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Her Excellency Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo On Celebrating The Arts

Her Excellency Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo photographed by Jonathan Glynn-Smith for Vogue Arabia

Written by Danna Lorch and featured in the October 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.

At the end of an over-scheduled Wednesday in the midst of Berlin Art Week, Her Excellency Huda Ebrahim Alkhamis-Kanoo arrives breathless to our interview. The din of dealers hobnobbing with artists and collectors over espressos in a packed hotel lobby adds a degree of timeliness to our discussion.

“There is something I must tell you,” she says with a measure of unexpected intimacy, even before I can ask my first question. “In the arts, we need to be present on the international map. I am trying to invest in and strengthen this presence. In the Arab world, we talk to each other, we share ideas. But we need to speak more to the rest of the world.” Her voice is soft, but her message is as structured as the classic Chanel jackets she buttons up like a uniform most days.

As a preeminent patron of the arts in the United Arab Emirates, the founder of Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF), Alkhamis-Kanoo’s endeavors over the past 20 years have led to the foundation’s support of educational grants for artists and cultural programs for students, while fostering and legitimizing an intergenerational community of visual artists, writers, musicians, and designers.

The annual Abu Dhabi Festival, which Alkhamis-Kanoo amusingly refers to as her “fourth baby,” after her three grown children, and which she oversees as artistic director, makes performances by some of the world’s best musicians accessible to the UAE public each year. Previous editions have featured Wynton Marsalis, The London Symphony Orchestra, and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble along with concerts by legendary Arab musicians like Saudi singer Mohamed Abdo, who captivated a packed Emirates Palace last year. She explains, “The Abu Dhabi Festival started with a dream, a dream to bring the best culture from abroad and showcase the best of what we have in return.”

The Marinsky Ballet performing at an Abu Dhabi Festival in 2013

At a time when there is such a great need for philanthropy in the Arab world, why does Alkhamis-Kanoo care so much about furthering the arts? “I believe that great civilizations are built upon strong foundations,” she says with conviction. “One of them is culture. The heart of culture is the arts and the artists. Without this, we have nothing. You can say I was born with this conviction because it’s been in my heart for as long as I can remember.”

The self-described “daughter of East and West” was born in Lebanon to a Syrian mother and a Saudi father and is a UAE national. Her childhood home in Beirut echoed with strains of classical music while the majlis played host to lively discussions. “We were immersed in literature,” Alkhamis-Kanoo remembers. “My father was a businessman but used to write Nabati poetry (Bedouin or people’s poetry). The beauty of the creative spirit could be felt everywhere, even down to the way my mother arranged flowers in vases or how the food smelled on the plates.”

Although it was contentious for a single Arab woman to live abroad, Alkhamis-Kanoo studied French literature and art history at The American University of Paris, residing with her sister and brother-in-law, the UAE ambassador to France. In 1991, she settled in Abu Dhabi, where she married Mohamed Abdul Latif Kanoo, a prominent businessman and conceptual artist from Bahrain. One day, the family was on its way to a concert when she met a young Emirati man loitering outside the entrance. She asked him why he wasn’t coming in to hear the music and he bemoaned that the performance was by invitation only and he had been refused entry.

After bringing the aspiring musician inside as her personal guest, the idea of a foundation to make much needed cultural events and educational opportunities accessible to the public was born. In 1996, the Kanoo family founded ADMAF as a labor of love. Alkhamis-Kanoo explains, “The seed fund for the foundation came from my husband Mohamed and myself. When I began, I didn’t know if the idea would work and how people would perceive it, but it snowballed.” It seems that all her ideas do just that. Today the foundation reaches around 40, 000 people each year and has many funding partners.

Inside one of the ADMAF galleries at Berlin Art Week

Eman Al Hashemi’s ‘Around’ displayed by ADMAF at Berlin Art Week. Courtesy of Eman Al Hashemi

As part of Berlin Art Week’s events, ADMAF opened Portrait of a Nation at the me Collectors Room in Berlin-Mitte in September. Inside one of seven galleries, Eman Al Hashemi’s industrial sculpture “Around” casts knife-edged shadows inspired by Islamic geometric patterns, while Zeinab Al Hashemi’s kaleidoscopic digitally altered imprint of the UAE via satellite forces visitors to question their perceptions of a country proving itself to be more than sand and shopping malls.

The exhibition, which runs until October 29 and debuted at Emirates Palace last year, presents cornerstone – and in some cases, surprisingly provocative – work by 51 contemporary UAE artists, from the largely self-taught 1980’s pioneers (including the late Hassan Sharif) to emerging talent like Afra Bin Dhaher.

Alkhamis-Kanoo confesses, “I was very nervous before the opening. This was our first appearance at a European art week. I know the capacity of the work and was sure of its strength but I didn’t know how people would react.” However, at a week hyped for discovering breakaway names and popularizing new spaces, the ADMAF artists held their own, as did their mentor.

The October issue is out now. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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