Shifting sands: a diverse cultural legacy writ large

Shifting sands: a diverse cultural legacy writ large

Over the past century, Abu Dhabi has developed from a desert to a burgeoning, bonafide cultural hub; a global centre for art and creativity with a rapidly growing reputation, not just in the immediate UAE region but right across the world.

With continual support from its leaders and investors and the development of UAE-based artists, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, once known only as home to 92 billion barrels in oil reserves and a tribal political system, Abu Dhabi has been able to expand its art scene with unparalleled vigour.

From Abu Dhabi Art, which has been running in its current iteration for eight years, to branches of internationally renowned museums, to Emirate-wide initiatives, exhibitions, workshops and performances, art in Abu Dhabi has evolved to include a diversity of unique cultural experiences, a multidisciplinary field for children and adults alike, elegantly and imaginatively weaving the global conception of art with Abu Dhabi’s unique, rich and spectacular perspective.

Abu Dhabi’s government, which recently celebrated its Golden Jubilee, has always believed in the importance of preserving culture and promoting art. With the establishment of a modern government in September 1966, certain priorities and goals were highlighted within the leadership’s strategic plan, including the establishment of a tourism sector. Fifty years ago, Abu Dhabi’s ambition was to turn a town of less than 50,000 residents into a tourist destination that could attract travellers from across the globe. This goal had modest beginnings, with a budget of only 850,000 dinars. Today, the emirate’s cultural scene includes the long-anticipated, Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi, a £1bn, 30-year joint venture between the world-renowned Parisian arts institution and the Abu Dhabi government.

Another major project that represents the growth of the art scene in Abu Dhabi is the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Its 2014 exhibition ‘Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection’ welcomed more than 90,000 visitors. The second exhibition to showcase the museum’s growing collection, titled ‘The Creative Act: Performance, Process, Presence’, is on view at the Manarat Al Saadiyat gallery on Saadiyat Island. The show will run until 29 July, surveying work by artists of different nationalities and generations who have emphasised performance, process, and human presence in their practices, offering a transcultural perspective on these defining aspects of contemporary art.

But as it looks to the future, Abu Dhabi launched several initiatives celebrating culture and creativity. Imagine Abu Dhabi, one of the golden jubilee campaign initiatives, represents an outlook towards the future, opening the door for Abu Dhabi’s community to share ideas, proposals and suggestions, including public art, cultural exhibitions, and outdoor installations.

To celebrate its rich and colourful past, Abu Dhabi is also highlighting the transformation of  oral history to a tradition of writing  without severing connections with its past. After all, it is Abu Dhabi’s desert climate and tribal political system that birthed one of the most intricate forms of art: a calligraphic font with delicate curves that tell a beautiful cultural story.

Records of this handwritten art form dates back to the 19th century, the era of Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, one of the most prominent rulers from the Al Nahyan Tribe. Zayed bin Khalifa’s reign included significant developments for the history of Abu Dhabi. He lived in a time that celebrated educated people, and respected literacy, given that most people lacked the luxury of learning how to record the written word. Being a writer was considered an honor, where the occupation of writing was a professional endeavor carried out by Al Karani (‘the writer’) using specialized tools.

With access to merchants, Amirs, governors, rulers and judges the Al Karani figure was as much an artist as a writer or administrator. Calligraphy had always been prized in Islamic culture so the Karani was equipped with the calligraphic skill to match his station, adding beauty to the records he produced.

To acknowledge the craft of handwriting and create a connection between its modern community and the region’s diverse cultural story, Abu Dhabi commissioned the internationally renowned designer Tarek Atrissi to develop the Zayed the First script - inspired by original letters and documents written during the era of Zayed the First, also known as Zayed the Great, over 160 years ago.

The font (available for download on and its origins reflect Abu Dhabi - both ancient and modern - in its makeup. It is, like the Emirate itself, historical and global, representing a mixture of different calligraphic schools, such as the Diwani and Naskh schools, while managing to preserve a coherent and consistent new form. The Zayed font looks clean, like existing Arabic fonts, but is unique in the source material from which it was developed. Its naturalistic, handwritten qualities, like brush strokes on a page, conjour up images of the user penning each individual letter with precision.

Over the next few years, the largest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates will be building five major museums and galleries but the simple grace of the Zayed the First font represents an alternative, more contemplative Abu Dhabi. The simple but elegant art of calligraphy echoes the oral tradition of the land and environment. Each word read, each sound formed, can also be heard in the mind.

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