The surreal and intimate photography of Lateefa bint Maktoum

The artist and creator of Tashkeel talks to Laura Egerton about why her recent work has been some of her most intimate – and powerful – yet

“People tell me ‘I don’t know anything about art but I like it’. Well if you feel it, you feel it. That’s it.”

There’s a wonderful pragmatism to Lateefa bint Maktoum’s approach to life, reflected in her own photography and the principles behind Tashkeel, the contemporary art organisation she founded in Nad Al Sheba, Dubai nine years ago.

On graduation Lateefa saw the paucity of peer-to-peer learning outside academic structures in the Emirates. Tashkeel is a unique place where male and female artists and designers can work freely alongside each other. She is a believer in personalised education; the sort propagated by Bill Gates and encourages cross-cultural dialogue: “It takes you in different directions," she says.

“We are not importing artwork from abroad, we bring in people to interact with the members. They take a bit of us and we take a bit of them and something happens”.

Lateefa has devoted valuable time and energy to Tashkeel’s members and is proud of their successes. “I like seeing people achieve what they set out to achieve,” whether studying for a masters or gaining recognition for their practice. Caligraffiti artist eL Seed talks openly of how Lateefa pushed him out of his comfort zone, forcing him to make the type of work that got him where he is today.  She favours an open-call framework for exhibitions, such as ‘Mind the Gap’ opening this March, as it helps find the next generation. “It’s about being current, just seeing what they are up to now”.

‘New Chapter’ is the first solo exhibition of Lateefa’s photography. This is particularly surprising when you consider the colossal impact her work has had during the past decade both at home and abroad, in the Venice Biennale in 2011 and at the Insitut du Monde Arabe, Paris in 2015. Her distinct practice of digital montage, placing solitary figures in a dramatic landscape succinctly represents the Emirates battle with its rapid development.

Lateefa Bint Maktoum photography
'Family', 2016

“I never went indoors before this project,” the artist divulges. “Indoors means inside your heart”. Motherhood inspired her new body of work, which feels intensely personal. She talks openly of spending time with her father (The late His Highness) Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai from 1958 – 1990, first Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai who passed away in 2006. In the piece Connection, the artist reads a book on the history of the Emirates to her young son. A family photograph on the table beside them includes her late father and brother.

The artist tells us she held herself back, she could, and will go further; for example she stopped herself shooting in her son’s bedroom. “I started writing key words, deciding what journey I want to follow”. The images act as a rite of passage. Beginning, shot on her wedding day, has a stage door visible behind her wedding dress. “It triggered me to stage the rest. Life is a performance, it’s what you reveal to people from that - some things are your own, some things are public, because other people are going through the same thing”.

Sustaining Identity, a work that broke records selling for AED14m at a charity auction in 2015 is an aerial shot of mother and child playing. “Some things just happen – you can’t explain them, I see them and I make them”. Returning to her fine arts training, Lateefa frequently sketches and then paints a scene before picking up her camera, inspired by the meticulous planning of photographers such as Gregory Crewdson. For the show she ventured for the first time into the realm of installation, intentionally blocking off a usual circulatory route of the gallery space with Patience – a claustrophobic interior full of ticking clocks.

“I like to be uncomfortable," she concludes. "I think you never grow unless you are uncomfortable."