American Community School of Abu Dhabi students, Emma Hamre and Margret Emborsky, recently had the opportunity to visit NYU Abu Dhabi’s campus to interview two cultural ambassadors who had themselves just met, as part of a program for UAE/USA cultural exchange. Here they reflect on meeting the American singer-songwriter Mary McBride, who performed at NYUAD on February 12, and the Emirati artist and curator Noor Al Suwaidi, who engaged McBride in conversation at the NYUAD Institute the same evening.
Cultural diplomats show us how art and music can bring cultures, religions, and the seven billion people on this Earth together as one.
MEETING MARY MCBRIDE
Mary McBride, an American singer-songwriter, and her band, including Greg Beshers, Mark Stepro, John Kengla, and Jon Spurney, travelled to Abu Dhabi last Wednesday to perform multiple concerts at the Ability Center, NYUAD, and in Liwa. The United Arab Emirates is one of over 20 countries Mary and her band have visited in the past three years. They have released a total of four albums including “Everything Seemed Right” and “The Way Home.” Singing in an Academy Award–winning film Brokeback Mountain, performing with Elton John, and playing thousands of live shows hasn’t stalled Mary’s desire to bring music to those who need it most. In 2010, Mary founded the Home Tour, enriching lives through music and hoping to inspire and connect communities around the world by bringing music to people where they live. Common venues during the tour include long-term health care centers, homeless centers, orphanages, prisons, supported housing communities, homes for people living with HIV/AIDS, homes for veterans, and homes for people living with mental and physical disabilities, such as the Ability Center in Abu Dhabi.
“People are struggling everywhere, whether it’s at the Ability Center or whether you are playing for regular audiences,” McBride says.
“Everyone is dealing with the day to day struggles of their lives, and my hope is that our concerts give them an opportunity to let them think about what they want to think about and also to take a break from all of that. To be able to just take a break, appreciate where you are in the moment and to do that through music or through art is really what I hope people are getting out of it.”
Through music, Mary and her band aim to provide a distraction from the struggles that life brings. Despite the vast and diverse cultures of the world, she engages and communicates to her audience using music as a universal language. Since its establishment, The Home Tour has connected with more than one hundred social service organizations globally.
The Home Tour brought McBride to the attention of the US State Department, which invited her to become a US cultural envoy. “We’ve just been very fortunate to tour as cultural ambassadors,” she says. “I think partly because of what we do with the home tour and our focus on working with people with disabilities and seniors and really marginalized populations in our experience of doing that, we’ve been asked to do it again and again.”
Of course, touring and traveling for long periods of time is very draining and full of possible big and small problems. When we met Mary and the band on Thursday morning before boarding the bus and heading off to the Ability Center, there were dozens of boxes, bags, and crates. We couldn’t help thinking what would happen if one went missing? Would it be a disaster, or would they improvise?
“Touring has not been a struggle,” she told us. “Touring has just been a total joy. The struggle is not having enough time to process the information. You know, we were all at the Ability Center this morning, that’s a lot of information that comes to you, as an artist, as an experience and then we’re gonna roll onto the next show tonight and then the next one tomorrow. So I try to keep journals and kind of remind myself of the experience and how that feels. But really for the most part trying to appreciate things in the moment and trying to remember as much as I can, that’s the real struggle.”
Despite the casual and calm aura at Ability Center on Thursday morning as the kids waited itchingly in their seats facing the band and their never ending equipment and instruments, there was definitely an air of excitement. We could tell this would be something special. As soon as the band started playing, kids attending the Center with different disabilities and of all ages started to clap, dance, and most memorably, smile. The reactions of the children at the Ability Center were not much different from the reactions of the audience at the concert held at NYUAD on Thursday night. People let loose, danced, and laughed. This without a doubt showed the magic of music and how it brings us all together.
MEETING NOOR AL SUWAIDI
Along with meeting Mary McBride, we were also fortunate enough to meet another well-known artist, Noor Al Suwaidi. An Abu Dhabi native, Noor graduated from the American University in Washington, DC, with a bachelor’s degree in Studio Art. She later obtained a master’s degree in Curating Contemporary Design from Kingston University, London. Noor’s artwork has been exhibited in gallery shows in London, Kuwait, Berlin, Washington D.C., Dubai, Sharjah, Al Ain, and Abu Dhabi. Currently, she is represented by Cuadro Gallery in Dubai. As a curator, Noor specializes in curating exhibitions of Emirati artists both locally and internationally including for the UAE Embassy in Washington D.C. and within the UAE for galleries in Sharjah and Dubai. She also works for Sotheby’s in London, ING in Amsterdam, and on art and cultural projects for both Dubai Arts and Culture Authority and TDIC’s Cultural Department. Currently, Noor is a part-time faculty at the College of Art and Creative Enterprises at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. The most recent show she curated, “Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates,” is currently touring in the United States.
We asked her how it feels to be a curator as well as an artist. “Curating is when you have a concept and you get artwork to say your message,” she told us.
“I never really felt like there was a big difference between my art practice and my curating because you use your paintings to tell something and you use artwork to say something else… It’s really important for me to create platforms for these emerging artists so they can explore and produce and not be in a commercial venue where they have to stress and worry about making money or selling so they can be as adventurous and courageous as they want.”
Even though we are many in this world, there are aspects of society that bring us together as one. Both Noor and Mary spoke of how the arts are a means of communication between nations, cultures, and religions. Noor shared that her dream exhibit would be combining cultures from all over the world and showing their similarities in one venue. Similarly, Mary said that no matter where they traveled during their tour, they were surprised by what artists and songs people knew and identified with. Both of these cultural diplomats show us how art and music can bring cultures, religions, and the seven billion people on this earth together as one.