Supporting Cross-Cultural Engagement
Hashel Al Lamki works in the hot shop with Glass faculty member Stefanie Pender MFA 06 GL.
Music fills the first-floor studio of the Metcalf Building where a digital design by Sara Al Ahbabi and Shaikha Al Ketbi is being transformed into a colorful textile on RISD’s high-tech Jacquard loom. “I’m in love with this machine,” Al Ahbabi effuses as Al Ketbi squeezes past, her arms loaded with spools of richly colored thread.
Al Ahbabi and Al Ketbi are two of the 15 fellows from the UAE who visited RISD in May and early June as part of the 10-month Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship (SEAF) program. Jointly designed and directed by RISD and the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation in Abu Dhabi, the program selects some of the UAE’s most promising emerging artists in order to help them develop a sustainable artistic practice and potentially prepare to apply to MFA programs across the globe. Once they’re accepted, it then covers their tuition.
“Architecture and design programs in the UAE are very strong, but there seemed to be a need to strengthen fine arts programs, which is why RISD got involved,” explains Professor Anais Missakian 84 TX, head of RISD’s Textiles department and academic program director for SEAF. “The expectation is that alumni of the program will go back to the UAE and drive a community of serious artists—maybe as teachers or maybe by starting arts-related nonprofits.”
Now in its fourth year, the program has surpassed expectations in terms of the number of fellows who have gone on to pursue MFAs at top-tier institutions like the Royal College of Art in London, Yale University and RISD. “We’re currently supporting 10 graduate students across the US and the UK, and nine more will be matriculating in the fall,” says SEAF Program Manager Khulood Al Atiyat, who visited RISD for the third time this spring. “SEAF has been an experiment for everyone,” she adds. “It’s so exciting to watch the fellows’ practices expand in response to the experience.”
This two-week visit to the US—which includes workshops and critiques at RISD as well as studio, museum and gallery visits in New York City—is a small component of the 10-month program. A team of RISD faculty members travels to SEAF’s studios in Abu Dhabi four times per year to work directly with fellows, who also complete a series of online seminars administered by Amy Horschak, Associate Director, Graduate Commons. “The online community was created to keep the fellows and faculty in contact throughout the year,” explained Horschak. “It provides a platform for discussions and virtual studio spaces where works in progress and ideas are shared.”
This year’s faculty team includes Missakian, Associate Professor of Glass Jocelyne Prince MFA 94 GL, Professor of Painting Dennis Congdon 75 PT and Associate Professor of Painting Kevin Zucker 00 PT (who just earned RISD’s 2017 Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching). As Missakian notes, their experience teaching in the UAE also supports RISD’s focus on expanding its overall canon.
Back in the Metcalf Building, fellows Rand Abdul Jabbar and Maryam Alzaabi are sinking their hands into clay in a ceramics studio. “SEAF has pushed me to do things I’ve never done,” says Abdul Jabbar. “Today we’re using a method where you fire the ceramics with leaves and other natural materials so that their forms are imprinted in the clay.”
Four floors up in the hot shop, Glass Critic Stefanie Pender MFA 06 GL is working with Department Head Rachel Berwick 84 GL, several teaching assistants and four fellows who are experimenting with molten glass for the first time. Ghada Da, who is attempting to cast her own wrist and elbow in glass, says that the one-on-one attention she has been getting from RISD faculty members has far surpassed her expectations. Since most of the fellows have limited hands-on experience working with glass or clay or textiles, “the goal,” she notes with a smile, “is to keep trying—and keep failing!”
This freedom to experiment—and to fail—is actually essential to the program. “It’s a process of discovery,” says Pender. “We’re trying to pack a ton of information into two intensive days of learning, paying attention to what attracts the fellows and cultivating those interests into projects.”
As Missakian explains, these efforts help UAE students analyze how their work has shifted since entering the SEAF program and instill in them new conceptual and formal goals for an investigative practice, whether or not they decide to pursue an MFA. She and Al Atiyat are proud to see how well fellows have done since the program began in 2013 and attribute much of their success to enthusiastic support from President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID, Provost Pradeep Sharma, and leaders at The Foundation, all of whom advocate for expanding global connections and for the power of visual learning as a means of bridging cultural differences.
“RISD is dedicated to supporting arts programs that span borders and promote cross-cultural engagement,” Somerson says. “Our partners at the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation have been wonderful to work with, and they share in our commitment to use art and design education to build a better world.”
—Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH
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