Emirati Painter's Prolific Work Combines Love of Art And Nature

28 August 2019
Art, Environment
Ashwaq Abdulla's paintings raise awareness of the Saadiyat Island's protected wildlife

Everywhere you looked, the artwork of Ashwaq Abdulla stared back at you.

This is not quite an art gallery, but the walls of the Saadiyat Rotana Resort and Villas in Abu Dhabi might as well be one.

A portrait of the UAE’s founding Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan greets you as you enter the hotel. Paintings are dotted around the vast lobby. And in every single one of the hotel’s rooms. Abdulla’s creations are conspicuous by their running themes of culture and nature.

What's more, proceeds from the sale of some of her artwork were donated to Beit Al Khair Society, an organisation that caters for some of the country's more needy citizens.

The concientous young Emirati artist, it appears, has been an overnight success.

Ashwaq Abdulla with her painting of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan

But scratch below the surface, and it becomes clear that to get to where she is today, she’s had to squeeze a lifetime of work into two years.

In 2016, Abu Dhabi-based Abdulla was commissioned by Saadiyat Rotana Resort and Villas to provide paintings for the new hotel in one of Abu Dhabi’s environmentally protected regions.

Combining her love of art and nature, the project was heaven-sent for Abdulla at a time when not many galleries were taking chances on young Emirati artists.

“If you look at most hotels, you never see Emirati art,” says Abdulla. “I was keen to portray the protected species in Abu Dhabi, like turtles and gazelles and flamingos. And of course Saadiyat itself is a protected area.

With over 350 rooms and villas to service, it was assumed many of her paintings would be reprinted copies.

But Abdulla was having none of it.

“The challenge was the number of rooms available,” she said. “I don’t like copies of my paintings, so I told them that I will create an original piece of art for each room. I painted 350, maybe more.”

To hit her target, Abdulla needed to draw inspiration from somewhere.

“After visiting the protected sites in Abu Dhabi, I decide to work on five themes,” Ashwaq said.

Turtles, gazelles, flamingos, Arabian oryx, dhows.

With the help of the UAE Environmental Agency, information on the subjects was gathered and the varieties within each theme afforded the painter multiple options.

“So for example when I did the flamingos, I’d get one by itself or a group of Flamingos together and so on,” says Abdulla. “So that gave me the chance to work on greater number of paintings for the rooms.”

Abdulla, who graduated from the Higher Colleges of Technology with a degree in interior design, was handpicked for the project by Shaikha Al Nowais, Vice President - Owner Relationship Management of Rotana. And, crucially, a passionate advocate of conservation and art herself.

The first mock-up rooms for the resort, which had broken ground four years ago, showed nature photographs hanging above the beds. Asked to commission the artwork by the project’s owners, Al Nowais introduced the idea of displaying painted artwork instead.

“We started searching for an Emirati artist, then we found Ashwaq Abdullah,” She said. “As you know it’s very challenging to work with artists, it’s not easy at all. They need to be inspired, they’re moody, and they have to come up with the right ideas that can link to what the customer wants. And they had to deal with the interior designer because the interior designer had a lot of guidelines that the artist had to stick to. Like the style of the art and the colour scheme.”

With Saadiyat being a destination for some of the UAE’s endangered wildlife, the theme of environmental conservation was ideal for all involved.
Roaming gazelles on Saadiyat. Turtle nesting season on the shoreline. Flamingos at Al Wathba reserve, home to hundreds of bird species. The Arabian Oryx, the Dhabi, which lends its name to the UAE’s capital. And of course, the dhows, the lifelines for the land’s pearl divers and fishermen in the early decades of the 20th century.

Abdullah’s paintings, through their texture, sand-coloured backdrops, and their colourful subjects, portray a delicate eco-system, now getting the attention, and protection, it deserves.

Saadiyat Beach is protected area

Al Nowais’s vision is for the resort to be as much an environmental sanctuary as it is a luxury hotel.

The floor of the lobby of Saadiyat Rotana has seven embedded glass enclosures, inside of which are samples of sand from the dunes of the seven emirates.
“It’s interesting, initially it was only the sand of Saadiyat in the glass windows,” she says. “When his highness Sheikh Theyab Bin Tahnoon visited he said ‘you know Shaikha, I noticed there are seven glass boxes why don’t you place sand from every emirate’. I hadn’t noticed that and I said, consider it done.”
Within days, the projects landscape consultants were on mission to collect the sand.

The lobby's floor has seven glass displays of sand dune samples from across the seven emirates

The resort’s owners are keen to push the environmental message, down to the smallest details.

Every night, the turn down services places a card on every bed with key facts about the wildlife environment and culture of the region. The visitors, it turns out, are curious.

“They reach out to us, for example, about the flamingos resort and we tell them that it’s in Al Wathba and it’s open twice a week,” Al Nowais said. “You can visit there for free. We are promoting the destinations that we have here.”

As for Emirati artists, Abdulla is the first of many. The day her paintings were unveiled at Saadiyat Rotana Resort and Villas, visitors included UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development Noura Al Kaabi, a tireless supporter of the arts.

Ashwaq Abdulla with Noura Al Kaabi

“Inshallah, if we have new projects in the UAE we will definitely support other artists as well,” Al Nowais adds. “There are a lot of young Emirati artists that not a lot of people know about. This is a very good opportunity for Ashwaq to showcase her work, it will open a lot doors for her because I don’t think she’s ever done a project on this scale ever before.”

Abdulla certainly has had the support to match her prodigious output, and it remains to be seen if her success will inspire other Emirati artists, female or male, to follow her path.

“Art has started to flourish, and many artists are emerging,” Abdulla says. “It will take time. To get a healthy art scene takes time, but it’s getting there.”