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Meet the Arab Women Behind the Region’s Artistic and Cultural Upsurge

Behind the region’s artistic and cultural upsurge, are women leaders, innovators, and changemakers. Vogue Arabia speaks to Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Abdullah Al Qasimi, HE Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, and Nouf AlMoneef.

Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Abdullah Al Qasimi

“As a child, I’ve always enjoyed Disney classics. That got me hooked on animations and from there, films were the windows to worlds I yearned to explore,” muses Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Abdullah Al Qasimi, reflecting on the early stirrings of what would become a revolutionary journey in the UAE’s cinematic narrative. Today, she is at the crossroads of a burgeoning film movement, charting a course for a new generation of Emirati storytellers. As the director of the Sharjah International Film Festival (SIFF) for Children and Youth, Sheikha Jawaher has driven the metamorphosis of the annual film festival that has quickly become a cultural space that speaks to the pulse of thriving filmmakers, fostering a place that nurtures creativity and storytelling since the early years of children and youth. “My career path,” Sheikha Al Qasimi reflects, “started as a librarian, and then as an English language coordinator for the English department. From there, I moved to SIFF because it was that mix of children and media and film that was like a perfect match.”  This career path not only deepened Sheikha Al Qasimi’s appreciation for storytelling but also ignited a commitment to enriching the cultural landscape of her community.

The inception of the Sharjah International Film Festival is rooted in the values of nurturing creativity and enlightenment for the young. “In the infancy, the endeavor of launching SIFF seemed as delicate as a desert bloom – full of potential waiting to be unravelled. Sheikha Al Qasimi recalls those early days with a mix of nostalgia and pride, “Literally, we took baby steps with the film festival,” she says. The seeds of SIFF were sown with a handful of film screenings, a small window into the vast universe of cinematic storytelling. “We needed to introduce media literacy,” she reflects. From there on began the journey to broaden horizons and to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the myriad forms of visual narratives, from feature films to shorts, animations, and documentaries. It wasn’t merely about showing films – it was about nurturing a generation that could read and understand the language of cinema in all its forms, from animated shorts to gripping documentaries. “We started having workshops, then panels, activities, and sessions on movies and the power of cinema,” Sheikha Al Qasimi shares, opening up on the festival’s organic yet strategic growth rings that now go on to mirror the journey of Sharjah itself, as it evolved into a cultural powerhouse within the UAE.

As the festival burgeoned, so too did its reach, drawing in submissions that rippled across continents. From a modest pool of 100 films, SIFF’s allure soon expanded to attract nearly 2000 submissions from almost 90 countries. “We have tried to focus on countries that have never submitted to the Sharjah International Film Festival like Congo, Montenegro, and Bhutan that made their debut at SIFF this year,” she beams, her eyes set on the horizon of an inclusive future where stories from every corner of the globe find a voice in Sharjah. Among the myriad of tales that found their way to the festival’s heart, certain films stood out, resonating with Sheikha Al Qasimi’s personal experiences and the collective consciousness of her audience. The film Musafir, she reflects, was “really, really emotional,” and offered a poignant window to the shared human experience of loss, longing, and the resilience of the human spirit. The story of a Korean teacher whose determination to keep a small rural school from closing was another tale that moved her deeply. “And I think because I was a teacher, it tugged at my heartstrings,” Sheikha Al Qasimi adds. Within the dynamic ebb and flow of the UAE’s artistic milieu Sheikha Al Qasimi’s impact is most palpable. “We really support and encourage our UAE Gulf filmmakers to produce more films for children and youth and for the world as well,” she asserts.  As she proudly puts it, the UAE is not merely a backdrop for her achievements, but like an integral character in her life story. “In the UAE, we are privileged; we’ve always lived in a country that is safe and that makes everything available. A country that listens, a country that makes dreams come true.” The director’s vision for SIFF is both patient and ambitious. Looking ahead, the plan is to integrate a market industry or accreditation to the film festival. “We are looking at SIFF to grow more year by year but the idea is to go slow and sustainable,” she affirms.

HE Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo

The arts have long existed as a social unifier, carrying with them intimate expressions that speak to the universality of the human experience. In proposing grand works of music and art from the region, the Abu Dhabi Festival aspires to orchestrate lasting encounters through its events. It offers an annual commemoration of dialogue and cultural exchange. In conversation with the festival’s artistic director, HE Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, its presence becomes all the more resonant. “The Abu Dhabi Festival began as a dream,” she offers. “A vision to bridge cultures. To create a platform where the world’s finest cultural treasures would be shared – while showcasing the richness of our own heritage in return.”

For the festival’s upcoming edition in 2024, it is The Will for Hope that defines the event. A theme responding to art as a means of kinship in times of adversity. “We emphasize the importance of the arts as a vital human endeavor to break through darkness,” proposes Alkhamis-Kanoo. Beyond the sensory pleasures it may offer, she affirms, “The Abu Dhabi Festival brings artists and audiences together, to experience the transformative power of the arts.” Alkhamis-Kanoo explains how this dream initially took flight with the support of both the government and the private sector. “As it became evident that our mission to provide cultural enlightenment resonated with the community, stakeholders rallied behind us.” Accordingly, the upcoming edition will feature artists from more than 11 countries, encompassing those from North America’s West Coast, to East Asia, and Europe. A notable highlight includes a groundbreaking jazz performance by the legendary Kamasi Washington, marking his inaugural appearance in the Arab world. The festival further promises a captivating series of recitals, featuring globally acclaimed artists, notably the South African Soprano Pretty Yende, star tenors Francesco Demuro from Italy and the United States’ Lawrence Brownlee, Spanish Cello genius Pablo Ferrandez, among many other renowned artists.

For its new edition, the festival will celebrate China in particular, as an ode to the 40 year anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations. China has been chosen as the festival Country of Honor, embodying a rich civilization from the historic silk road, to the major achievements of a modern nation. By showcasing artistic works from different nations, the aim is to nurture mutual understanding and respect across borders. For the first time in the Arab world, the National Ballet of China will showcase a contemporary adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s much-loved ballet, The Nutcracker. The festival will conclude with the spectacular performance of the China National Symphony Orchestra. As ever, the event further remains dedicated to empowering and supporting Emirati artists, whose talents extend beyond the UAE. “ADMAF’s year-round educational and community initiatives are comprehensive in scope, offering opportunities across diverse artistic disciplines, spanning from theater and film to art and literature. These projects have a significant role in fostering the growth of artistic talents,” notes Alkhamis-Kanoo. “They enrich the cultural identity for both the artists and the nation,” she continues. Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi’s current solo exhibition in the UK, Abort, Retry, Fail, is organized by ADMAF in collaboration with London’s Delfina Foundation for instance. The exhibition aligns with the festival’s vision to enhance Emirati presence on the global art scene. As its artistic director asserts, it does so by organizing bilateral cultural relations between the United Arab Emirates and the world,  “Through the power and beauty of the arts.”

HE Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo is a patron of the arts. She has dedicated her life to inspiring artists to create, generations to innovate, and communities to prosper. Having worked tirelessly to found the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation in 1996, she has since lent her sensibilities to the industry as Artistic Director of the Abu Dhabi Festival, from 2004. “I am thankful for the abundance of cultural influences that have enriched my life,” she reflects. As the daughter of a Saudi Arabian father and Syrian mother, with a childhood in Beirut and education at the American College in Paris (followed by the life she formed with husband and family in Abu Dhabi) Alkhamis-Kanoo’s journey has lent her unique insight into the nuances of multiple cultures and artistic expressions, making her uniquely adept for her role. “I am an Arab woman from the Gulf region, who grew up in a home that embraced culture and valued tolerance and respect for all individuals,” she narrates. “Our house was filled with the sounds of music, and my parents often took us to the theater to attend plays and concerts.” From the very beginning, she was immersed in a profound appreciation for visual and performing arts. Growing up in Beirut, her early years were nurtured through a tapestry of literary and artistic experiences that left a lasting influence on the Artistic Director. “Music and the arts are closest to the heart,” she reveals. “Music is the beat that reflects our human fraternity, with an incomparable ability to unite people by encouraging dialogue between cultures. Art is a universal language that also unites people. Today, these values are an inseparable part of our nation’s DNA.”

Nouf AlMoneef, Maya AlAthel, Alaa Tarabzouni

This year marks the third annual edition of Noor Riyadh, the immersive light festival launched as part of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Riyadh Art initiative to transform the Kingdom’s capital into a gallery without walls. Running until December 16, the festival has been lauded as the largest of its kind – one of the six Guinness World Records the event has claimed as well as “the longest distance covered by a laser light show” and “the most drones performing an aerial dance display.” In its first two editions, it welcomed upwards of three million visitors. Its dazzling return in 2023 quite literally casts the urban landscape in a new light, turning public spaces and surfaces into platforms for creative expression, performance, and educational programming. There are over 120 artworks on display from around 100 artists, more than a third of whom are Saudi nationals. On top of it all, one of Noor Riyadh’s most exciting achievements is the collective of women behind the scenes who continue to make it happen.

“The prominence of women in Noor Riyadh reflects the broader societal transformation within Saudi Arabia. Women are not just participants but leaders, driving change and innovation,” says festival director Nouf AlMoneef. “It’s a testament to the progress we’re making and the future we’re building.” Referred to by her colleagues as “the power-house behind the three-year operation,” AlMoneef is responsible for everything from Noor Riyadh’s strategic planning to community engagement to liaising with curators and artists.

As an interior architect who founded a design studio early in her career before managing major entertainment and sporting events across Saudi Arabia, AlMoneef is seasoned in helping to sculpt her country’s cultural identity. A senior member of the Riyadh Art team, she is involved in creating opportunities such as Noor Riyadh where emerging and established Saudi artists can showcase their work alongside international names. However, as the scale of these efforts expands, AlMoneef impresses upon the need to ensure rapid cultural evolution does not come at the cost of an artistic exchange that is “respectful, inclusive, and representative of our people’s voices.” Finding a balance between innovation and tradition is increasingly important as art becomes woven into the external fabric of Saudi Arabia’s cities, attracting more visitors from abroad.

Maya AlAthel, curator of the Refracting Identities, Shared Futures exhibition currently on view as part of Noor Riyadh, has encountered this symbiotic relationship between art and tourism across a number of public sector projects and entrepreneurial ventures. In addition to launching her own programming consultancy, she has supported the establishment of the Visual Arts Council at the General Culture Authority, guided the Visitor Experience Unit at the Ministry of Tourism, and headed cultural diplomacy at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC. Previously Noor Riyadh’s artistic director in 2022, she is now working with Lead Curator Neville Wakefield (formerly of MoMA PS1, Frieze Projects, and Desert X) to ensure the exhibition’s diverse selection of artworks showcases light art in all its forms while fostering meaningful engagement with homegrown talent, facilitating conversations that tackle stereotypes and transcend borders. “As Noor Riyadh Exhibition curator, I am particularly drawn to the challenge of making traditional art forms visible through the contemporary practices of our selected artists, ensuring that our rich cultural tapestry resonates in the modern world,” she explains.

According to Alaa Tarabzouni who curated the festival itself alongside Jérôme Sans (co-founder of Palais de Tokyo in Paris), Pedro Alonzo, and Fahad Bin Naif, building platforms that can be launchpads for local artists is necessary for nurturing a national creative spirit. What’s even more crucial is ensuring this exposure is sustained so that artists can thrive over the long term. Tarabzouni’s role at Noor Riyadh encompasses managing the more nuanced details of the artworks that are on display in addition to how they interact with their settings, with other pieces, and with the city as a whole. Encouraging the participation of international audiences in such endeavors, she says, has never felt more urgent. “We’re at this turning point, culturally speaking, where art becomes a bridge – a way to open conversations, to build that sense of shared humanity and understanding. Art has this capacity to inspire dialogue that can hopefully lead us to more understanding by bringing our stories to the global stage.”

At the core of those conversations as it relates to Noor Riyadh is the visibility and success of women like AlMoneef, AlAthel, and Tarabzouni. This representation extends to the festival’s galleries where fewer walls have resulted in fewer barriers, and work by female Saudi artists such as Zahra Al Ghamdi, Ahaad Alamoudi, and Sara Brahim is on view. “The festival would be impossible with the expertise of a dynamic team of women who are integral – and who are far too many to count,” Tarabzouni says. She adds: “And, it would be nothing without the amazing force of women artists in the line-up who offer an unparalleled perspective and have been a delight to work with in making this a reality.”

Originally published in the December 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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