Past Forward Tour: Three States Later

Past Forward is currently making its way around the United States (Photograph by Khalid Mezaina).


Our co-curator, Noor Al Suwaidi, has an update on the U.S. tour of Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates. Read her impressions about each of the host cities so far:

Back in the early 2000s when I was studying at American University in Washington, D.C., I experienced firsthand what it was like to break the stereotypes my American friends had about my nationality and heritage. This project was ambitious and the deadlines were tight, but hard teamwork and diligence paid off. We were fortunate to have everyone on board, from artists to collectors. It has been a true privilege to see the first comprehensive Emirati cultural program come to life. Now three states, four cities, and five artist visits later, we are halfway through.

Back in 2013, Past Forward was an idea on the verge of becoming a dream come true – an exhibition taking Emirati art to America to tour around the United States. What a beautiful vision by UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba, and what better tool to tell the story of our country than art.

This past May, we were delighted to present Past Forward at Meridian’s Cafritz Galleries in D.C. It was not only a celebration of Emirati art and culture, but on a personal note, a true cultural collaboration with the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, D.C., and the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy team –especially co-curator Dr. Curtis Sandberg, Senior Vice President for Arts and Cultural Programs.


Washington, D.C.

The Washington Monument on the National Mall in D.C.
The Washington Monument on the National Mall in D.C.

The capital of the United States, home of the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and of course the Smithsonian – what better place could we showcase and start the tour of the 25 Emirati artists’ works? There was a very warm and positive response from exhibition visitors and it was a very proud moment to see all our hard work come to reality. Both Khalid Mezaina and Zeinab Al Hashemi were present at the opening. I remember their reaction well: “We know the artists whose works are beside ours, but we have never all had one show together.”

The dialogue between the artworks was created by careful arrangement. The intended effect was realized. A visitor I met at the launch event told me, “I have been to the UAE twice, and I must tell you I have learned more at this exhibition than when I was there.” This was a great compliment, and really shows how Past Forward fulfills its purpose. In each location it visits, Past Forward is also accompanied by educational activities as part of its public outreach program. Both Khalid and Zeinab conducted workshops and lectures at schools across the city and in nearby Maryland, as well as at the Children’s National Medical Center in D.C. The experience was rewarding for all involved.


Fort Worth/Dallas, Texas

Texas Tour in Dallas and Fort Worth.
Texas Tour in Dallas and Fort Worth.

As November 2014 rolled around, we found ourselves in Texas with artist Shamma Al Amri. We were warmly welcomed by Texans and blown away by the art institutions we visited, including the Dallas Museum of Art. The school visits were engaging and the students had many questions for us. One of the most memorable moments for me is when, after my opening remarks, a visitor told me he was surprised and impressed that Emirati women are leaders and players in the UAE in all fields, including culture.

Hope Farm was another special moment during this visit. Hope Farm is an after-school program that helps take care of children of single mothers. Shamma and I conducted a fun workshop and even taught the children to write their names in Arabic. This was my favorite program because I found the impact very rewarding. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to learn about Texas, which I found has many similarities with the UAE – most especially the warmth, generosity, and hospitality of the people we met.


Los Angeles, California

The Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, California.
The Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, California.

We started out 2015 by showcasing 13 highlights from Past Forward at the LA Art Show, where the UAE was the featured guest country this year. This was a four-day event at the Convention Center in downtown LA. The Consul General to Los Angeles, Abdulla Al Saboosi, was very supportive of the project and gave a beautiful speech about the relationship between the UAE and the city of Los Angeles. There are currently 450 Emirati students in California, so we were lucky to have student ambassadors representing the UAE alongside us at this event. They were extremely dedicated and helped host our visitors by serving Emirati dates and Arabic coffee while engaging in conversations about the UAE with visitors.

A week later, the exhibition opened in its entirety at The Fowler Museum at UCLA, the exhibition’s first venue on the West Coast. Both Khalid Shafar and Shaikha Al Mazrou were present for the opening and for the LA programming. We spent much of our time with students, who will visit the exhibition later this month, in schools all over Los Angeles. Both artists engaged students by leading workshops and giving lectures about their artwork. As part of the public programming at The Fowler, we organized a panel discussion about art and design in the UAE. The discussion was moderated by Stephanie Sykes from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the speakers included Khalid, Shaikha, Dr. Sandberg, and myself.


Next Stop: Spokane, Washington

Past Forward is on display at the Fowler until March 8th, but we are already preparing for the next venue: the Northwest Museum of Art & Culture in Spokane, Washington. I am full of gratitude to everyone involved and will strive to continue working through creative platforms to create more opportunities to showcase Emirati art both in and outside the UAE.


For more information about the exhibition tour, follow #PastForward.