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MAC exhibit showcases contemporary works from United Arab Emirates

Some of the pieces almost beg to be touched.

Like the acrylic “Inside Out” by Shaikha Al Mazrou, which looks as if it could be crafted of ribbon. Or Khalid Al Banna’s “2012,” which from a distance looks like a section of the famous gum wall in Seattle, but up close is revealed to be a colorful collection of fabric scraps.

There’s photography as well, images that bring with them a sense of coolness, belying their origin in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula.

These works are among the 47 pieces of contemporary art created by artists from the United Arab Emirates now on display at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

“Past Forward: Contemporary Arts from the Emirates,” which opens today and will run through June 28, is spread out across the museum. It includes 3-D pieces, works of mixed-media, large-scale photographs, short videos, paintings and even a large, metallic centipede made from repurposed cans.

One of the artists, painter Abdul Qader Al Rais, will participate in a panel discussion today, talking about using cultural stories through art. Alison Highberger, the museum’s media relations person, said he’s a star among artists from the UAE. He paints landscapes in a photorealistic style, and he has works in the collections of the British Museum, the Kuwait Museum of Modern Art and the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts.

“He is,” Highberger said, putting it local perspective, “the Harold Balazs of the UAE.”

The UAE, with a population of about 9.2 million, is located between Saudi Arabia and Oman, with borders on both the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Its capital is Abu Dhabi, but ritzy, glitzy, Dubai is the most populous city in the seven-emirate federation.

The exhibit, organized by Meridian International Center in conjunction with the UAE’s embassy in Washington, D.C., has been shown in Los Angeles and Houston, said MAC director Forrest Rodgers, and is set to visit Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan afterward. Meridian, a nonprofit that promotes cultural diplomacy and cross-cultural exploration of arts and culture, has a Spokane connection: MAC trustee Victoria Butler is also on Meridian’s national arts advisory council. She helped coordinate two previous Meridian shows at the MAC, one on China’s Silk Road and the other on the Sudan.

The works in the exhibit represent the rapid change that has come to the Emirates in the past 60 years, since the discovery of oil and natural gas, Rodgers said. It’s gone from a region of primarily nomadic people to one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

“One of our goals as it relates to art is to bring to Spokane exhibits that people would otherwise only be able to see if they went to Los Angeles or Chicago,” Rodgers said. “To paraphrase Louis Davenport, it’s bringing the world to Spokane.”

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