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My UAE: Sara Alahbabi’s artistic avenues

Transitioning from college to the workplace can be daunting, but not so for Sara ­Alahbabi, who, with a major in visual arts, opened an art gallery in Abu ­Dhabi earlier this month.

Located in The Galleria on Al Maryah Island, Novus Art ­Gallery showcases unique pieces from the likes of French sculptor Richard Orlinski and Italian mixed-media painter Marco ­Angelini.

“The gallery houses around 30 pieces,” Alahbabi says. “Some of the artists have never been presented in the Middle East, but they are all very established and their works are collectibles.”

Alahbabi, who graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi last year, launched the gallery to help boost the capital’s art scene, which she believes lags behind that of neighbouring Dubai.

“I always felt like Abu Dhabi needed more,” she says. “The Louvre will open on ­Saadiyat ­Island soon and then the ­Guggenheim. The city will be an amazing artistic place in the next 10 years, but we need smaller ­local galleries to help achieve that.”

As well as overseeing the gallery launch with her father, Alahbabi works full time at the Abu ­Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority as a content developer. Determined to put her artistic talents to use post graduation, when she saw the job advertised, she applied straight away.

“I was very, very excited,” she says. “I really worked hard to get the job and couldn’t wait for them to get back to me.

“At NYU Abu Dhabi, I was part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi ­[Student] Ambassador Programme, and through that, I got to know people at TCA. I felt like I belonged there. It felt like it was my job.”

In February, Alahbabi, who was born and raised in the capital, learnt that her application had been successful.

“It’s not always easy to find a job in the art industry,” she says. “I’m so lucky to have secured something that lets me utilise my creative skills.”

In her role in the education department, Alahbabi writes and compiles activity guides and learning kits for teachers and students. She helps educate the community about Abu Dhabi’s history and culture, as well as its upcoming contemporary art.

“At the Guggenheim exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat, we’ve produced little booklets that are helpful to teachers visiting on field trips with students,” she says. “The literature takes them on a journey to better understand the exhibition.”

Alahbabi also runs workshops. At Galleries Week in Abu Dhabi last month, she led three interactive talks, each based on pieces that were on display at the week-long event.

“The workshops were inspired by certain art pieces like water colours, spray paintings or collages,” she says. “There was also a beginners’ class on calligraphy; a very simple workshop for kids to imitate the art works and be inspired by them.

“It’s very difficult to jump straight into being a full-time artist after college. It’s good to explore alternative ways of incorporating art into your career.

“To be able to teach, to maintain my culture and to nurture the arts within Abu Dhabi, is amazing. Every day I wake up happy because my job is so rewarding.”

While waiting for a response to her job application, ­Alahbabi interned at Abu Dhabi Arts ­Department, part of TCA. There she learnt she had been nominated for the prestigious ­Salama bint Hamdan Al ­Nahyan ­Emerging Artists ­Fellowship. The year-long course, in ­partnership with the Rhode Island School of Design, supports 15 promising artists from a visual arts discipline in the UAE.

“I received an email to say that I had been anonymously nominated,” she explains. “So I applied for the programme with examples of my work. I attended the interview last summer and then I was accepted. Every other month, professors from the ­Rhode Island School of Design visit us in Abu Dhabi for a teaching week. In the month they’re not there, we work on various assignments they have set.”

The programme enables ­Alahbabi to explore the mediums she likes most and the style of art she would like to pursue throughout her career. “I’m also interested in art theory,” she says.”The course is helping me to decide which avenue to take.”

With a promising career in front of her, Alahbabi has a few words of wisdom for this year’s art graduates: “Always be thirsty for opportunities. Any opportunity, no matter what it is, just grab it. If you don’t get it, that’s fine. It means that something better is on the way.

“I also stress failure,” she says. “If you don’t fail, you’re not going to make it. Failure shapes your personality; it shapes how you respond to rejection and it teaches you patience. There’s more positivity than negativity in failure.”

Who’s your favourite artist?

Gregory Crewdson is my favourite conceptual photographer. He constructs cinematic snapshots of American life in the 80s. I aspire to do something similar, but in the context of the UAE.

Which of your own paintings is your favourite?

The oil piece I created as part of my exaggerated stereotype photography series at NYUAD. It exaggerates the idea of Arabs having oil barrels in their backyard.

If you could take your family anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Two places: South Africa and Madagascar [pictured]. They’re just completely different experiences. They have new and rich cultures that I’d like to learn more about, and environments that I admire.

What’s your favourite food?

Burgers from food trucks. There’s a real trend for food trucks at the moment and lots of them are Emirati. I’m so proud. Meylas [pictured] is one of my favourites.

If you could sit and have coffee with anyone dead or alive, who would you choose?

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed [Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces]. I think he has an amazing vision and a humbleness to him that I have never seen or heard in anyone [else]. It would be a wonderful experience to meet him.

What’s you favourite place in the UAE?

All of Abu Dhabi because my family is scattered around the emirate. It’s very nostalgic for me.

Where do you most like to create art?

A lot of my art is photography-based, so I visit many different locations. I think of an idea, get out of my comfort zone and just do it.

What’s your favourite city to visit to see art?

New York has amazing galleries. MoMA is my favourite. Starry Night [pictured] by Van Gogh is my favourite painting in New York.

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