Portrait of a pandemic
Al Quoz-based Art Painting Lab houses as many as 2,020 works of art produced during the lockdown period by professional as well as non-professional artists, following a call by the art studio to submit these works as part of an initiative called United Art Emirates. They're also poised to become part of public murals across all the emirates.
"With the pandemic, many things have changed," says founder Sam Saliba. "We feel artists have a key role to play in society during a crisis of any sort. Hence, we invited the UAE population to contribute to this project. What is at the end of this tunnel? We will have murals in every single emirate, showing how people have come together."
The project has been endorsed by Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and even received the full support of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. "It's incredible how they were able to see the value of this project," says Saliba.
The artworks are as diverse as the social groups they come from - which include artists, construction workers, homemakers, maids and nurses, and more. From a quirky one with a message 'Superman, Ironman, where are you?' to masks coming to define the new normal, they run the gamut. And Saliba intends to incorporate almost all of them into the public murals.
Putting a range of themes under one umbrella can be quite a challenge, but the artist has found a strand to unite them. If there is one common theme, she says, pointing to a sketch of a young girl's face lit up with sunlight, it is liberty.
"People have contributed artworks that are of very different natures, and they weren't given any specific themes. But I have seen a lot of liberty and love. We've seen panda bears hugging, people contemplating about distance, drawing an apple or a flying bird... Liberty means people are able to express their feelings - their happiness, fears."
Sam is quick to point out that the team did not receive too many artworks depicting unhappiness of any sort. "However, even if we did, it's important to have them because we did experience sadness. The beauty is in looking at all the artworks together. I think when we see art at large on murals, it's an emotional experience."
One of the most eye-catching pieces in the studio is a life-size painting depicting how various communities - medical frontliners, police, volunteers - came together to fight the common enemy that was Covid-19. The work fits in with the classic definition of public art that seeks to engage with its audience.
"I believe after this pandemic, public art - like murals, sculptures, non-tactile art - is going to make its presence felt," says Saliba. "However, there is a conversation to be had about what exactly constitutes public art. There are specialists who say that public art must interact with the public or else it's just ornamental."
Like any industry, art has been hit by Covid-19 as well, and Saliba suggests the real challenge for professional artists, as anyone else, would be to keep going. "Some projects have been cancelled, work has reduced. I think freelance artists are still able to acquire small jobs that keep them going. I cannot speak so much for gallery artists, but I know they are struggling because art is not something people easily invest in during a crisis. In fact, it's one of the first things that people omit. The irony is that people also immerse themselves into art during times of crisis," she says. "I do sense some amount of hopefulness though; most artists seem to understand what they do is important. They just have to continue somehow."
United Art Emirates is a nationwide initiative where the capital and the northern emirates will have their own representation. Artists interested in being part of the initiative can upload their works on social media and tag the team using the handles @artpaintinglab and @unitedartemirates.