How Emirati artist Maisoon Al Saleh is inspired by the UAE

Maisoon Al Saleh explains the themes of harmony and humanity that define her work and talks about the country's evolving art scene.


Husain Rizvi

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Published: Tue 24 May 2022, 8:33 AM

We are all witness to the UAE’s radical transformation into a global centre of art and culture over the past few decades, thanks to visionary leadership; several major projects were launched, international summits and art fairs were held, and top artists from across the world have made the country a regular stopover.

We remain in awe of this world-class hub which boasts the iconic Louvre Abu Dhabi, the stunning new Museum of the Future as well as future ambitious projects like the Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

Such magnificent cultural achievements continue to inspire local artists as well as those across the world to be a part of UAE’s art scene.

Emirati artist Maisoon Al Saleh is among those who is making her mark on the vibrant art scene. After graduating from Zayed University in 2010 with a degree in Interior Design, Maisoon landed her first solo show at the Maraya Center, Sharjah in autumn of the same year. It followed with her work being exhibited in UAE and across the world at various exhibitions, including Art Dubai, Emirati Expression at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, Macedonian Museum in Greece, Palazzo TE Museum in Italy, Centro Cultural CajaGRANADA Memoria de in Spain and several shows in the United States.

Maisoon, inspired by historic representational art, explores skulls and bones as a means of telling stories that transcend age and gender, revealing stories from Emirati life, culture, and history. And, sometimes, as her website states, her art dives quite literally.

Recently, towards the end of Ramadan, she was part of an art workshop that encouraged participants to create unique and colourful canvases celebrating the holy month. We caught up with Maisoon, who boasts of having hosted eight solo shows worldwide and participating in over 100 art exhibitions across 20 countries, for a chat on how art is evolving in the contemporary world, its future, and what the artist has learned from UAE’s progressive art scene.

What is art to you?

Expressing moments in time, documenting history, and giving back to the society through collaborations with official charitable organizations in the UAE through my artworks.

Art is evolving in the contemporary world...

Contemporary art is always changing, and more artists are utilizing new technologies to expand their creativity.

You’ve participated in many art exhibitions around the world. What do you find common in art from different countries?

Art is a unified visual language.

What is your take on NFTs and the future of art?

It allowed artists to generate revenue from their works without giving up on their artworks’ copyrights, and a higher demand towards digital artworks that’s expected to grow even further in the upcoming years.

Maisoon at at art event in UAE.
Maisoon at at art event in UAE.

You have done various forms of artwork. Where do you get the inspiration for it?

I get inspired by my surroundings, either from someone I meet or an article I read, and, in some cases, documenting moments of history though my works.

How has art progressed in the UAE over the years?

Since the start of my art career to date, I’ve noticed how the UAE has been growing rapidly within the creative economy and it became a hub for creativity from various backgrounds. It’s attracting creative companies to the region such as artistic and cultural industries, major cultural events, software and video game industry, and audio-visual media like music, video and cinema.

As an artist, what have you learned from the UAE’s progress?

I’ve learned so much from the UAE’s progress, and establishing it’s status as a global capital for tolerance, and a nurturing environment for the diverse cultural backgrounds living and working peacefully side by side in the country.

It inspired me to even create a whole artwork series titled ‘The 3 Phase Signal’, which tells a story of tolerance and human connection through the symbolic use of sine waves. The artist disrupts the classical portrait composition by leaving my subjects’ faces blank, or replacing them with colourful visual effects. In some pieces, the background of the image, along with any further indication of location or cultural attributes is erased by the so-called monoscope, or television test pattern.

This ubiquitous motif is not only a quasi visual representation of the sine wave, but also an universal and internationally recognizable point of reference, known to all of us around the world. The people portrayed in this series are only characterized by their traditional or religious attire, while their human features are transformed into blank colour fields, essentially derived from the monoscope itself.

As the combination of the various sine waves creates a harmonic bond, I emphasized on the importance of deepening the connection between different nationalities and religions. Just like the colourful, ever changing, yet always familiar visual representation of the sine waves, our humanity behind all our cultural differences will always connect us.

How did you survive the pandemic? How did it affect you?

Surprisingly my art sales tripled during the pandemic, and I was spending my time mostly creating new artwork series such as ‘Watching Over You’.

The series is an aestheticized representation of the human condition as experienced by almost all man kind during various stages of social distancing, quarantines, or total lockdowns caused by a global pandemic. By turning to nature as a source for my subject matter, it continues a tradition in symbolism as old as poetry and art itself.

The insects and flowers depicted in my series, such as butterflies, bees, flies, or moths, have been used as symbols for various aspects of human characteristics, emotions or even carry spiritual connotations.

The artworks are printed on uniform, square-shaped plexiglass, the main motifs are forced into a restricted space, just like people around the world had to retreat into their homes, cocooned, and eagerly waiting for the world to open up again. The colourful backgrounds of the images are just as varied as the cultural landscape of each one of us, sharing the same experience as a global community.

The disembodied cat eyes floating above the naturalistic images are looking at the observer with hopeful curiosity. This questioning look of these mysterious, invisible creatures are mirroring the gaze of the viewer. What do you see? A better, kinder, more conscious future?

You have done some underwater art. While it is quite unique, how was your experience?

Certainly it wasn’t easy to pull off as I started it back in 2010 when I took my scuba diving license to create my works underwater.

I first started to experiment with materials at home by filling a tub with water and soaking the canvas in, and once I finalized my materials that were waterproof, heat-proof and against UV light, I took my materials underwater to start creating colourful works while surrounded by fishes who passed by and peeked now and then!

What message do you have for aspiring artists?

I dedicated a whole chapter in my memoir titled 33 Years Of Untold Secrets to artists who want to grow further in their art career. I wanted to share the knowledge I’ve gained throughout the years and I hope it would support them in their own journey. The chapter is called ‘For You’; it provides them tips on things I’ve personally tried and that worked well for me while growing my art career internationally.

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