By Sharifah Alhinai
This article is part of the Khaleeji Art Series, which spotlights artists and art from the Gulf region.
There is no doubt that the digital arts scene in the Gulf region is blossoming. Seeing digital art pieces by a multitiude of regional artists hung in art spaces and events such as Oman’s Stal Gallery, the Saudi Misk Art Institute, or Dubai Art has now become a more regular part of the art experience. So have immersive digital art experiences, be it by individual artists like Emirati artist Ashwaq Abdullah, who presented Al Mabrouka, a digital animation experience of ten of her watercolor paintings last year, or through immersive digital art museums such as the recently opened Infinity Des Lumieres in Dubai, which is dedicated to showcasing the work of internationally renowned artists such as Van Gogh and Hokusai in a multi-sensory manner.
But this was not always the case. In fact, Sumayyah recalls a time when there were only a handful of digital artists in the region. “When I started we were few… and we all knew each other.” I remember those days very clearly as well. In fact, it was only in 2008 that I came across a digital art piece for the very first time and it was Sumayyah’s.
Sumayyah is an award-winning Emirati artist and curator who started practicing digital art in 1996, when she was just 16 years old, the same year a digital artwork by Emirati artist Jalal Luqman was exhibited in the UAE for the very first time. “I believe I always had creativity in me but didn’t know how express it until I was introduced to digital art, but then I realized I was already an artist since I was very young because I was designing my outfits with my aunt who raised me,” she recalls. Alongside a career as a fashion designer in the 2000s, Sumayyah worked hard to fulfill her dream of becoming a digital and mixed media artist, which she was attracted to because of the flexibility it offered. “I could do, undo and redo my paintings as many times as I need,” she says. “I practiced a lot, every moment of free time I had I was on my computer working on a new artwork,”she tells me. And her hard work paid off. One of her digital artworks, which is inspired by women, nature and her everyday experiences was exhibited in Abu Dhabi for the first time in 2003. Soon after, more of her pieces were also exhibited in countries such as France, United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Spain, and some were was even auctioned off through Christy’s and sold through London’s prestigious Saatchi Art Gallery.
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In 2007, Sumayyah also ventured into the world of art curation, and with time she has become one of the leading Emirati curators. She has curated exhibitions for Ghaf Art Galley, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism and The Martyrs’ Families Affairs Office in Abu Dhabi, which have included digital pieces. She says that curating digital pieces doesn’t differ much from curating non-digital pieces, “It doesn’t differ, to me both are the same as they all have to be measured and exhibited in the same manner.” But what makes the digital artworks easier, she adds, is that they are already files on a computer and the traditional paintings will have to be scanned or photographed to become files in a time when there museums and galleries are establishing a stronger online presence, partly due to the restrictions of COVID-19.
Her years as an artist and curator have given her valuable insight into the UAE’s art scene, and that of the wider Gulf, especially the digital art scene. “The digital art scene in the UAE and the wider Gulf region is huge, we have so many digital artists nowadays,” describes Sumayyah, and these artists include Emirati digital artist Mohammed Aljneibi, Omani digital artists Mays Al Moosawi and Mohammed Al-Attar, Bahraini digital artist Hala Al Abbasi and Saudi digital artist Shahd Nazer. Sumayyah attributes digital artists’ fame in part due to social media. Despite some the challenges it presents when it comes to copyrights she says, “It contributed by helping artists get noticed not only locally for where they live, but also internationally…[It’s] where the entire world can see and appreciate and that could help artists end up with freelance deals and many different jobs that will elevate the artists’ careers.” Similarly, NFTs, she says, are changing the game in a “huge way as it’s helping many artists to gain access to the top art collectors of the world and galleries.”
From left to right: Home is Family, If Cats were Angels, Ladies in Art and Tree of Life by Sumayyah Alsuwaidi. Images: Courtesy of Sumayyah Alsuwaidi.
As for the future of the digital art scene in the Gulf? Sumayyah is very optimistic despite the fact that many people in the region still don’t view digital art highly. “I believe more people will embrace digital art as we now have the first digital art dedicated museum in the Gulf Region, and as we were the first to introduce digital art [in the Gulf] with Emirati Artist Jalal Luqman’s solo exhibition at the Cultural Foundation Abu Dhabi back in 1996 with a series of digital paintings, and no other country in the Gulf region had done that before,” she says. Before our interview comes to a conclusion, I ask her how digital artists can be supported even more, to which she responds, “By seeking their services and purchasing their artworks, as well as giving them platforms to showcase their talents, such as by dedicating auctions to digital art, and galleries and museums to them.”
Sharifah Alhinai is the co-founder and managing storyteller of Sekka.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.