When Tradition Meets Modernity: An Interview with Nujoom Alghanem

by Claudia Malfitano
February 15, 2019
Claudia Malfitano
Alghanem Nujoom

Claudia Malfitano: Your work as a poet and as a film director is deeply connected to your Emirati roots and womanhood is a recurring theme. Can you tell us a bit more about your practice and your creative process? Where does it all begin?

Nujoom Alghanem: My creative practice began when I was young. I read and drew a lot which eventually led me to writing. I started with the classical form and my Arabic teachers recognised that I had potential and encouraged me. Then I started experimenting with different poetic styles. In the late seventies and early eighties, I dabbled in Nabati (vernacular poetry in the Arabian Peninsula) because it was very popular, and when you’re young, you want to fit in and be accepted. I also tried the Arabic metric poetry style for the same reason. Of course, the literary tide of the Arab modern movement was recognised in our region and helped us get connect with what was going on in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and North Africa by then. The Eighties was an eye opening period for me, I found myself drawn to free verse form. I was mostly influenced by European, American and Latin American modern poets, artists, and philosophers. This changed my whole perspective about poetry and eventually influenced my personal choices. My poetry is interconnected with my work as a filmmaker and artist. I consider literary resources – poetry, novels or drama – really great sources of inspiration, but the most important one is people. People greatly inspire me: their world, stories, frustrations, confusion, sadness, happiness, pain, passion.

CM: You will represent the UAE at the upcoming Venice Art Biennale; what does this mean to you? What do you think of the Biennale’s theme: “May You Live in Interesting Times”?

NA: I am truly excited and honoured to be representing the UAE in collaboration with curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, following my first participation in 2017. The National Pavilion UAE tells our story on a global stage to the international arts community, and carries our values of fostering understanding and promoting cultural dialogue. The theme of the Biennale underscores my practice within the context of a rapidly transforming society. The interesting passage of time is deeply embedded in my work as an artist where I am always trying to resolve the tension between the traditional and the modern. However, I consider myself quite drawn to the now and the city, and our contemporary world.

CM: You were born and raised in Dubai. What is your relationship with this city and its fast pace and ever-changing nature? How do you feel the local traditions are coping with this super-fast modernisation?

NA: As a child, I remember sitting on the rooftop of my grandparents’ house in Bur Dubai after school, watching huge ships sail slowly, silently down the Creek, which made me always think of traveling and exploring other lands. Today, Dubai is a very busy city. It has different faces and paces; fast and hectic during the day, dynamic and loud at night, beautiful but noisy, light sometimes, grimy other times, elusive but welcoming, playful yet tough, sophisticated but easy to know, strange yet friendly, hard even though it has a tender heart. It’s the city where I was born and where I learned how to love and wait for things to take shape so I would understand them better. The city has grown up along with me. Although I think I know it, it overwhelms me sometimes. I am grateful, however, to have grown up in Dubai, which is a fantastic city and my love for it underlies all my work.

CM: What is your perspective on the city’s art scene?

NA: The art scene in Dubai is diverse and thriving, and after many years of development, it has matured greatly and it would be interesting to see what the next years will bring; I think the milestones of the past few years, such as Louvre Abu Dhabi and Art Jameel have been a testament to that. Artists from across the region and the world are coming here to find inspiration, participate in dialogue and discover their creative voices. At the same time as these artists are exploring here today, I am pleased to see that there is an increasing recognition of the history and tradition of Emirati contemporary art, and of the ways in which our leading artistic figures, such as Hassan Sharif, have influenced and shaped UAE art today.

CM: My Art Guides likes to recommend to its readers unique places to visit in each destination, not necessarily connected to contemporary art. In your opinion, what are the absolutely unmissable places, landmarks and spots in Dubai? And could you recommend something that shouldn’t be missed during Art Week?

NA: Dubai as a whole is very seductive and captivating. With all the expansion and sophistication, I always go back to the beach, a spot in the Jumeirah area that keeps calling me and inspiring me. Another place is the Dubai Public Library, which is located in Khor Dubai – Dubai Creek’s shores on the Bur Deira’s side. It used to be the main cultural hub for many activities including lectures and poetry readings besides its basic function as a place for reading and borrowing books. I consider it one of the earliest literary and cultural initiatives in Dubai.

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