This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Nuqat is a Kuwaiti, non-profit design initiative started in 2009 by Wakim Zeidan, Sara Al Nafisi, Hussa Al Humaidhi, and Dana Al Hilal. The founders run Nuqat while maintaining full-time jobs; Sarah and Hussa work in a design branding firm, Wakim works in advertising, and Dana works in public relations. Nuqat’s target audience is “everyone in the Middle East” – the founders stress the use of the term “Middle East” to ensure the inclusion of Iranian designers.
Since Nuqat’s founding, the entrepreneurs have held more than 75 specialized workshops and six conferences. Nuqat has experienced tremendous growth; its last conference attracted over 4,500 designers, and the initiative continues to grow. The group aims to advance creativity in the region and develop what the founders call a “creative economy,” which recognizes and values the importance of culture, art, and design because these, they emphasize, are what drives a community forward.
AGSIW: Can you tell us about your background, how Nuqat started, and what sort of challenges you initially faced?
Hussa: Nuqat started out of frustration. What you see happening now with all the cultural events in Kuwait – that didn’t exist seven years ago. At the time, Sarah and I were working in an advertising firm in Kuwait, and we left because we didn’t see any kind of skill development or creativity; it was very commercialized and at the same time there weren’t any workshops or networks for creators. We didn’t know where the designers or animators were – there just wasn’t a community. We felt really alone. As a creator you need the community, the connections, the network to build yourself. So we attended workshops abroad and intended to create similar ones in Kuwait. Dana was taking courses in Italy in Fine Arts and painting. We all realized that instead of traveling abroad for inspiration, we wanted to find it in Kuwait.
Wakim was working in advertising at the time, and he attended the Cannes Lions where he noticed that the Arab participation was very low and that it didn’t reflect anything from Arab culture – it was very Western-oriented. He came back and held a consortium called Nuqat ‘al Huruf which focused on Arabic typography. It was a two-day event and had a good turnout. Sarah and I attended, and afterward we got together to see how we could take it further. For our first conference in 2010 we had 200 attendees, 13 speakers, seven workshops, and it lasted three days. We struggled a lot; we didn’t have any funding – we actually lost money. Sponsors and corporations didn’t understand what we were doing. Even our friends and family didn’t understand it. The concept of doing something with no monetary return was very foreign, but we kept going. We all have the same vision, and I think that’s what got us to where we are now.
AGSIW: Can you talk about the annual Nuqat conferences and why you chose specific themes for them?
Wakim: In the beginning, the Nuqat conference was very focused on design. Then we realized that there was a large audience thirsty for creative outlets, and that’s when we started focusing on education. Our audience comes from different professions, from finance to design, and because of that we diversified our talks and themes. For every conference we have a theme. In 2010 the theme was visual pollution. In 2012, the conference was called “The Lost City of Arabesque” because we wanted to look at the successes of our past and see what can be reintegrated into today. Then in 2013, as Kuwait focused on the negative aspects of the Arab Spring revolutions, we decided to show the revolutions in a positive way and create positive change, so the theme was “executing culture shock.”
Hussa: The 2013 conference focused on challenging norms through communication, art, and design. There were many graffiti movements in the region, and there were a lot of artists who played a crucial role. There were so many other creative initiatives that stemmed from this in film and music – creatives started using these tools to challenge norms. That was my favorite conference.
Wakim: For 2014’s conference, we switched the main language from English to Arabic, and this attracted a whole new audience. We provided live translation in English but we encouraged all speakers to use Arabic, knowing that our priority is speakers of Arabic origin. Also, we seek Arabic speakers for the conference, because for a Westerner to be successful is a given for us, but for an Arab it is not, so when we see an Arab who is successful we are more inspired.
AGSIW: Other than the conferences, what sort of activities does Nuqat offer?
Hussa: Workshops often come out of the conference, and speakers tend to complement their talks with something interactive and engaging. Most of the workshops are introductory and have included typography, photography, drama, jewelry design, illustration, comics and caricature, entrepreneurship, creative writing, furniture design, Arabic novel writing, 3-D printing … a lot of different fields. We try to ensure that there’s a tangible outcome from the workshops, something beneficial for the participant. Even when we engage sponsors or corporations we make sure they fit the creative education criterion by providing participants with an experience, and outcomes that benefit the participant. We’ve been doing these for seven years, but now we are trying to develop them into courses with modules of different levels, which will help you move from developing an idea and understanding the basics to entrepreneurship and developing a business out of your creative process. This is still in the works, we are doing a pilot program this year and are looking for a way to get accreditation.
Wakim: For the professional program we are aiming at five fields: fashion, jewelry, product design, photography, and entrepreneurship. In the long run we aim to establish an institution covering different design industries. But also, creative education has to start earlier, so we launched the kids program for those between 4 and 12 years old. The program aims to teach children to think creatively and develop creative problem-solving skills alongside science and math. We are hoping that we can start teaching subjects like math and science in a creative way. Hopefully by 2017 we’ll have a program with 20 workshops.
AGSIW: You’ve identified a gap in attention to art in the Gulf. Why do you think this gap exists and how do you see Nuqat filling it?
Hussa: We always think back to Kuwait’s golden ages. Kuwait was in a strategic location and was very active in trade. Trade gave a spirit and culture of entrepreneurship and brought in a diverse group of people. It was a melting pot of different cultures, especially with India and Iran. There were a lot of different combinations of people that came here and contributed to the spirit of creativity. Art was very prominent in the ‘60s and ‘70s and they used it not just for entertainment, but to comment on politics and social behavior. Music was thriving, Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez performed here at one point and it was the culture hub of the khaleej at that time. Then in the mid-80s there was the Islamic fundamentalist movement, which downsized and stigmatized art. Fear was built around and against self-expression. The fundamentalists also influenced the Ministry of Education in Kuwait, so art classes have been almost nonexistent in public schools. In our universities there aren’t any design schools, except a small program at KU. At the same time, you had a growing economy of finance and the oil sector … a whole generation of people who pushed their kids to go into accounting to fill the financial gap. Going into the arts had no monetary value, and there was this social stigma surrounding it as a career choice. So there is this whole generation that doesn’t understand what art is, what design is, or how important it is to education.
Dubai has been leading in art, but from top to bottom … it is building and creating a façade, but it needs content creators. Bahrain and Kuwait have grassroots movements, ours is a bottom-up movement made up of those who need to express, need to create. Saudis are also doing amazing things, their community is huge, underground, and Internet-based. Thirty percent of our audience is Saudi. As Nuqat what we need to do is bring all these artists together so they will be empowered and can inspire each other to continue what they are doing.
Wakim: Other GCC countries are trying to showcase what they have. If you look at Dubai and their art fairs, even in Oman they thrive in museums … there are lots of entities trying to showcase but none of them are trying to educate from early on to the professional career. This is the gap Nuqat is trying to fill: creative education. The reason this is happening now, is that this specific generation has matured and feels empowered to create the change. The Internet and social media have opened up the eyes of this generation.
AGSIW: What do you think Gulf governments can do to support artists and art movements?
Hussa: Educational reform. Art and design needs to be integrated into schools and people need to see the value for how it helps a child develop. It’s about critical thinking and creative problem-solving. Thinking outside of the set structure, how to work in a multidiscipline way using different processes. The education system here is outdated and kids are passive; they just listen to and digest information. This doesn’t work anymore; kids want to create, not just memorize. There has to be more of an emphasis on creative thinking in schools, and that’s why we need reform.
Wakim: Governments can always do more. Dubai and Qatar are lucky to have leaders that support that because they were trying to build the brand of the country. But in Kuwait and Bahrain, it is different. Governments hardly give any support – it’s more the private sector which pushes it through because they understand the need for it.
AGSIW: What are your goals for 2016 and long term?
Dana: We want to get into schools and work with them. Over the next five years we want to work with the Ministry of Education. If that works, maybe we can work with other ministries in the region.
Wakim: For 2016 our objective is to have the professional program and the kids’ program piloted successfully so we can move into the next level of creating the creative institution. Our ultimate objective is for Nuqat to be the reference point when it comes to anything that has to do with creative engagement.
Sultan Haitham will need to balance powerful interests while engaging all parties, especially as he tackles economic policy.
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