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Interview with Mandy Merzaban

May 6, 2010

“Viewing artworks should not just be a privilege, but an integral part of our culture”: says Mandy Merzaban

 Mandy Merzaban with Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al – Qassemi in front of a painting –
Divine Exodus
by Khaled Hafez
theartskitchen, Posted On: Saturday, May 1 2010 
Migrating to a new country can be difficult for anybody and while most people take some time adapting to the lifestyle change, Mandy Merzaban has set about creating a new life by becoming the Gallery Manager of Barjeel Art Foundation and curator of its new exhibition, Peripheral Vision.
An amicable person and an interdisciplinary artist herself, she has spent most of her life in Canada, coming from an Egyptian descent. She graduated in 2008 with a Fine Arts and Cultural Anthropology degree from the University of British Columbia, focusing on painting and digital art. 

“I can definitely identify with some of the experiences the artists in the exhibition touch on in their artwork. I think, I am constantly trying to reconcile the gaps in geography, culture and lifestyle – having had an upbringing that was a synthesis of Canadian life and Egyptian values,” says Mandy, when asked about her thoughts on Peripheral Vision.

Coming to Dubai in 2009, Mandy has completed two internships with Art Dubai and Carbon 12, an international art gallery located in Al Quoz. “Both experiences really allowed me to meet a lot of people in the art community and learn more about the arts and culture scene in the UAE,” she responds.
In January, I began working with Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, putting together the The Barjeel Art Foundation’s first exhibition in its newly established home in the Maraya Art Centre.Peripheral Vision is the first show I have been involved in, and it is definitely an honor for me to be with Sheikh Sultan and his dynamic collection.”
Having achieved a lot in such a short span, theartskitchen questions her on the many controversial pieces at Barjeel Art Foundation’s Peripheral Vision, the methodology behind it as well as her views on the developing Middle Eastern art.

Many of the pieces from the Peripheral Vision exhibition seem quite controversial in nature. What do you think of the increased freedom of expression within the Arab art scene, as well as experimentation with the unique mediums in contemporary 20thcentury art?

Mandy: I think the pieces in The Barjeel Art Foundation’s debut exhibition, Peripheral Vision, are both intuitive and eloquent in the way they interpret the current status of Arab identities. Addressing issues like the formation of identities, as they are influenced by circumstances such as military occupation and structural violence, transformations in culture and lifestyle, or new media and mass production, the formation of an Arab identity is constantly transforming. The socio-cultural complexities that contribute to this identity building process are uniquely interpreted by the selection of artists featured in Peripheral Vision.

Artists like Manal Al Dowayan, draws from her experiences living on a compound in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia, incorporating both Saudi Arabian, expatriate and Eastern Province influences in her series ‘Landscapes of the Mind’ – the series for me represents hybrid state of Arab identities; how they are shaped by conflicting and complex experiences. Salama Safadi who is an emerging Palestinian photographer from the occupied Golan Heights, assembles critical and impressive narratives through photographs by interpreting the struggles facing Palestinians and their homeland under Israeli occupation. I think it is the duty of an artist to be critical, and use their experiences in such a way that highlights the issues that are at the core of identity building.

The pieces at the Barjeel Art Foundation’s Peripheral Vision are not for commercial purposes but for demonstration and appreciation. This in itself is a unique concept – how did you come up with this concept and what are your future plans for the project?

The Barjeel Art Foundation concept is quite unique to the region. It is not a commercial gallery and its main objective is to make pieces from the collection available to the public. Viewing artworks should not just be a privilege; it should be an integral and accessible part of our culture. In the future, we would like to have rotating exhibitions in our new space in the Maraya Art Centre in Al Qasba, Sharjah, and also offer local and international exhibitions, pieces from the collection.

We would like to invite people to come and see the works, initiate discussion and to create a platform for critical dialogue. We would like to encourage people to become more aware of the kind of works that are being created by Arab artists in the region and those living abroad.

Amongst the many artworks, do you have a personal favorite and if yes, then why?

One of the key artworks now on display in Peripheral Vision is Halim Al Karim’s ‘Untitled 1’ from his series, King’s Harem. It is a larger – than – life blurred photograph of a woman in a vibrant red cloak. This piece was featured on the cover of New Vision: Arab Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, published in London last year. This piece serves as an interesting interpretation of how memory has a dichotomous reality – it is both indefinite and everlasting. Based on what I have read on his experience, during the first Gulf War, Al Karim evaded compulsory military service by hiding out in the desert for three years. During this time, he survived through the kindness of Bedouin women, and became exposed to gypsy culture and life on the fringe of society. This image of a woman, maybe homage to one of those women who helped him. Her presence is significant and unavoidable, but like transient nature of memory and recollection her image is fading over time.

UAE is progressively becoming a vibrant hub of art, with a huge number of events every year such as Art Dubai, Bastakiya Art Fair, Abu Dhabi Festival and many others. At the same times, there is a growth in Arts Education – where universities and institutions are offering better opportunities for local talent. What do you think of this trend – where art is no longer a mere hobby but more of a field or career path and artists these days are taken very seriously, especially in the Middle East?

The art scene in the UAE is becoming a progressive force and an important part of our multifaceted culture.  For art making as a practice to become integral – means that we will only continue to encourage local talent to produce art and in turn add, more dimension to the arts and culture scene.

A lot of artists now use online media such as social networking sites or blogs to promote themselves. Despite this being the beauty of online media, do you not think it challenges art collectors and exhibitors like yourself, who aim to promote these artists, because of the increasingly popular self promotion online?

Artists and artworks are becoming more accessible, and I think using the internet to build awareness enhances rather than challenges interest in artists producing today.  It should be about the artist more than it is about the collector. I think for an artist, utilizing  these technologies to better distribute a message, or gain more exposure does not evaporate the value of the artist’s work; the technology would be there to supplement the eagerness to see the work in person. If an artist has a blog online, it adds another dimension to their practice and it can become another avenue of expression that is easily accessible.

Do you have any piece of advice for the emerging local artists in UAE, who are still in the process of establishing themselves?

Continue to make art, take constructive criticism, make more work, keep reading and immersing yourself in the art scene.

For more information on Barjeel Art Foundation or the various artworks, please log on to or contact Ms. Mandy Merzaban

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