Art courses look to develop Islamic crafts and supply staff for a growing industry

July 7, 2006

Times Higher reporters investigate the changing face of higher education in the United Arab Emirates

The first students about to graduate from a fine art course at Sharjah's College of Fine Arts will provide qualified staff for the increasing number of museums and galleries in the third largest of the United Arab Emirates.

Sharjah has a population of 600,000, more than 25 museums and galleries, and the prospect of an Islamic art museum opening in April 2007 and a contemporary art museum within the next five years.

The college is an integral element of the process of promoting art and culture.

Although art is not taught in any national school in the UAE, there is growing interest in a three-year degree course at the five-year-old college.

When the course first began, students specialised in painting, sculpture or printmaking from the second year on.

But a shift in emphasis during the Sixth Sharjah International Biennial in 2001 shrugged off the previous conventional approach and directed the spotlight instead on installations, multimedia, animation, performance, digital and web art.

Peter Wheeler, dean of the college, said that allowing students to work across media boundaries would enable them to find employment in the burgeoning cultural industries of the UAE.

"We now cover printmaking, papermaking, photography, film, video and digital media," he explained.

"But our philosophy isn't just vocational and getting a job is not an end in itself."

In addition to practical studio work, students are taught art history by faculty mostly from the US and the UK. Although there is an Islamic dimension to the course, with the arts of Islam and the Orient also on offer, the feel of the college is decidedly Western.

Khalifa El Shimy, Sheikh Sultan Al Qassimi's personal calligrapher, teaches Arabic calligraphy at the college.

He said that the female students were especially gifted in the elaborately ornate lettering. "They have the patience to master the exacting requirements - unlike the boys."

Mr Wheeler is considering adding other arts and crafts associated with Islam, such as ceramics and metalwork, to the curriculum.

The fine art programme has been granted initial accreditation by the Commission for Academic Accreditation, a branch of the federal Ministry of Higher Education.

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