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Emirati painter Maisoon Al Saleh on why she uses bones and skulls in her artwork
Emirati artist Maisoon Al Saleh
For Maisoon Al Saleh, her art is not merely for exhibition but a way to tell a story.
The 28-year-old Emirati painter takes her inspiration from history, with skulls and bones a prevalent motif in her works.
Works by Al Saleh, who graduated from Zayed University in 2010 with a degree in interior design, have featured in several group exhibitions in the UAE, in addition to two solo shows.
She explains that while most people associate skeletons with death, she sees them as a reminder that we are all the same.
How long have you been making art and why did you choose to pursue it as a career?
I was raised by an artistic family and have been ¬creating art since my childhood. My aunt is a fine artist, my mother is into fashion designing and my father likes photography.
What is your biggest source of inspiration?
My art dives, sometimes literally, below the obvious meaning residing on the surface of stories and accounts of the past. I focus on bones and skulls as a means of telling stories that transcend age and gender. I’m inspired in part by historic representational art, like the famous early 20th-¬century Calaveras [skull] prints of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. In each of my paintings, skeletal compositions reveal stories from Emirati life, culture and history, asserting new meaning that takes the viewer past the symbolic association with death and poison.
How did the fascination with the human skeleton begin?
It started with a standard medical check-up I had before enrolling in university. When the doctor put my own X-ray on a light box, I felt inspired and so I started to work with bones and X-rays. It also got me thinking about equality. In the end, we are all skeletons – there is no differentiation between gender, age and nationality.
You did a whole exhibition about the Dara, the ship that was wrecked off the coast of Dubai in the 1960s. Tell us about that.
The Dara Chronicles was my second solo show. I produced a set of mixed-media images that explore stories and documented accounts of the ¬Dubai-based M V Dara, a passenger liner that exploded in the Gulf on April 8, 1961. I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather about that night on the vessel.
Beginning with an exploratory dive at the Dara gravesite itself, I researched the event thoroughly and made art inspired by letters written by the shipping company and police investigators, news articles and stories told by survivors or families of the deceased. I brought the viewers into a discussion about the importance of Emirati history and challenged how we think about history, memory and their representation in mainstream media.
What is the story behind your most recent work, a series of 600 silk screens ¬installed in Düsseldorf, ¬Germany.
I won a grant through the Daman Art Exchange programme – a collaboration between Daman, the health insurance company in the UAE, and the Lepsien Art Foundation. I was invited to spend a few weeks at the Art House in Düsseldorf. I produced the silk screens as a series of playing cards, faceless, with traditional Emirati clothing and Arabic text – they were a series of limited ¬editions.
Where can we see your work?
My work had been exhibited in the UAE at various exhibitions, including Art Dubai, Emirati expressions at Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi and World Art Dubai. Abroad, I have had pieces shown at the Macedonian Museum in Greece, the Palazzo Te Museum in Italy, Centro Cultural CajaGranada in Spain and in group exhibitions in the ¬United States.

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