Past Forward Contemporary Art Exhibition Strengthens US-UAE Ties

Dana Al Marashi, Head of Heritage & Social Affairs Department at the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, DC, with members of the Boys' and Girls' Club of East LA.


With the U.S. tour of Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates concluded after its last display in Lexington, Kentucky, Dana Al Marashi, the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, DC’s Head of Heritage and Social Affairs Department, shares her thoughts on the exhibition:


When I think about the first meeting with the Embassy’s partner, Meridian International Center, I remember one thing: I wanted to share the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in all its splendor and changes – its architecture, its landscape, its colors, its people. I wanted Americans to be able to experience first-hand the beauty of my country, and to get a glimpse of how far the UAE has progressed in such a short period of time. Each artwork that was selected for Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates was carefully chosen to represent a chapter of a bigger story about the transformation of the UAE. This exhibition is the first major touring exhibition of Emirati art abroad. And the fact that it was launched in the US is a testament to the strength and value of the US-UAE relationship. It wouldn’t have made sense to launch it in any other country in the world.

New York City Consulate Consul General, His Excellency Majid Al Suwaidi, greeting guests at the University of Kentucky.

These days, it is common to pick up a magazine, or watch the news and hear about the UAE – whether it is about the world’s largest indoor theme park, or the world’s tallest tower. However, there aren’t many people that hear about the deep-rooted traditions and values that are instilled in every Emirati. These are values that have helped shape the UAE into the moderate, open and progressive country, and positive force for change in the region that it is today. This is what the Embassy hopes to showcase through projects such as Past Forward.

Past Forward artist Shaikha Al Mazrou at the Boys' and Girls' Club of East LA in January 2015.
Past Forward artist Shaikha Al Mazrou at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of East LA in January 2015.

Public diplomacy is critical to the work of the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, DC, and is one of the tools we use to strengthen the robust relationship between the UAE and US. Some of my colleagues do this through government relationships, others focus on the rapidly expanding trade relationship, and still others highlight the numerous partnerships with US institutions. An equally important task is to increase cultural understanding between the UAE and the US.

Past Forward co-curator Noor Al Suwaidi (bottom left), artists Alia Lootah and Hamdan Buti Al Shamsi (third and fourth from left), and Dana (bottom right) in Chicago in February 2016.

Cultural diplomacy programs are powerful avenues to tell the story of the bilateral relationship. They present an opportunity to find common ground and build lasting friendships. The pieces in the Past Forward exhibition, for example, represent a deep understanding of the history of the UAE, and through the works of each artist, viewers are provided with a lens to explore the journey of my country.

Dana with Emirati artist Hamdan Buti Al Shamsi, New York City Consulate Consul General Majid Al Suwaidi, co-curator Noor Al Suwaidi, artist Alia Lootah, and UAE Embassy Congressional Affairs Officer Fatima Al Mazmi in Chicago.

Past Forward is much more than an art exhibition. It is an opportunity for peer-to-peer exchanges of ideas and experiential learning, as well as an opportunity for people from around the world to gain insight into Emirati life and culture. For example, in addition to opening this exhibition for the public, I, along with the visiting artists, the Emirati co-curator Noor Al Suwaidi, and my colleagues at Meridian have visited local schools around the country to speak to children and students about the UAE, and to answer their questions about my country. As we have traveled around the US and spoken to people from Fort Worth, Texas, or Spokane, Washington, I have come to realize that we as Emiratis have also benefitted from learning about the diverse cultures and people within the US. This in-person connection is critical to breaking down the walls and preconceived notions we carry with us about each other.

Abdul Qader Al Rais, one of UAE’s most important and influential artists, visited the Spokane Indian Reservation in May 2015.

Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates has truly demonstrated the partnership and friendship between our two countries. When we first started talking about the project, I don’t think any of us realized the impact it would have. Art is truly powerful in its ability to connect people and create a universal language.

Dana Al Marashi with students visiting Past Forward at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.