SHEIKHA LATEEFA, PRINCESS OF ARTS
“You have to live on the edge of your comfort zone in order to grow”
Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum is the daughter of late Sheikh Maktoum and the niece of Sheikh Mohammed. Not only is she the Head and Founder of Tashkeel, an independent resource for artists and designers living and working in the United Arab Emirates, a practicing artist herself, but getting ready to get married to Abdallah bin Hamed bin Hamdan Al Nayan. Nevertheless she remains accessible and focused. INTERVIEW with a Lady.
Tall and slightly cold, SHEIKHA LATEEFA impressed me with her deep dark eyes and her low tone of voice, imposing a subtle distance befitting the royals. A tight sheila hiding her hair, a fully covering abaya only suggesting a colorful dress, she slowly starts revealing herself. Little by little, she expands, agrees to disclose. She shows a passionate deep and committed personality. In between two worlds, a traditional education within the Al Makhtoum royal family and a profession ahead of cultural changes, Sheikha Lateefa bint Makhtoum lives her 28 years of age like any Emiraty young lady of her generation… and not quite either.
When did you decide to become an artist?
I never stopped. As a child everyone draws, scribbles. I was always doing that and in the presence of my sister who gave me scraps of paper to draw on or art books to look through. I scribbled on any paper. I used to do a lot of sports as well at school, so it was between the two disciplines. At the time art was seen as a hobby, not a career path.
It was not seen as serious?
Art was not seen as a serious career path. When I was in high school, I was in a British system which taught art as serious as it taught maths or science, but you had to choose certain subjects as your main choice at an early stage which was 9th grade. It almost put in your mind that you were choosing the rest of your life. Now looking back, of course it is not, but it was a turning point in my life.
So this was almost a decisive choice?
Yes, choosing your GCSEs is a major decision. As my first choice I did not put down art. Before handing in my paper, I was in Art Class. My art teacher Mrs Dean picked it up and said, “What are you doing? You are not taking art?” I did not have an answer because I loved it so much but after grade 9 - which is when the choice of subjects is made - those are the years when it becomes even more serious, when you get into art history, and creating more of a body of work. She saw the potential in me, so I ticked the box then and there, and since then, I have been grateful to her for making me realize my potential. She gave me the push. She told me “You can do this”.
Were you lacking confidence?
I was second guessing. “Can I do this? Am I good enough to do this?” The fact that I wasn’t considering art was really shocking to Mrs Dean. I put the tick and that tick changed my journey.
Isn’t it incredible how destiny just happens in a moment?
I can almost pinpoint the moment. I know exactly the moment.
From then on, for the next four years of high school I did art. At university I was hesitating between visual arts and graphic or interior design – because those were seen as having a career attached to them, more serious, sort of - but I felt that through visual arts you develop your own creative personality, but through the other choices there would always be another person: in interior design you have a client, in graphic design as well. I am very independent and strong-minded; I like to do what I like to do and have my own voice in the work instead of someone else’s. A lot of the time, the professors could not influence me to do what they wanted because I had my own ideas I wanted to show. I had to do it and then they understood what I meant. I had to create it.
How was it received by your parents, your family?
My sister and my aunt are artists but I am the one who took it on professionally. My mother was trying to get me to look at other options before settling with a choice, but my father was behind any decision I made; but they were both supportive because they trusted that I would make good decisions. They always encouraged me. I felt that there was something pulling me towards fine art and I did not want to do it just as a hobby. It was only the final year after curating an exhibition of local artists that I realized the need for a place like Tashkeel.
You felt that such a place was missing here?
There were resident artists studios in the UAE. They started in Sharjah, at Sharjah Art Museum. In 2007, I did my internship there and saw the studios and the Biennale, where I worked for the technical and production team. I have great respect for them and I learned a lot from working in that environment which is thriving with creative people. Here in Dubai at the time there weren’t many serious public studios for artists to meet; many researched each other on on-line platforms where they interacted and exchanged ideas, but there was not a physical place that that could be done while witnessing the artwork being created. Sometimes you could stand next to a person in a gallery and not know that this is someone who you saw their work online and have perhaps left a comment on their work. I discovered this by curating the show.
Is this due to Arab society?
It was the culture in the past, it was difficult to find creative public meeting places, a creative environment, a place where you can interact and see each other’s work. I felt we had that critical environment at university, where we could challenge each other’s thinking and critique work. I realized that after graduating many of the students stopped producing which was sad.
There was not this energy anymore: meeting, sharing, discussing?
A challenging environment creates a place where artists can grow and not be stagnant. I discussed the idea for Tashkeel with Jill Hoyle, my supervisor at university at the time who now works for me as the manager of Tashkeel. I wanted to keep the same atmosphere without the pressure of academia. In university you are always answering to professors, who would give you assignments. I had a clear path in my mind, and I discovered the style of work I wanted to do. I liked the challenges of using different mediums such as photomontage, which now informs most of my work. I was working on complex pieces at the time that sometimes most of my professors themselves could not help because they were not too familiar with the software since it was so new that I had to learn from online forums, which helped me greatly. Through that I realized that there were more ways of learning besides from the person in the room teaching you.
Is the curriculum more up to date now?
I hope so. I believe in challenging students to the maximum and maybe even not accepting what they first give you and pushing them further to see what they will give you. Students will surprise you if you give them a little push.
You lived here? So you are in your comfort zone, back to your childhood in a way?
Yes born and raised in Dubai, I know the area really well and it has a great sentimental place in my heart that’s for sure.
So this is the whole idea of Tashkeel, freedom, energy, sharing techniques?
It’s a place where artists can come and interact with likeminded individuals of all ages and learn and grown from one another to be the best they can be in whatever field they chose.
But how was that welcomed - such a mixed environment in a society where
men and women are segregated ?
It was a little bit difficult to start with, especially because of the culture, male and females did not mix except in professional environment in most occasions. But the way I organized Tashkeel was very much sensitive to the culture and I tried to create a respectable environment where artists could work. I went to an all girls’ school (Latifa School for Girls) so I grew up and know first hand the sensitivities surrounding segregating male and females.
And how was that?
It was strange because it was all women and suddenly you enter university and you have male professors and even the sound of the voice of the male professor teaching you was strange at first. Learning from a male is quite different, a different energy and way of thinking. Men are methodical and follow a point like a thread from one point to another; women can go on tangents before getting back to the point. University was a healthy environment. The male energy in the space changes the dynamics, how the girls interact even. There was a sense of respect, the boundaries were clearer. So I thought a respectable studio environment can be created inspired by what I had experienced in university.
But you did it with respect?
I don’t want to offend the culture. I want to push it to a contemporary way of living a little bit, but I don’t want to offend.
It’s not a fight, just an evolution ?
It’s an evolution. Step by step. I always test ideas with my mother. She trusts me. She knows I will always create a respectful environment. She questioned how I was going to do it, how the studios would be, how the interactions would happen and I made it clear that it would be all open spaces. The space would be transparent everything was in large communal studios. In the beginning more women used the studios since in this culture we have more female artists than male but slowly male artists appeared and started to use the space and work seriously in the studios. It just happened naturally.
One of the problems is also that women artists often stop working when they get married?
I find that a lot. I have a few friends who that happened to but they still have the hunger for it. I try to push them for the better even if they are doing things at home. It is just about making time for yourself. Organize your time in order to nourish your soul, almost. If you do that, you will not be frustrated and be able to give more to your family since you fulfilled your own needs. Personal creative time is very important, even if it’s only for an hour a day.
What about the husbands?
I find that many encourage their wives to make art, I have a few married friends who have had successful work after marriage, it’s all about time management, and where some want to put their creative energy.
What inspires you in your work?
My work is inspired by conversations I had, or by watching and documenting how the landscape of Dubai has changed over the years and how that affects people and society as a whole, although my work is subtle you have to read into it.
And there’s a lot going on!
Yes. Sometimes the speed of it can be scary; it makes you think what impact this change is going to have on the identity of the place, but I realize that a lot of people know who they are. This is how my piece “The last Look” came about. The girl is holding a suitcase while she is walking across the sea. Behind her we see a faint line in the horizon showing the palm island appearing. The suitcase symbolizes her knowing who she is, her culture is within her no matter what change is going on around her. I will keep on taking pictures there whilst it gets built so it shows the evolution of things. My art follows the transition of what I witness.
Local artists seem to be drawn towards this search for identity?
Yes, some artists will take pictures of heritage, for example typical images of camels and women holding coffee pots. That to me is heritage to most who are photographing but not the culture they live on a day to day basis. Although to many it is. I question artists that do that: asking what their personal connection is to what they photograph. For the new generation same things from our heritage exist but in what context in contemporary society? To answer that question in art, takes it a step further than simply showing the surface. A lot of my friends have working farms which are in Marmoum and have a connection to this part of our heritage, its still exists but someone’s relationship to this part of society who is living in the city would be completely different.
Is it an anxiety as certain things are disappearing suddenly?
Yes for my mother’s generation they always stress the fact that this is not how it was done. Even the evolution of dance, for example, the way men hold the gun when they dance. The boys spin the guns and put it on their hands in a certain way. They say that move was not done before, almost judging it to the point of saying it shouldn’t exist. But evolution is necessary for any society to advance, the new generation adapts to what exists and add to it from their own point of view.
Here it is especially challenging for the older generation to adapt to the changes…
The young generation find it easier since there isn’t a language barrier, so that helps for understanding people from outside the culture, but sometimes for the older generation it’s hard to get people outside the culture close.
It’s almost an animal instinct when you are the minority of the population of your own country?
To some it can seem overwhelming, and they close in on themselves not to be a part of it because of fear.
But you were raised at the same time as the city developed?
I was born and raised in Dubai and have strong ties to the country for sure.
How is it working as an artist, being the daughter of HH the late Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum and the niece of Dubai’s Ruler, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum?
When I exhibit, I don’t use my title. I am simply Lateefa bint Maktoum as any other artist. Some people don’t make the connection, so I don’t make it obvious (she laughs). I just do what I need to do. I am Lateefa, that’s it. Even at openings, I just casually go, I don’t need to make an entrance. I take it in a relaxed sense and am accepted in the same way as I know the majority of the artists of the region. A lot of artists invite me to have critical discussions about their art on a casual yet serious level. I believe you teach people how to treat you and I always encourage open discussion and a relaxed environment. It’s the best way to grow and learn, not have formalities that hold people back. My friends who are artists especially don’t hold back from me; if they think that what I’ve made is rubbish they will tell me.
How come there are so passionate characters in your family? Where does it come from?
In our family it is ingrained in you when growing up and being raised that you have to have a purpose. All our family has that: you have to be doing something. Almost giving back. In our family, there is always the thought of what you are going to give back to society. How are you going to enrich your country in the philosophical sense. Sheikh Mohammed is always pushing for knowledge, for the young generation to work and give back. It’s in us. We can’t live selfishly. Art is selfish, but providing these studios for artists is giving back to them, creating this environment, enriching their work.
In a culture so protective of private life, do you feel the need to push the boundaries between private and public as an artist?
I realized that a lot of people won’t reveal the private in their artwork. And by that I don’t mean creating any work that will be offensive or vulgar, on the contrary, I mean work that is thought provoking and has a reflection of a personal perspective that would give insight into ones character and lifestyle. I understand it completely why this is not done much but sometimes I feel like “Give a window into how you live”. It’s not to offend but just an observation. We collaborated with the Dubai Women’s College in the first couple of years of Tashkeel, on an exhibition around this theme, but the students were still young and fresh. Some did not push it that much but others were really about “pushing the boundaries”, question, “reveal a little bit”. I am interested to see more of that digging beneath the surface. We see only the surface level still in many exhibitions; I feel its time to dig a little more. The audience is ready.
So it is part of the culture not to reveal?
Our culture is based on an oral tradition, sharing happens in script and poetry. People from the same culture here will discuss among themselves things that they will not with their Western friends, because there is an understanding of what they are discussing might not be understood. Between them, they understand the complexity or the simplest things in root dynamics that there doesn’t need to be too much explanation. But I am interested in seeing how artists would reveal this dynamic visually and how the story will unfold and be understood.
How is it to live and work in a city which is yours but where you are the minority?
For me it’s not a hindrance. I’m well traveled and have mixed with people from all over the world so its not intimidating to me. I know people who are not from the UAE but serve it and love it as if it were their own. I don’t like to separate people according to their background. You get the richness with this mix. You teach people how to treat you. You show them the limits within your culture if they are not understood and you move on from there. We learn from each other and this is how boundaries are set for respect and interactions.
What are the issues that you are working on in your artwork?
As always my work is influenced by change, internal and external. I put it in the context of the change happening around and that also reflects what is happening in my mind. I’m working on transition works at the moment and experimenting with shooting indoors, something I have not done for a long time.
You are inspired by different locations?
Yes. I find that I capture a lot of things while I travel with my camera. Then I compose them as stories. I always shoot outside. It is interesting: it is a safe environment. You are not in an intimate place, although that’s what I am trying to do now. I am working on a piece called ”Transition” It brings the indoor and outdoor together. I am sitting on a large day bed, writing in a book and it shows the landscape behind me.
How do you work?
Before creating work I stop and think and write and sketch. Thoughts wake me up at night and I keep a journal by my bed that I write in when I wake up so the thought does not escape, which I work on and develop when the time is right. To move from outdoor photography to indoor is uncomfortable but I need to do it, although bringing peoples eyes into indoor spaces which are your own is itself an intimate experience which I struggle with what to reveal and what not to. This is something yet to be resolved.
This is exactly what you ask from your peers: push boundaries?
Yes. I am comfortable now with shooting outside, but it’s too safe. I’ve said what I needed to say. I need to work on the edge of being uncomfortable; that’s the only way to grow. You have to live on the edge of your comfort zone in order to grow.
As free as you are, you will live with your mother until you get married, no discussion about that?
Yes (she laughs). No discussion. It’s fine. We all have our space in the house. This is common for both males and females of this society.
Do you plan to have children or are you dedicated to your work?
I am engaged at the moment so lets see if the future has children in it. I welcome them with open arms. I’ve helped my sister with all her children, the eldest is now 18 years old and the youngest is 4. I think I have enough practice J. I don’t think that I will stop making art or not be involved in art. It is a part of me, my plan is to have both a family and continue with my career within the arts.
Will it have an impact on your work?
I think so for sure. The question is will it add more boundaries or not? I am at the point of thinking about bringing people more towards the indoor spaces for a while now. Spaces give you different kind of thoughts; different environments create different dialogues. I have things in my sketchbook and I think people could read too much into things, which aren’t meant to be read into, this can be funny. Again I like to test my mother because she is a poet but doesn’t physically make art; she has a sensibility to it, and has a very raw reaction to my thoughts which I love. She will tell me honestly if an idea is too shocking or not. Sometimes what I say scares her (she laughs). So if I scare her too much, I pull back. I don’t know if being married will affect what I create. I’m sure it will, but it would be interesting to see where the journey takes me with my work.
To conclude this interview, can you just tell a memory about your father that is dear to you?
He was very sensitive. We are very similar, quiet, listen more, talk less, he had a quick smart sense of humor. We understood each other well. He used to call me “Sabah al khair “, which means “good morning” since I am the one who woke him up in the morning. He used to ask my mother when I did not come to wake him up “Where is Sabah al khair?” We had the same kind of habits: the way we lay in the bed and put the blanket in a certain way. We woke up early just to go out on the balcony and watch the sunrise, and had breakfast all together. To this day I have an affinity with watching light change. It will be with me forever. When he came home my sisters and I used to race who will get to him first to take off his shoes off. Breakfast was something we had to do together. The window was always open. There was a wild green parrot that used to come every morning to wake us up and have breakfast with us. This moment balanced us for the rest of the day.
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