In the Gulf Arab states, there is a growing trend of entrepreneurship in the field of art, as millennials pursue creativity in their careers. These “artrepreneurs” often collide with a complementary trend of social entrepreneurship, bringing together art and philanthropy in ways that are meaningful and even profitable.
Emirati artist Noor Shamma has been making headlines across the United Arab Emirates for her project, the Postcard Initiative. Launched in May 2015, the initiative began as a personal art project for Noor but has since grown into a national campaign to ameliorate eye diseases and blindness around the world. The initiative’s creative blend of art and marketing ties in with Noor’s vision of herself as an artrepreneur. The 32 year old studied design management at the American University of Sharjah and is currently the head of communications and public affairs at the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. AGSIW spoke with Noor about the Postcard Initiative and what it means to be an artrepreneur.
AGSIW: What initially drew you to art and design?
Noor: Art has been the one constant in my life since childhood. For as long as I remember, I have loved every form of art: drawing and painting, knitting and needlework, arts and crafts, interior design and architecture, and the list goes on. I knew I wanted to major in arts, one way or another. I first considered getting into fine arts, but then design management felt like the wisest decision to make since it had a reasonable balance between art and the business world.
I mostly do art for my own pleasure as I find it very therapeutic in the middle of the hustle and bustle of my crazy life and I try to find time to practice it, though I don’t as often as I’d ideally like to. It’s something I’m very passionate about – if I start working on a piece, I can spend hours and hours and hours in that same chair drawing or painting.
AGSIW: Tell us about the Postcard Initiative.
Noor: I started the campaign through my Instagram account, inviting followers to send me their addresses, and I would send them handwritten postcards. The idea was simply to revive a lost art and work through a long-term creative project. But the response I received was overwhelming – in a few short months, I was sending hundreds of postcards to people all over the world.
Later in 2015, I partnered with the Noor Dubai Foundation, which works to combat the causes of eye diseases in developing countries, to direct the project toward a good cause. I began soliciting artwork to feature on the postcards from graphic designers, photographers, fashion designers, and others. Participating artists from all over the world pay 500 UAE dirhams, or around $137, to have their work featured on a postcard. Twenty percent of that goes to Noor Dubai to support their work. To date, the Postcard Initiative has helped restore the sight of over 1,500 people around the world.
The Postcard Initiative also functions as a marketing tool for participating artists, who can include their information on the cards, thus leveraging it as a marketing tool.
AGSIW: Were you surprised at the success and attention the Postcard Initiative received?
Noor: At first, I honestly didn’t expect many to be interested in receiving a postcard, but then when the random requests came in from people around the world sending their mailing addresses waiting in anticipation to receive those postcards, I realized that yes, sometimes less is more.
Receiving a postcard provokes a sense of nostalgia in people. It is that classic form of communication, the handwritten note, the ink, the stamp, the paper – all of it; it is an experience.
I think receiving a simple postcard can make anyone smile, especially in a fast-paced world. Sometimes, you need to stop and smell the roses and I think those postcards have resulted in a similar effect on people.
AGSIW: What are common attitudes toward charity in a wealthy country like the UAE?
Noor: I don’t think I am in a place to generalize, but through my own experience, I believe that the art of giving has no specific culture or identity. I would like to believe that it’s an instinctive thing to want to extend a helping hand to others in need but, unfortunately, this may not always be the case. This got to me at first when not everyone was interested to help out with a small donation that could actually make a difference. But then again, rejection is part of the package. This project taught me never to judge. For example, a lady carrying the latest Chanel bag will not necessarily make a $3 donation, while a simple waiter at the cafe I’d be promoting the initiative in would make a $10 donation. I learned to go in with no expectations and that drastically helped manage my level of disappointment.
AGSIW: What does being an artrepreneur mean to you?
Noor: In brief, artrepreneurship portrays the notion of thinking beyond the idea and beyond the art. In my case, I utilized art in a humanitarian cause and consequently achieved tangible results.
Find out more about the Postcard Initiative and Noor Shamma’s art and photography on her website.
Nadia Eldemerdash is a writer and editor based in the United States. She has a master’s degree in political science from the University of Toronto, where she studied social issues and public policy in the Gulf region. She also writes about migration, minority issues, and popular culture.
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