Past Forward in Los Angeles: A Professional Mission

Emirati artist Khalid Shafar (right) was in Los Angeles for the opening of Past Forward at the Fowler Museum.


The following is a blog post by artist and designer Khalid Shafar, whose work is featured in Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates.

This was not my first time in Los Angeles, but this visit was by all means different. The fact that I was on a professional mission allowed me to see LA differently, and being part of Past Forward’s opening and public programming helped me realize and appreciate LA’s cultural offerings.

This exhibition is the first time I get to see large Emirati artwork from different generations showcased together. Although I have been to art events in the past, such as Art Dubai, Abu Dhabi Art, and Sharjah Art Biennial, I have never seen the diversity in the works the way Past Forward presents them. Some of the artists selected to exhibit are friends, some are masters many of us look up to for inspiration, and others I met for the first time.

It has been a true honor to learn about the works of Obaid Suroor, a true artist for whom I have the utmost respect. Obaid’s beautiful landscape painting of a small village in Ras Al-Khaimah, Old Houses, answers a long-lasting question in my mind: Are there great landscape paintings by Emirati artists that depict green fields and sand dunes? I have seen many paintings of skyscrapers and ocean views, but Obaid’s painting created a strong reaction and really spoke to me. The work connected with me on an emotional level – it may have been the green dots that represent the polka-dotted fabric worn by grandmothers here in the Emirates, or the fact that it was a true representation of that village in Ras Al-Khaimah, a place I often visit with the family on weekends and long breaks.

Obaid Suroor’s Old Houses (Al Jazirah Al Hamra, Ras Al Khaimah) | Oiil on canvas | Courtesy of the artist
Obaid Suroor’s Old Houses (Al Jazirah Al Hamra, Ras Al Khaimah) | Oiil on canvas | Courtesy of the artist

Another notable reflection from my trip to LA was the public’s reaction to the opening of the exhibition at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles. The stories we told about our works were very interesting to the American audience, who were eager to understand more about our culture and traditions. I believe this touring exhibition has achieved great success in sharing Emirati culture with Americans, and will continue to do so in its next stops. What is better than exchanging cultures with another nation through art – a language that everyone around the world uses?

As we continued on this journey, we had the opportunity to interact with a younger audience through our public art programs organized by Meridian International Center. Although it was the first time I got to share my work and artistic process with children, I found the experience very eye-opening. I learned how to approach such an audience and talk to them through art and culture. It may seem simple to some, but if done correctly it has the ability to build bridges and break barriers between nations.

I believe nothing compares to learning more about your peers and listening to their experiences and journeys in life. This is how I was introduced to the talented and established Emirati artist Shaikha Al Mazrou. To me, her works can easily be described as museum-worthy. I truly admire the technique Shaikha uses to create her works, and the thought process behind selecting the materials to express her ideas and concepts.

My trip was a series of great discoveries that have influenced me deeply. It helped me realize that what I thought was our own, Emirati story is in fact a universal one that can be shared and enjoyed. I got the chance to learn about American art, teach children, interact with a new audience, and meet both masters and emerging artists from my own country.

Past Forward is currently on display at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, Washington, until June 28th.