by JANET McKENZIE
Lateefa bint Maktoum is the founder and director of Tashkeel, a public studio established in Dubai in 2008 providing specialist facilities for artists and designers living and working in the United Arab Emirates. In 2007, she graduated from Latifa College, Zayed University, with a BA in Visual Arts; and was one of three artists chosen to represent the UAE at the Venice Biennale in 2011.
Janet McKenzie: My visit to Tashkeel was one of the highlights of my trip to Dubai. What prompted you to set up a meeting place and dedicated studio spaces for artists and designers?
Lateefa bint Maktoum: This is a question I’ve been asked since I opened up Tashkeel in 2008. There were no public studios for artists and designers in Dubai to work in. I wanted to create a space where artists of all ages and levels of experience could work side by side and have the option to learn from, and exchange ideas with, their colleagues. I wanted to create an environment for critical discussion. At the time, I noticed that there weren’t many who criticised work – they just accepted what they saw. I knew many artists could reach a higher level if only they had some critical discussions to help them think about their work, why they do it and how they could do it better. Many artists in the UAE are self-taught or have taken workshops instead of studying art and art history in school or university (although now more people are studying it). So it’s vital for a place like Tashkeel to mix the less experienced with the experienced, all of whom share the goal of becoming serious artists or designers.
JMcK: What were your initial aims, and how was the project received in Dubai?
LM: I realised that artists were hungry for an enriched environment. Not only did Tashkeel provide a creative space, but it was also a physical social network of people and a database of artists and designers. Many cultural institutions now look to it to find specific artists or designers for certain projects or exhibitions. When we first introduced Tashkeel, there was a great reaction from the Dubai art scene: because of all the facilities, people were excited about the possibilities that this space could create.
JMcK: Is Tashkeel designed primarily for artists to work within a community, or to showcase international art?
LM: Tashkeel is a resource for artists to make of it what they wish. If their goal is to showcase internationally, they have the facilities at their fingertips to be able to achieve what they work for. For those who would like to showcase within the community, they are able to do this as well.
JMcK: In recent years, Dubai has emerged as a vital art centre. As a visitor, one is struck by a society in flux, where one is witness to history in the making. What is it like to be an artist in Dubai at this time?
LM: It’s an exciting time for artists,especially those who are looking at making a living from their art. Many commercial galleries are young at the moment, somany artists have doors open to them right now to enable to establish themselves if they work hard enough to achieve it.
What I have noticed is that a lot of artists here use their artwork to create commentaries on the change they see happening within their surroundings. Some are attached to the past; others describe what is happening now with projections of the future.
JMcK: Both your initiative at Tashkeel and your career as an artist offer an important role model for young women in Dubai, making it acceptable to be an artist, to exhibit, to assume a public role. How do you see your position?
LM: The fact that I am in a position where I have a following for my work is a privilege. Although I don’t allow an audience to alter the way I work or why I do what I do, I am aware that I am looked up to, especially by young, up-and-coming Arab artists. I always try to put out work that represents the honest and tasteful version of myself.
JMcK: As a young Arab woman, the veiled figure, features strongly in your works. What do you seek to convey in these images?
LM: I myself am a veiled woman, so it’s a natural process to have veiled women represented in my work. If the veil were to be removed, the context and meaning of the pieces would change because of the artist creating the work. The work is not about the veil, however prominent it is, it’s a reflection of what’s beneath it. It remains covering the woman’s body keeping her modest appearance, forcing the audience to understand the person who wears it in the context of the piece.
JMcK: Can you describe your art practice, which incorporates various mediums: painting, sculpture, illustration and photography?
LM: I am known for my digital montages, yet I work in different mediums. My paintings inform my photographs. I always start painting before I take photographs, and I always keep a sketchbook where I write, draw and illustrate what I want to digitise. I find that being tactile helps me think. This way I am able to reach a standard with my photography that is something I am comfortable with exhibiting to the public.
JMcK: Can you describe your photographic works, such as The Last Look, We Are All Connected, and Reflecting?
LM: The Last Lookis a piece I created when a manmade island started being constructed on a horizon line I’ve been looking at all my life. It’s of a woman carrying a suitcase as she stands on the shoreline. It represents a woman carrying the memories and stories of the past within her as she takes a last look at what she remembers and what will be for ever changed.
We Are All Connectedis of a girl holding a sunflower with its stem in the pond water. It’s a dialogue between human and nature, a message and a reflection of how much we need nature and how much we need to go back to it to find balance within ourselves.
Reflectingis a piece with a woman standing on a small, manmade, planted island with a skyline behind her. She has a pot of Arabic coffee by her side as she looks down at the water. It is a symbol of the Arab way of welcoming a guest, which is to serve them coffee when they arrive. She looks down at the water as she is in thought, and there is a shadow in the water. At first glance, the viewer thinks it’s a reflection of the woman, which is what should be there. But when they look closer, they see the buildings behind her reflected, taking over what we should be seeing. It’s an illusion and a reflection for both the artist and the viewer.
JMcK: What are you working on at present?
LM: At the moment, I am working on ideas for a future solo show. I am producing at a slower pace since I am a mother now to a seven-month-old baby. Although it is a challenge, I find that this slower pace is helping me to stop and reflect more on what I am doing, and question why I am doing it. I hope that I can push myself out of my comfort zone with this new stage of my work and see where it takes me.
JMcK: What advice do you have for young artists today, particularly those living and working in the Arab world?
LM: Trust your gut instinct. Take calculated steps to your future. Always have a plan. Set long-term goals and short-term goals and check yourself every couple of weeks on where you have got to, to achieve those goals. Be honest and considerate. Produce what you believe in. Have fun with the process.