Just an hour’s drive from Dubai is the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. Positioned between the sea and the Hajjar mountain range, the emirate is also known for Al Jazirah Al Hamra, a town located to the south of the city of Ras Al Khaimah. Dating back to the 14th century, it comprises a collection of recently restored abandoned houses and a mosque, which is currently under excavation. Originally a tidal island whose residents were predominantly occupied with pearl fishing, mixed within the coral stones, mud and woven date palms that make-up each structure are remnants of coral reefs – a heartening reminder of the town’s heritage, the harsh beauty of its desert landscape and proximity to the Arabian Gulf.
Leonardo Montoya. Colombia. Aseel Series. 2018. Courtesy of Al Qasimi Foundation
From mid-February and the end of April the town was brought back to life through the 7th edition of the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival (RAKFAF). Marking the first time the town had hosted an art exhibition, amidst Al Jazirah Al Hamra’s abandoned buildings were works by more than 70 regional and international artists – the ideal setting for the Festival’s theme of “Old Meets New.” The event, which took place under the auspices of His Highness Sheikh Saud Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, was an initiative of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research.
“People think of Ras Al Khaimah as a place just for business but you also need to have something artistic and cultural – events for people to go to and learn about the local culture,” said Suqrat bin Bisher, Director of Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival and Culture Director of Al Qasimi Foundation. “We wanted to make the festival this year in a historical place in Ras Al Khaimah so that people could see the history of the emirate and also contemporary art by international and regional artists.”
Maryam Al Mutawa. Levant. 2018. Courtesy of Al Qasimi Foundation
Among the local Emiratis artists exhibiting are Amani Al Mansoori, sculptor Helima Al Shehhi, and Maryam Al Mutawwa and Noora Al Shehhi, who participated again. The international names on display included American photographer Karen Knorr, who was this year’s Honorary Visiting Artist whose participation was supported by a grant through the US Mission in the UAE. Her mystical photographs capture the realm between photography and fine art, portraying distant lands with an otherworldly touch. While she was in Ras Al Khaimah she conducted an arts workshop for local artists.
Also included was the work of UAE-based photographer Gillian Robertson and US-based Columbian artist, and a returning RAKFAF participant, Leonardo Montaya. The Festival also offered two outdoor screenings of documentary films, produced during the Festival’s 2018 film competition: Aminah, on the Emirati poet Ahmad Al Assam who has lived his entire life in Ras Al Khaimah, directed by Rebecca Beamer, a professor at the American University of Sharjah; and Grain of Sand, a documentary on the music and heritage of Bahraini pearl divers captured by British musician and filmmaker Jason Carter.
Karen Knorr. Flight to Freedom. 2019. Courtesy of Al Qasimi Foundation
“The Festival plays a major role in supporting the social, cultural and economic development of the Emirate,” added bin Bisher. This year the Festival was supported by Marjan, Al Hamra Real Estate LLC, Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (RAKEZ), Ras Al Khaimah Tourism and Development Authority (RAKTDA) and the Development of Antiquities and Museums, Government of Ras Al Khaimah.
"We are trying use art in order to market Ras Al Khaimah and show people how beautiful the Emirate is. We are trying to show to other Emiratis that art is very important and interesting not just for work but for your soul, for your lifestyle and for your family.”
The old Al Jazeera Al Hamra village. Courtesy of Al Qasimi Foundation
“Initiated in 2013, year by year the Festival attracted more people – particularly ambassadors who would come to Ras Al Khaimah to go hiking,” said bin Bisher. “We now have a strong relationship with the US Embassy that have assisted us in having American artists come to the emirate.”
Ras Al Khaimah, particularly Al Jezirah Al Hamra, is also a regular site for filming feature films and documentaries. "Will Smith was recently in the town for a shooting," said bin Bisher. “He even attended the arts Festival.”
As he adds, “It’s about bringing people together to see the landscape, our culture and now the art.”
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