Brought to life: UAE animation

The animation scene in the UAE has exploded in recent years, with studios attracting a wealth of regional and international talent. Vision explores some of the success stories

It was Freej that helped change things. The Emirati animated TV series, about four Bedouin grandmothers coming to terms with the changes to their Dubai neighbourhood, was a resounding success when it premiered in 2006. Its sarcastic wit helped it to appeal across generations and borders, inviting comparisons to The Simpsons.

Its creator Mohammed Saeed Harib has gone on to work on films with the likes of Salma Hayek and Kanye West, and a new series of Freej continues to run each Ramadan.

The animation industry in the UAE has exploded since then, says Noura Masri, who manages the Cartoon Art Gallery in Dubai. “Even three or four years ago it would have been more difficult for aspiring artists who wouldn’t know where to go or how to start. Back then, [animation] wasn’t as popular.”

Growing scene

Another animation studio, Fanar Production, opened in Dubai in 2008, and launched the similarly grown-up TV series Shaabiat al Cartoon; and two years later Abu Dhabi’s multimedia organisation, Twofour54, teamed up with Cartoon Network to offer an animation academy, which begins a new season at the end of September. In 2010, the launch of Twofour54’s flagship kids’ animation, Driver Dan’s Story Train, which is voiced by the comedian Peter Serafinowitcz, also took place. It has since been sold to more than 40 countries and won a Kidscreen Award in New York in early 2013.

Energised by this success, the Indian-American cartoonist Melvin Mathew opened up the first gallery in the region dedicated to animation in Dubai in 2011, in order to help animators, illustrators and artists network, promote themselves, get motivated and learn from peers and mentors. The Cartoon Art Gallery has an upper room that can be rented out for workshops, lectures and private exhibitions, with 15 light-tables and a projector; and a gallery space downstairs for exhibitions, and sometimes even fashion shows or plays.

“Over the past two or three years the whole cartoon industry has been becoming more popular,” Masri says. “People are showing more interest and they’re not afraid to show that they appreciate cartoons.” She says that visitors to the space will often say how happy they are that there’s a finally a gallery that takes this type of work seriously. “People are saying I want to do this full-time: I want to become a professional illustrator or cartoon artist or animator.”

Over the summer, the gallery has been teaching everything from manga and stop-motion filmmaking to production design to adults and kids, and in August, an exhibition of Disney posters opened, including gorgeous Star Wars art and vintage images from the 1951 film version of Alice in Wonderland. There are original cells in the gallery’s collection from cartoons like The Pink Panther and He-Man – one-off art works from the days when a movie was hand drawn, frame by frame – as well as reproductions of graffiti art, illustrations and pieces of conceptual art.

Regional artists

While much of the content, like the current exhibition, is tilted towards American productions, the gallery is committed to promoting the work of artists from the region, too. An exhibition of the work of illustrators living in the UAE, called ‘Genius’, ran for a month last year, and the Emirati artist Khaled Bin Hamad exhibited his graphic work ‘Nasser’s Secrets: The Prologue’ at the gallery in January, in association with the Middle East Film and Comic Con. A group exhibition that opens in mid-October will be dedicated to local artists.

“Whether they are international or local, beginners or advanced, we try to encourage [artists] as much as they can to promote their work,” Masri says.

“It’s important for people to know that there are different types of styles. [The gallery] isn’t just for entertainment purposes, it’s also educational, because a lot of people don’t know the history of cartooning. Maybe most people don’t even consider cartoons as art. It’s important for people to realise, yes this is art. Graffiti, conceptual art, illustration, animation, cartoons: it all falls under the same umbrella.”