Emirati artist Najat Makki on her artistic process, and how AI could destroy art

Emirati artist Najat Makki made history as a student of art. Today, she continues to explore it from every angle.

Najat Makki's artwork.
Najat Makki
Najat Makki's artwork.

Emirati artist Najat Makki on her artistic process, and how AI could destroy art

Abu Dhabi: Childhood memories, grandmother’s stories, the gulf and the desert – these are subjects of paintings by Emirati artist Najat Makki.

The leading visual artist, whose works have penetrated both the regional and global art scene, does not limit herself to one methodology, movement or established style, but rather revels in the exploration of different forms, allowing her artwork to inspire and guide her.

Makki is the first Emirati woman to earn a PhD degree in art. She also made history as the first Emirati woman to receive a government scholarship to study abroad in 1977. She returned in the early 1980s with a Bachelor's degree in relief sculpture and metals from Cairo University.

Since then, she has established herself as one of the pioneers of visual art in the UAE.

She began as a sculptor after university but soon turned toward relief sculpting – a method where sculpted pieces remain attached to a solid background of the same material, appearing as though they’re raised above or protruding from it.

“I realised that sculpture did not receive enough attention in our region and that it required a large space and special tools. So, I turned to drawing ... Through drawing, I turned toward relief sculpture,” she said. “I used lines, shadows and light to create a sense of dimension that highlights the artwork and presents it in a three-dimensional form.”

The technique often uses materials such as pastes and thick layers of paint on canvas; sometimes, several pieces of paper are placed next to each other in a collage style to give the artwork the impression of having high and low surfaces, suggesting dimension. Shadow and light play against each other to enhance a piece’s depth.

Makki's work has appeared in several solo exhibitions, including the "Distinctive Mark" exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum and others at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, the Sharjah Art Gallery and the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Foundation in Dubai.

She has also participated in numerous group exhibitions and international events, including the 6th Luxor International Painting Symposium in Egypt, the International Sculpture Symposium in China, and others inside and outside the UAE.

Najat Makki
Najat Makki's artwork.

Throughout her artistic career, she has moved freely between artistic movements and styles, such as abstract and expressionism, never confining herself to just one.

She suggested that art itself often has power over the artist.

“It is necessary for an artist to explore all directions, as their mood may sometimes lead them down a certain path, where lines and shapes impose their own rhythms,” said Makki.

It is necessary for the artist to explore all directions, as their mood may sometimes lead them down a certain path, where lines and shapes impose their own rhythms.

Emirati artist Najat Makki

Speaking of the artistic process, she said that first, artists tend to decide what they want to depict and how. Once the subject and style are settled, they consider things like colour and composition; how they want to balance and arrange every element.

All of this together ultimately shapes the artwork, how it looks and feels, and whether it's abstract, impressionistic or something else. Often, the result is a distinctive piece of art that the artist feels worthy to show to the public.

Nature, women and the environment

For Makki, her surroundings have always played a large part in her creativity.

"The environment, in general, impacts a creator, whether they're an artist, photographer, poet, or otherwise. I drew inspiration from many things in my environment," she said.

"As a child, I heard interesting stories from women in our house who met with my mother. Perhaps, back then, as an artist and as a child, I had a great imagination and a tendency to be curious," she added.

As she grew, so did her imagination. She began to explore and read about mythology across the ages.

"I found that each society had its own stories and legends. In some exhibitions, I tried to embody some of the environmental symbols found in the mythology of our Arab and Gulf regions through tales, symbols, and ways of life," she said.

Najat Makki
Najat Makki's artwork.

In addition to mythology, women have had a significant presence in Makki's work.

"In my works, women appear in various forms that showcase them as independent beings, yet united in society with men," she said.

"They participate in development through education, and through their status in society; they are valued as mothers or grandmothers, embracing their grandchildren. They also appear as loving women, standing with their husbands and friends," she added.

Makki also uses elements from nature to symbolise women, including the the sea, "with all its beauty and depth, to express women's patience and generousity," and towering palm trees, "as they are part of the Emirati and Arab heritage, so I used them as a symbol of a woman standing strong against storms and possessing resilience."

Circle of life

Other symbols recur in Makki's work, such as the circle. This was inspired by her study of coins, as well as by certain philosophers. This particular element was "remarkably present" in her first exhibition.

"It reflected some readings in the thoughts of many philosophers such as Ibn Sina and others. Some of them see the circle as the soul, an expression of death and life – or the entire world. It may signify the beginning of existence and serve as a starting point for any endeavour undertaken by humans," she said.

The deeper Makki delved into studying coins, the more she understood the significance and varied meanings of the circle. She began to see the shape in a new light.

"A different philosophy became more evident in my artworks, such as metal coins and their principles, symbols, and artistic elements, including the crescent, the stars, or the sun. In certain Eastern or Western societies, many of these symbols appear; they are associated with the planets or stars," she said.

Najat Makki

"These symbols sometimes reflect customs and beliefs. In ancient times, during the reign of the Mughal kings, for example, all signs of the zodiac appeared on coins, because they were associated with specific days that influenced the environment or the kings through astrology or other means," she said.

Calm after the storm

Makki reflected on her relationship with a blank canvas – a stretch of white waiting between four corners; she compared the entire process to a birth of sorts.

"At first, there is a mental and emotional struggle," she said. "The artist lives in anxiety and wanders in all directions, eventually finding a sense of calm after deciding on the colours to use. Then, they start to add elements gradually, refining those elements with precision and care, because any imbalance in one element affects all others."

At first, there is a mental and emotional struggle. The artist lives in anxiety and wanders in all directions, eventually finding a sense of calm.

Emirati artist Najat Makki

After this process concludes, many artists would choose to name their painting. But for Makki, she prefers to leave her artwork untitled.

"I leave them to the viewer. I place the elements and leave them to their interpretation. When I do use a title, it's because it is a condition of a specific competition," she said.

In 2013, poet and filmmaker Nujoom Alghanem documented Makki's artistic journey in a documentary titled "Red, Blue, Yellow," which screened at the 36th Cairo International Film Festival. Though it shines a light into Makki's process, there's much more to be discovered about the artist.

"The film covers a part of my career because it is impossible to capture all of my artistic experiences," said Makki. "It focuses on some of the habits that I have throughout the day while painting and working."

Najat Makki
Najat Makki

Technology offers advantages but AI can destroy art

When comparing the present state of art to its past, Makki sees a constant renewal and a "radical" difference.

There are countless new tools at an artist's disposal today, which she views these as both promising developments and a potential threat to the arts.

"A lot has changed. Nowadays, there are several technologies that an artist can use to help create their artwork faster," she said.

For example, if she wants to borrow from her existing paintings, she can do so without losing colour fidelity. There are also many techniques and raw materials to choose from, which can makesit difficult for an artist to decide what would work best for their art.

"The present is radically different from the past. In the past, we used to resort to shadow and light to create an illusion of depth, but today there are materials that create this impression, or technical programs that help me give a painting a concrete form," she said. 

"Working methods have changed and now have a great impact on the artist, their time and their product," she added.

The present is radically different from the past ... Working methods have changed and now have a great impact on the artist, their time and their product.

Emirati artist Najat Makki

Despite her enthusiasm for new technology, Makki finds one controversial development a bit puzzling – artificial intelligence. AI has come under fire recently, due to the fact that it uses existing artwork to imitate and automate art.

"It's confusing because it can eliminate the artist's role. Once a command is given by someone who is unfamiliar with art, like 'draw me a painting by Picasso using these colours,' an image appears that looks like a copy of Picasso's work," she said.

"AI can destroy art, and with AI, we can see a million different versions of a single painting. Even before the advent of artificial intelligence, we were witnessing the forgery of artworks through the creation and distribution of copies of artists' works. Many artists encountered this problem, as some of their printings were printed and sold," she said.

"I see that AI has a good side and a bad side, and I hope that we choose the side that leads us to elevate art, and reach higher levels of artistry."

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