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What to expect from the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival 2021

What to expect from the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival 2021

The ongoing ninth edition of the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival will play a pivotal role in reviving the country’s impacted arts and culture sector

Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival

With the biting economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, the arts – expectedly – took a body blow and was consigned low down on the priority list of sectors that needed to be revived. Nonetheless, it is clawing its way back. The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai returned in January, as will the region’s largest affordable art fair World Art Dubai in April.

Another annual event that has been a long-time mainstay on the UAE’s art calendar, the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival (RAKFAF), will also stage a comeback for its ninth edition this year, following an interrupted showing in 2020. “Like the rest of the UAE and the world, the arts in Ras Al Khaimah has been seriously impacted by the pandemic. We cancelled the last two weeks of programming for the 2020 Festival and subsequently moved all our year-round events online. We also postponed our Artist-in-Residence programme,” explains the festival’s director Suqrat bin Bisher.

Bisher, who is also Art and Culture Manager at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, says that the theme of this year’s festival – Hope – was chosen to reflect that mood around the re-opening of the arts.

Held from February 5-April 3 at its traditional venue at the abandoned 1960s pearling village of Al Jazirah Al Hamra where homes are built of seashells, stone and coral pieces, the festival’s organisers have decided to also add two outdoor venues – one each at Jebel Jais and Open Park on Al Marjan Island – which will serve as satellite exhibition spaces for the festival.

In another first, RAKFAF is partnering with The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi and Art Dubai. “Hala Khayat, regional director for Art Dubai, will be presenting a talk on the region’s art festival circuit. This event will help local artists build an awareness of the sector, enabling them to navigate the available opportunities. The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi will be presenting a virtual workshop from Dr Ghazi Al Mulaifi, Learning Rhythms of the Arabian Sea,” says Bisher.

Khayat’s session will be held on February 19, whereas Al Mulaifi’s workshop will be conducted on February 14. “The Rhythms of the Arabian Sea workshop is built around the residency with Kuwaiti-American artist, ethnomusicologist, and NYUAD music faculty Dr Ghazi Al Mulaifi and members of his band Boom.Diwan. These online events provide a platform and an opportunity to further expand our mission beyond the NYU Abu Dhabi campus by bringing communities from Ras al Khaimah and other emirates together to serve as a resource for fostering the growth of an arts ecosystem through the UAE,” says Linsey Bostwick, director of Artistic Planning at The Artis Centre at NYUAD. The wide-ranging festival includes photography, art, sculptures, film, food and heritage tours, as well as workshops, among other activities.

Prominent Emirati artists participating include Faisal Al Rais, Nuwair Al Hejari, Azza Al Nuaimi and Yousef Al Zaabi whose photographs were featured in a recent issue of National Geographic Arabia.
Another long-time National Geographic photographer, Brooklyn-based Robert Clark, will be this year’s US Honorary Guest Artist at the festival and will be conducting a falcon photography workshop on Jebel Jais. “Other notable international names [attending] include Dubai-based Filipino photographer Buddy Gadiano, Portuguese sculptor Luis Barata, and past winner and Al Qasimi Foundation resident artist Leonardo Montoya,” adds Bisher.

Artists from across the region including Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey and Iran are expected to participate. With the Abraham Accords signed, RAKFAF will also see Israeli participation. “We are excited to welcome Israeli curator Sharon Toval who will be showcasing four video art installations at the festival,” confirms Bisher, while adding that Qatari artists can also submit their work to be showcased at the festival. “Due to how recent the normalisation with Qatar has been, we will not see any participation this year.”

A major component of the festival will be film. “This year we’re hosting both indoor, in collaboration with Vox Cinemas, and outdoor film screenings showcasing short documentary and narrative films from young filmmakers. It is a chance to see the creative spirit of independent filmmakers from the region and beyond. [With] our unique focus of blending contemporary arts and cultural heritage, we have created five short films with former residents of the [Al Jazirah] village,” says Bisher.

Suqrat bin Bisher is the festival director at RAKFAF

Each year, the Al Qasimi Foundation Film Grant provides Dhs25,000 in funding to create short films on topics which are relevant to the UAE. The short experimental documentary of the 2020 recipients of this grant – Ukrainian-born artist Anna Kipervaser and Syrian Majid Alloush – will be screened at the festival. Titled Synopsis: Terrain Ahead, it explores the impact and transformation of the UAE coastline over the last 100 years as a result of human activity.

Mindful of the Covid-19 conditions, RAKFAF will also be launching digital initiatives including virtual tours of the festival. “The virtual tour is a project we started last year when we had to close the festival early. This year, we wanted to make it a fundamental part of the festival, and release it alongside our opening night,” says Bisher, adding that the virtual component will also broadcast the festival to an international audience. A separate fynd.art web app developed for the event will enable the sharing of information about the artworks and the artists by simply scanning the artwork with their phone. People can also save the artwork information on their phone and contact the artist directly too.

The star of Ras Al Khaimah has only been rising over the last few months as it aims to position itself as a major tourist magnet. The emirate was named the Gulf Tourism Capital 2021 at the fifth meeting of tourism ministers of GCC member countries last November. According to the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism and Development Authority, during the Eid Al Adha break last year, the emirate saw a 12.9 per cent growth in the average daily rate (ADR), the highest increase in the last three years under non-pandemic travel conditions. Airlines operating out of its international airport, including Air Arabia and SpiceJet, have recently increased the number of destinations they fly to from the emirate. Also, Bahrain’s Gulf Air has said that it too plans to begin flights to Ras Al Khaimah – all of which will help the emirate achieve its target of attracting 2.9 million visitors annually by 2025.

Arts and culture festivals like this one can only help its cause. But for Bisher, it’s not about drawing numbers alone to the festival. “The success of the festival is not just about numbers. If our artists can use this festival as a launching pad for wider domestic and international success, if we are able to bring the UAE arts community together and reach new audiences and new collaborators with a view towards our 10th anniversary, then we will know that this year’s festival has been a success.
“People need art, they need hope.”

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