In conversation with NYUAD’s Alaa Edris: The best ways to get art across to the youth

Alaa has been part of initiatives committed to creating a platform for the future

Museums and galleries are not often considered synonymous with the younger generation’s interests. With accessibility being a long-standing issue in the world of art, making it appealing to the digital demographic is a far more complex challenge. For Alaa Edris, however, it is simply a matter of utilising her position as Assistant Director of Publications and Education at NYU Abu Dhabi The Art Gallery to rise to the occasion.

While art classes were considered more like a free period back in her school days, her time at the gallery has yielded optimism for the future with several school visits scheduled. Most even have a proper art curriculum, she says on the welcome change in times.

Since her early days in the industry, Alaa has been part of initiatives committed to creating a platform for the future. While at Sharjah’s Department of Culture, she was part of the team that worked on the Ship of Tolerance, by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, two of the most respected artists of their generation. The international installation project created waves for addressing socio-political issues, reaching out to and inspiring younger generations. Over 200 school students came together to create the magnificent ship’s sail.


Nyuad Art Gallery


Following several other noteworthy stints, she then moved to NYU Abu Dhabi The Art Gallery in 2015. Interestingly, all roads always led to sensitising young minds towards art. “My first task was setting up the Slavs and Tatars show and one of the installations required a student who could recite the Quran and poetry,” she says. “I helped them find someone, which led to us creating bilingual collateral for The Art Gallery, and then I decided to create material for our younger audiences.”

You might also like: These Arts & Culture stories

From then on, it was simply about devising the best approach. In 2016, the team developed a young person’s guide to Diana Al-Hadid ’s first solo exhibition in the Arab world, Phantom Limb. Alaa then suggested working with rising locally based artists to develop the guide, incidentally a huge hit and their first confirmation of a market for youth arts programmes.

However, art can often convey concepts too convoluted for young minds. Fortunately, there was a simple solution for it. “Permanent Temporariness: Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, in 2018, talked about refugee issues, The Occupation, and other challenging but important ideas for children. Our idea was to introduce them to installation art, using a school tree, the ghaf tree, as the main character and utilising the space around it as an educational circle.

“We found a way to talk about these difficult issues in a simple and accessible way,” Alaa says. “For Ways of Seeing in 2018, we highlighted interactive pieces in the show, including an artwork that consisted of a chocolate bar on a pedestal with a sign that said ‘no’, so it was like a psychological test – are you going to take it? Interestingly, nobody did,” she adds.


Nyuad Art Gallery


The initiatives have been further spurred on by an overwhelmingly positive response. Even as family tours have youth guides for children aged eight and above, there are four- and five-year-old takers for art. In 2019, the gallery hosted Zimoun and created an interactive cardboard box, with different tools and a map of the exhibition with cards. This forced visitors to go around the exhibition, read about the works on the cards, and then flip the card to see questions designed to make them think.

The Teen Council will help develop fresh ideas and perspectives to positively shape the nation’s future direction. The use of interactive sticker books and field journals provoked further thought, allowing children to delve further into the world and question why certain visuals elicit specific emotions, helping them develop characters that represent the art.

All of this, of course, culminated in the formation of a Teen Council in 2021. Consisting of six members aged 13 to 18, these trusted advisors to The Art Gallery provide regular input on upcoming exhibitions and public programmes. Alaa says that these activities will go a long way in the development of children’s ability to question things, a skill imperative to building a better society.

“Since The Art Gallery’s inception in 2014, we have strived to become a centre of activity where local communities can experience the arts in a collaborative way while contributing to the region’s cultural ecosystem,” she says. “The Teen Council will help develop fresh ideas and perspectives that will positively shape the nation’s future direction.”


For more information, visit nyuad-artgallery.org

Follow Yalla – Abu Dhabi Life for more educational stories across the capital

Image source NYUAD Art Gallery


Derek Issacs

A Brit in the Middle East for 25 years and counting, Derek loves scouring the streets for those under-the-radar cultural gems. And when he’s not putting Yalla – Abu Dhabi magazine to bed, you’ll find him working out at the gym.