The 40-year creative journey of an Emirati woman artist

Najat Makki attributed her inspiration for art to childhood surroundings in her father’s house in Bur Dubai, near the sea and the market.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Prolific artist. Najat Makki poses next to one of her paintings.(Courtesy of Najat Makki)
Prolific artist. Najat Makki poses next to one of her paintings.(Courtesy of Najat Makki)

DUBAI - In any review of Emirati contemporary art, the name of pioneering artist Najat Makki comes to the fore. She continues to amaze art devotees after more than 40 years of artistic endeavours.

Born in 1956, Makki was the first Emirati woman to earn a government scholarship to study art abroad. She obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the College of Fine Arts in Cairo, where she also received a doctorate in 2001.

Makki said most of her work was inspired by her home environment, which is reflected in sculpture, relief, painting, collage, multimedia and installation covering realism to abstract expressionism.

In recent years, Makki has explored new materials, such as Bohemian crystal for the Sharjah International Islamic Art Festival, creating mesmerising multimedia “Visual-Audio Flaps.”

“I like art and give it my all, working every day. If you don’t, your blood and mind will stop and you stop growing as an artist,” Makki said.

She said her techniques depended on and take inspiration from the material — metal, clay, glass, crystal, paint or canvas — with which she happened to be working but stressed that “the mind and hand reign supreme.”

Women, children, the older generation, nature, Sufi music, issues of poverty and peace are subject matters of most of Makki’s works. She shed the early academic influences to create her own genre, characterised by the variety of colours inspired by nature, the play of light and shadow, embellished with delicate lines and executed with a light touch.

Her search for new ways of expression and new forms are what sets her apart, with her work extensively shown at local, Arab and international exhibitions.

Makki attributed her inspiration for art to childhood surroundings in her father’s house in Bur Dubai, near the sea and the market. Her father had a herbal medicine shop and, at home, her mother and two older sisters were constantly sewing and embroidering bed and pillow covers.

Encouragement from teachers at the Khawla bint Alazwar primary school, which she attended, was also a major factor. The domestic and exterior environment created an atmosphere that sparked Makki’s imagination and set her on a lifelong pursuit of art.

“Whenever I saw something, my mind begins to think how to depict it on paper,” she said. “My imagination would run riot looking into the constantly changing colours of the sea across where we lived.”

Makki said she remembered her first painting, which she exhibited at school when she was 12. The painting was of an itinerant Pathan merchant who used to go to every doorstep in the neighbourhood carrying a load of wares — textiles, bangles, rings and toys.

Makki’s first public exhibition was in 1979 at Al Wasl Club, Dubai. Since then, her work has been exhibited across the Middle East and Europe. It can be seen in Dubai at the Hunar Gallery and Beyat Gallery and in Abu Dhabi at the Etihad Modern Art Gallery.

She said a 4-month stay in Paris eight years ago was a revelation and very important for her as an artist. Visiting the many art galleries and museums provided an intimate exposure to works from Islamic, European, Indian and Mexican civilisations and cultures.

Makki said she believed in giving back to society and is at the forefront of Emirati art, culture and society. It has been nine years since she retired from the Ministry of Education but she says she keeps busy exploring new ideas in her home studio in Al Barsha, Dubai.

She notes that many of the younger generation of artists crave instant success. Her advice is: “You should give yourself enough time to develop your art. The idea behind the work has to be solid.” The pioneers of the first generation of Emirati artists “put in decades of hard work before tasting success,” she added.

Present-day artists have many new resources to fall back on. Mass media provide ideas and techniques, she said, while, during her time, “there was only one’s own mind and hand to create art.”

She has no airs about what she has achieved. “Even though I am an established artist, not all my ideas are perfect,” she said.

Among her contemporaries, Abdul Qader Al Rais is the one she most admires for the careful way he chooses colour and for his clear thinking. Makki said he was the front runner among Emirati artists and fully deserving of his international stature.