Celebrating the Culture and Heritage of the UAE: ‘Hekayeh’ at New York University Abu Dhabi

I sat down with Bill Bragin, Culture and Arts impresario and Executive Arts Director of The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. We discussed everything from the art of curation to the upcoming second annual edition of Hekayeh. The highly anticipated event is a celebration of UAE’s National Day that shares the stories and artistic talents of locals and expatriates in the country.

Dorian: Where did you grow up and how did that shape your life?                                 

Bill: I grew up in Long Island, in the suburbs of New York City. It was a typical suburban upbringing but beginning in eighth grade I started going into the city on my own. This exposed me to an abundance of music, theater and art from a young age.

Dorian: How do you curate your events each season at NYU?

Bill: I think a lot about the communities here – both at NYU Abu Dhabi, and the UAE in general. I decide what will resonate with audiences who are varied in backgrounds, experiences, cultures and experiences. I look for artists who want to do more than just show up and do a show.

Dorian: Last December, you debuted Hekayeh which you’ll be holding against this month. Where did you get the idea for this event from, and what should we look for in the upcoming one?

Bill: This is an event that was inspired by an event I used to present at Lincoln Center called La Casita, which was a celebration of oral traditions through poetry and music. Because poetry is such a revered art form in Emirati culture, and because the spoken word scene has grown so much thanks to Rooftop Rhythms and its offspring, it made sense to adapt this approach to the UAE by building it around National Day as a celebration of heritage and identity.

Dorian: How does this event compare to the one you held last year?

Bill: One of the most important things about Hekayeh is the curatorial process. For Hekayeh, my primary role is curating the curators –  an Emirati poetry expert Mohamed al Hashemi, a community based artist and event organizer Zari Jafri, an NYUAD poetry professor and artist Jill Magi, an NYUAD student, this year Nafi Mounkaila, who performed last year, and you. Each curator nominates artists from their own communities and aesthetic world, and then as a group we review submissions and select the final list, which is different from what any of us would do on our own. This year’s Hekayeh has a little more music than last year, and artists come from more varied backgrounds.

Dorian: Why do you think Hekayeh is needed?

Bill: Hekayeh is a celebration of the UAE, designed to honour National Day and Emirati heritage, while also looking at the uniquely polyglot society the UAE has built. It builds and strengthens community through art, which is one of the main missions of The Arts Center.

Dorian: The Arts Center has given Abu Dhabi, and the UAE a world-class culture and arts scene. How do you see the art scene developing in the coming years?

Bill: There’s so much energy happening now with new venues opening like Warehouse 421. Audiences are discovering unfamiliar forms of expression and ways of making art. I can’t wait for the Louvre, and then the Guggenheim and Sheikh Zayed National Museum to open in Abu Dhabi.  In Dubai we have Alserkal Avenue, Dubai Opera, Cinema Akil and so on. I’d love to see more venues where independent artists can have a chance to develop their original work in front of audiences.

Dorian: Any thoughts you want to leave us with?

Bill: Heidi Rodewald, who is here with Stew for their show Notes of Native Song, gave a songwriting workshop the other night and talked about her artistic journey. She described discovering punk rock in LA, after growing up on show tunes and bands like The Carpenters, and “finding her tribe.” The next night, audience member and Arts Center regular Zainab Hafiz told me that every time she comes to our events she walks away changed. I couldn’t imagine a better compliment. I’m grateful to see the many regulars who come week after week, finding their tribe here at The Arts Center.

Dorian: Speaking of finding things, I can’t seem to locate my wallet. Can you find it in your gracious heart to pay the bill?

Bill: *Stares blankly.

Love our stories? Connect with us!
Facebook: Feel Your Tempo
Twitter: @tempoplanet
Instagram: @feelyourtempo