A Multicultural Environment

Salwa Mikdadi joined NYU Abu Dhabi in 2013, and is associate professor of the practice of art history. She explains how being in a multi-cultural environment has enriched her practice. 

The human experience is rich ground for exploration. Wherever there are people, there’s creative culture-making. Whether it is inquiring into fundamental questions of human thought, cultural values, modes of expression, or developing new creative capacities, the arts and humanities division at NYU Abu Dhabi spans disciplines to encompass the range of human diversity both in the past and the present.

While firmly rooted in the finest traditions of a liberal arts education, the division brings a new intellectual perspective, committed to global frameworks of understanding, and an expansive approach where history, theory and practice are considered together, rather than separately. The goal? To know and comprehend more deeply and fully what it is to be human in the world.

I was already working in Abu Dhabi when the University was established, as Executive Director of the Arts and Culture Program at the Emirates Foundation. In that role I had the opportunity to learn first-hand about local artists, filmmakers and writers, and helping administer the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, often nicknamed the Arabic Booker. In 2013, I started teaching as an adjunct professor in the already established visual arts program, and in 2014 I began teaching full-time. And I’m very glad I did.

Offering a liberal arts education means the University is constantly considering the myriad global challenges humanity faces. This is particularly important in the arts, because in many ways they’re inherently cross-disciplinary and a force for positive change in society. The student body here is incredibly diverse, which makes it a very exciting place to work — I always ask students to share examples of artwork from their country, and then we compare. It’s amazing what they come up with, and how art brings us closer together in an open engagement with global issues and at the same time links us with the local community.

I’ve spent all of my working life researching and educating people about art from the Arab world, for a long time in the US, and now in the region itself. I was one of the first to specialize in this field. Currently I’m looking at why women artists, who in some Arab countries were the first to create abstract art in the mid 20th century, were not acknowledged at the time, locally or internationally. I can’t claim to have discovered these artists, but I have brought them to the attention of the world. There was a time when there was no awareness of modern and contemporary art of the Arab world. Now there is unprecedented interest and the support I receive, as faculty for my research advances new knowledge in the field and enriches class discussion.

Being here is a tremendous opportunity, and one I wasn’t fully aware of at the beginning. In the last ten years, I have witnessed the burgeoning of the arts scene, and today the UAE is considered the region’s center for the arts. 

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is minutes away, and access to the top-rated Sharjah Biennial and Dubai’s galleries, as well as future plans for several art museums, including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, offer many possibilities. We invite curators and artists to meet our students and plan internships for our students at art institutions. I’ve had several opportunities to curate art exhibitions on and off campus and have led my students in curating their own exhibition from a private art collection. Likewise, the University’s own commitment to the arts, hosting conferences and holding exhibitions in the University’s art gallery has been great both for me and for students who are able to see works in person while also meeting the artists. 

I never cease to be amazed by the mix of cultures on campus and in Abu Dhabi and how exciting this can be for the arts.

On campus, I co-curated an exhibition called Permanent Temporariness for the University. It was a mid-career retro-spective for artistic duo Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, looking at refugees and others who aren’t settled where they live, including here in Abu Dhabi. The exhibition blended art and architecture, and it was wonderful for students to meet the artists, as well as for us to collaborate with colleagues in anthropology and other disciplines on symposia and workshops around the theme. As part of the exhibition, we constructed a refugee tent made from canvas clad with concrete, which still stands on the periphery of the campus. It’s now a space students and faculty use for theater, poetry reading, and other classes.

While my focus is on this part of the world, and its contemporary art, at the same time, I’m seeing examples from across the globe — artists from Korea responding to the Arab Spring, for example — and the mission of this institution supports this crossing of ideas. I never cease to be amazed by the mix of cultures on campus and in Abu Dhabi and how exciting this can be for the arts.


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