PODCAST: Gallery Girl Meets Banat Collective

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Sarah Al Agroobi and Sara Bin Safwan of Banat Collective

In this episode of the Gallery Girl podcast we speak to Sara bin Safwan and Sarah Al Agroobi, curators of Banat Collective, an independent platform for showcasing and discussing womanhood & intersectionality in the Middle East and North Africa. Amongst many topics, we discuss how the platform was founded, the art scene in the UAE and their upcoming exhibition The Mystical Woman. 

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Still from Sarah Al Agroobi’s Ivory Stitches & Saviors, screened at Banat Collective’s booth at Art Dubai 2018, as part of UAE Now curated by Munira Al Sayegh

Safwan – a UAE-based curator – started Banat Collective in 2016, though she had the idea earlier when she ended her BA studies in London. “I was looking for an answer of what I was going to do when i returned home to the UAE…I needed a way to connect with my art peers…in 2015 compared to now there were barely any art spaces…it was a response to a lack of creative spaces in the UAE”, she says, adding, “[I wanted] to steer into the topic of womanhood… and open discussion about it. Normally it happens behind closed doors, and what better way than through art and writing.” And as a result of that need, Banat Collective was born as a grassroots and independent space catered by and towards women, with “banat” being the Arabic word for girls. “There is such a demand for this space to exist”, adds Safwan, “A lot of people want to collaborate.”

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Untitled (Traces of Resilience), 2019 by Jana Ghalayini in Banat Collective’s exhibition at UAE NOW, Art Dubai 2019

In 2018, Safwan and artist Al Agroobi collaborated together for the first time through a programme with Art Jameel, and again at Banat’s first physical space at Art Dubai 2018. Amongst other grassroots initiatives (including Daftar Asfar and Jaffat El Aqlam), Banat exhibited work through a programme called UAE NOW, which was curated by Munira Al Sayegh. For the first time Banat Collective was inhabiting a space in what was predominantly a commercial environment, and was visited by a wide international audience. “It was really interesting to see such a varied degree of understanding of what we were doing”, says Safwan, “The majority of people, who were travelling into the UAE, were shocked that such a space existed.”

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Following the success of the Art Dubai exhibition in 2018, Safwan and Al Agroobi are now planning their first fully-fledged exhibition, Mystical Woman, which will take place inside a local UAE institution in 2021. “The mystical woman is essentially questioning the ideal of what a woman is within the Middle Eastern and Arab context”, explains Safwan, “We are faced everyday with these juxtaposing and very hypocritical notions of what a woman should be…how does that tie into a woman’s sense of self?” Inviting artists to participate through an open-call, Banat has received over 230 submissions for the exhibition, which will also have an accompanying programme of films, performances, discussions and a publication. “We hold this responsibility to carry this concept through”, says Safwan, “Especially to have it as one of the first exhibitions of its kind in the UAE shown to the public.” “These kinds of exhibitions happen all over the world, where people rewrite and provide counternarratives to existing ones”, adds Al Agroobi, “What’s really unique about the eone we’re working on is that we’re really connecting with the female experience and at the same time we’re contextualising that experience…we have to recognise that this is going to take place in the UAE.”

And what about the female artists we should be looking out for? Safwan and Al Agroobi drop names including Shaikha Al Ketbi, Mays Al Beik and Ayesha Hadhir. Speaking about the art scene in the UAE, the pair both say that there’s a lot of good work coming both from locals and residents. “People have shifted to something more exciting, people want to see something different”, says Al Agroobi, “We know that within our community, people that we know are able to put their best foot forward and deliver on that. It’s a statement that we’re here, we’re loud, we’re proud, we know what we’re doing and we can be just as good as anyone else within the global art market.”

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She is the founder of Gallery Girl - a London-based curatorial platform and website dedicated to modern and contemporary art from across the globe. Her work is primarily focused on supporting emerging female artists from the Middle East and the Caucasus. She has written for Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, Suitcase and Vice Arabia among other publications. Her exhibitions in London and Armenia have been featured in Vogue Arabia, The Art Newspaper, The Art Gorgeous and numerous other news outlets. Gallery Girl has also spoken in the UK, UAE and Belgium about the contemporary art scene in the MENA region, and is planning further events in London and Amman.

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