The main reason for our last month’s travels to the Arab Emirates was my participation in the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival, which generously invited me to take part as an honorary guest artist. The concept of this festival is quite different from the sea-of-art-tents kind of event that I am so familiar with in the States. This show consisted of 3 days of activities – Opening Day, Film Screening, and Garden Party, all involving wonderfully-dressed people (artists, actors, designers, filmmakers, foundation crew) with a daily red carper to boot (hey, it’s the Emirates, baby!)
The RAK Fine Art Festival took place in the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. It is safe to say that Ras Al Khaimah (or RAK) is not well known in the western world, because most of the Emirates fame and tourism gets filtered into Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Northern emirates don’t get as much recognition on the world stage yet – and that is perfectly fine with me as I find it more interesting to explore the lesser known lands.
The Fine Art Festival is organized by Al Qasimi Foundation, which is headed by Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, and was established to aid in the social, cultural, and economic development of RAK. While I did not get to meet His Highness (lets just get this out of the way: nope, I did not meet any sheikhs while on this trip) – the crew of the foundation welcomed us with open arms and showed us incredible hospitality (and by “us” I mean myself and Kurt – of course he talked me into letting him come along on this trip, so I assigned him the job of a “social photographer”, ha!) Al Qasimi Foundation works closely with the U.S. Embassy, who contacted me with an invitation to this adventure.
UAE is a young country with a very diverse population, which mostly consists of expats (Dubai, for example, has only about 15% UAE nationals). However, Ras Al Khaimah has the highest Emirati population rate – at about 45% – so in that sense it is, perhaps, the most authentic.
RAK Fine Art Festival was great fun. First day of the festival, Thursday, consisted of the opening party, with beautifully dressed people of many professions and backgrounds. I think the most challenging aspect of this for me was the search for a long dress to wear – turns out, it isn’t easy to find a non-tacky evening gown in the States that fits well and is not designed to be a bridal dress or a prom dress, especially for someone like myself who quickly gets nauseous from shopping. And here, in the Emirates, gorgeous long dresses of all styles are sold everywhere, but there wasn’t much time to shop. Anyway – the opening party was lovely and the most enjoyable part of it was meeting people from many corners of the world.
Second day of the festival, Friday, consisted of film screening. We watched quite a selection of Emirati and regional indie short films, some created by students and some by career filmmakers. The films offered an opportunity to take a closer look at the local culture. After the film screening, there was an award ceremony, and somehow I even got trusted to present visual art awards (my big “official” job of the evening).
Day three of RAK Fine Art Festival was scheduled for Saturday and was supposed to include a visual arts exhibition along with my international “live painting debut”. But instead, it got wiped out by a massive sand storm that reduced visibility and made it practically impossible to go outside without a face mask! Supposedly, sand storm of this scale are not very common in the Emirates, so it was very kind of Mother Nature to present this special treat just for us!
We spent the day on “lock-down” in our hotel room – but that that gave me a chance to dedicate a few hours to preparing the painting. Live painting is a challenging task due to time constraint – it isn’t easy to create a nice piece from start to finish in a mere 2-3 hours. So I was happy to get all the “boring parts” – i.e. dark underpainting – out of the way, while sitting on the hotel room floor, trying not to splatter paint on the carpet. (By the way, I do not recommend painting in this position unless there is a necessity – it makes for a very sore back, oy). Sand storm calmed down in the evening, and was followed by rain, which was followed by a gorgeous starry night.
Day three of RAK Fine Art Festival, Take 2 was rescheduled for Sunday. And the crowd actually showed up – because this is the right-knit community of Ras Al-Khaimah, and everybody knows each other, and they still wanted to enjoy and support this event despite Sunday being a work day in the UAE.
The visual art exhibition along with the “Garden Party” took place on the gorgeous grounds of RAK National Museum. The museum is housed in a 18th-century fort that, until 1964, served as the residence of the Qawasim rulers.
My live painting area, as well as the party, were set up in the museum’s courtyard – and this was, hands down, the nicest setting that I have ever painted in!
Aside from my painting, I brought 2 canvas prints (which were framed and displayed) to show the public examples of my completed work.
As for my painting subject matter – of course, the plan was to depict a local landmark. There are many shiny new ones around here, but I really like old buildings and decay. So, I chose the historic ghost village of Al Jazirat Al-Hamra – which we visited and photographed two days prior (more on that fascinating place later!). From my photographs, I created a composition of 2 structures – the village fort and an ancient mosque. The sky / background I filled with pattern loosely inspired by Arabic texture and designs that I have noticed in this area. Here are the beginning stages of the painting:
…and the underpainting – darker, more boring part – which I completed in the hotel:
Live painting at the RAK Museum Garden Party was so enjoyable, and having conversations about my painting process and art while working was quite interesting too.
I love answering public’s questions which help them understand how time-consuming painting process actually is. For example: “Why does the piece you are working on contain so much less detail than this one?” (pointing to the canvas print on my left). Me: “Well, that original paining took about 50 hours of work. This one, so far, have taken about 4 and I only have maybe another hour to complete it!”
Visual exhibition by other artists consisted of painting, mixed media, sculpture, fashion design, and photography.
Here is Jess, she works for Al Qasimi Foundation, and this girl is the main connection to my invitation to UAE. She is from Louisville, and she spotted my artwork there at St. James Court Art Show. I’ve always loved Louisville and its people, but now I love it even more. Thank you Jess!
In the end of the evening, as the party and my painting session were winding down, it was a special pleasure to meet the RAK National Museum Director.
I took the painting back to the hotel, and after a few more tweaks and highlights and brush strokes, I deem it completed. I gifted this piece to Al Qasimi Foundation – I thought it should stay in Ras Al Khaimah, and it was the least I could do to give them my thanks for such a fantastic experience!