Having grown up with the mantra that ‘there is a greater preface to everything we do’, it may not be so surprising that Fathima took an interest to community and cultural development through the arts, as reflected in her specialist degree in Arts and Culture from the University of Toronto and an MA in Sociology at Goldsmiths University in London.
At school in London, she focused on the impact of art in public spaces; how it interacts in the social realm and creates dialogue within the community. Upon her return to Dubai she took up a position as curator at Dubai Community Arts and Theatre Centre (DUCTAC), exploring emerging talent in the region. She quickly came to notice there wasn’t a strong enough platform for local talent to collaborate or to exhibit their work - a frustration she shared with many of the local artists.
In 2010, Fathima applied for and was accepted into the Cultural Leadership International program, and met all 2010 participants at the Beirut leadership skills’ workshop. Interested in setting up a collaborative artistic platform but not yet certain of the direction she needed to take, she took this opportunity to listen and learn from the various experiences of these international cultural leaders from both developed and developing arts and culture centres – taking into account the processes, funding, and work that needs to be in place in order to further develop her idea.
‘Getting involved in a program with the word “leadership” in its' title at first seems daunting, but it is when you are a part of it – with people who have both made contributions as leaders and those who are in the early stages – that you realize it is made to help you see just how much can be accomplished.’
Invigorated by the experience and encouraged by other participants of the CLI program, she quit her job at DUCTAC and used her CLI programme grant to come to London and do further research on artist-led spaces in the UK with the aim of setting up a similar entity in Dubai.
She explored three types of spaces: 1, those which are funded by governments and cultural foundations; 2, those which are more ‘portable’ and which tend to move around in various locations due to limited funding; and finally 3, those that have more of an underground feel and nature. In total, Fathima spent time with 30 – 40 spaces across the UK - in addition to further looking into art and public spaces, a passion she continued to explore following her dissertation. Several initiatives she met stood out for either their unique location or for their highly collaborative environment. This included Strike, a former distillery space based above a pub that has now turned into several studios by a group of students, and Phoenix Brighton, the largest artist-led arts organisation in the South East of England and Brighton's premier art courses provider. Graffiti artists like STIK and PURE EVIL reflected on the type of work they had done within their community, highlighting the value of maintaining a relationship with the location in which you work.
The experience proved to be beneficial in that Fathima was asked a lot of important questions that she herself needed to further explore in order to get the answer and define her project. Just as she was interested in their work, they were all interested in what she was doing and how she was going to apply it in the UAE. More importantly, Fathima understood the fine balance that is needed between artistic and admin roles in order to keep an arts space open. While she should not compromise her ability as an artist to run a space, it is also important to maintain some admin team members in order to keep artist lead spaces open. Most of the entities she spoke with did have a short life span without admin.
Upon coming back to Dubai, Fathima put together a proposal and spent three months trying to raise funds for an artist-run space through governmental funding, drawing on lessons from her trip through the UK. The issue was that potential investors wanted to see a revenue model, while Fathima’s focus was more on communicating the value of this type of space. ‘I was met with the same reaction by most of the people I approached – ‘We love the idea but we can support you when you are up and running’ – so I decided I needed to work in a more realistic manner and start small.’
That is when Fathima used the fund she won through the Sheikha Manal Young Artist Award, an annual creative award in the UAE, to set up TheDomino, a creative agency that works twofold in that it provides creative services (from music to graphic designers) and helps develop creative projects and initiatives. It isn’t an artist space yet, but it does provide the platform for artists to meet and work together. The agency, still in its development phase, is an ongoing process that adapts her experience and lessons from the CLI grant to her local community.
‘There is something very nurturing about the way the British Council works with you – they create the environment for you to develop your work by providing you with the resources, knowledge and network to get you on your way, and then continue to support you in your process as you grow. With the CLI program, for example, I continue to attend workshops in the follow up to the initial one I attended in Beirut.’ (Fathima will be attending our Mission 2062 workshop in Paris in late March 2012).
Currently, The Domino is working on about 13 projects, some of which have come from the relationships brokered through her British Council experience. This includes Genius, an exhibition of works by 28 illustrators based in the UAEaccompanied by workshops; Sketches by Boz, a British Council project celebrating Charles Dickens' bicentenary; and the Olympics mural at British Embassy Abu Dhabi. Other projects include Chocol’art, a charity event for which she is curating the creative aspects, taking part at the very successful Art Nights at Dubai International Financial Centre and live art gigs at brands using local artists.