Studying Emirati Culture – ACD’s tour of the UAE

Dr. Curtis Sandberg, Senior Vice President for the Arts, and Terry Harvey, Director of Exhibitions, in Sharjah


Meridian’s Director of Exhibitions and I just returned from a 12-day study tour of the United Arab Emirates. We traveled to four of the seven Emirates – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah, and Sharjah – and were fascinated by what we learned about local life and culture, as well as traditional heritage. 

The purpose of our visit was to gain a greater sense of what is being produced there artistically and to explore the possibility of creating a contemporary art exhibition that tells the story of today’s UAE. During the trip we met with cultural leaders, artists, collectors, museum directors, gallery owners, heads of foundations, and more. The artists we met – an equal balance of men and women – represented a cross section of generations, artistic mediums, and styles.

Any of our preconceptions quickly dissolved as we learned about the vibrant artistic scene that is emerging throughout the Emirates. One common thread we continued to see was a sense of tradition and cultural heritage despite the ever-changing urban landscape and globalization affecting the region. Artists have maintained a sense of Emirati identity, distinguishing themselves within the region and beyond, while also embracing their vision and aspirations for the future.

During our travels, my colleague and I were continually reminded how art and culture play an important role in Emirati society. In Dubai, art and business came together for us as we walked through the Village Gate where attractive galleries line the first floors of the towering sky scrapers. When we visited Ras Al Khaimah, we enjoyed a boat ride to learn about the long history of pearling in this Emirate and later saw these themes appear within artists’ works. This trip would not have been complete without a stop in Al Ain to explore the roots of the UAE’s first ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. One cannot fully grasp the history of the UAE without learning about this leader and what he has passed down to the people of the Emirates. While there, we were pleased to see the beautifully restored Al Jahili Fort and stroll through a local oasis.

This study tour allowed my colleague and I to gain a greater appreciation of the UAE’s history with a particular focus on contemporary life and how this has conditioned the emerging art scene that is unfolding today. We were grateful for this opportunity to witness such an innovative and creative moment in Emirati history. Stay tuned as we explore this project further!