideated pre-pandemic to “enable us to access audiences from around the world,” allowing more people to access the burgeoning artistic work in the UAE.

Malaika Munshi, Photo by Daniella Baptista

This unique phenomena of youth curating youth, in a young institution situated in a young country, allows for emerging artists and curators to have a safe and collaborative space to experiment with their practice. Commissioned artist Jad Moura, sees his work Salubrious for the Takeover as his “first milestone towards something bigger, something I hope will outlive me and shape ideas for the future.”

For Assembly members like Ashay Bhave, this also grants agency to give other migrant artists in the UAE a platform to exhibit work. His commissioned artist, Malaika Munsi, experiments with lenticular printing, which shifts perceived images depending on the viewing angle, to critique double standards on men and women within Indian society.

Ashay Bhave, Photo by Daniella Baptista
Arthur de Oliveira, Photo by Daniella Baptista
Talal Al Najjar, Photo by Daniella Baptista
Jad Moura, Photo by Daniella Baptista
Mariam AlZayani & Nasser Alzayani, Photo by Daniella Baptista

Art Jameel Director Antonia Carver is thus hopeful that through granting young artists agency in big institutions, the Youth Assembly would be a record of evolving artistic practices in the UAE. “Over time, this program will map and archive this generation and their ideas. This is of crucial importance in a country that it is still a country undergoing rapid development and for a region that needs strong cultural leaders who can rise to the challenge of creating new kinds of future-proofed communities and societies.”

The Youth Takeover 2020 is in the Jameel Arts Center until November 16 but their virtual platform Verticals remains live. Learn more about Art Jameel’s programming in the UAE through their website.

Gopika Praveen, Photo by Daniella Baptista
Sari Al Taher, Photo by Daniella Baptista
Tala Khalil, Photo by Daniella Baptista

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Anna Bernice

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