Smita Prabhakar, Founder and Chairperson, Ishara Art Foundation on the UAE’s Art Scene

Lindsay Judge   |   15-05-2023

Living in Dubai for over four decades Smita Prabhakar, Founder and Chairperson, Ishara Art Foundation has seen the country grow beyond belief.


This is especially true when it comes to the city and the country’s arts and culture scene, something that is quite frankly thriving today thanks to the influx of creative energy, as well as a strong focus on the industry from the country’s leadership. Smita founded Ishara Art Foundation with a desire to shine a light on South Asian art, guided by the shared histories and plural voices from across the region. Smita has been a keen collector and art patron for many years and her passion has seen her become a member of the TATE International Council (London), the Middle Eastern Circle of the Guggenheim Museum (New York) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice). Her truly unique outlook on art in the region makes her the perfect candidate to envision the future of the art world in the UAE.


This year, Ishara Art Foundation welcomes a fascinating exhibition titled Notations on Time. Running until 20th May, this unique showcase explores the philosophical and political dimensions of time through the works of 20 contemporary artists from South Asia and its diaspora. Curated by Sandhini Poddar and Sabih Ahmed, the exhibition stages a dialogue between artistic generations to highlight entanglements between the past, present and future. It exists as a veritable laboratory of time, exploring art in notational, experimental and fragmentary forms. Standing apart from Western notions of linearity, progress and capitalist domination, Notations on Time explores ontological systems that reveal how artists from this region and its diaspora think about aesthetics, existence, remembrance and futurity. As the exhibition enters its final month, we find out more about what to expect and why it’s a key showcase for the region.



Tell us about Ishara Art Foundation, what your role entails and how the foundation came to life.

Ishara Art Foundation is an amalgamation of three important factors in my life – first my commitment to contemporary art from South Asia and a deep belief that it meets and surpasses international standards, second my love for Dubai and the UAE, a city and country that has given me unparalleled opportunities, and thirdly a commitment to the community which is mandatory after 42 years of living here. Therefore, it brings together important and integral elements of my existence. My role is that of an advisor to the team and as the head who assists them in taking the mission of the Foundation forward.


Tell us about the current exhibition Notations on Time and why you decided to showcase this in particular.

The show was actually supposed to happen in 2020 but COVID did now allow it to. Sandhini Poddar and Sabih Ahmed on our Advisory Board decided jointly on the content of the show and as you may be aware the show has received great reviews. They have done me proud so my role as advisor has been well served.



What is the foundation doing to support talented artists in the region?

Ishara supports and advocates the best practices in art from South Asia. By bringing to the region artists whose practices have not been showcased yet we are helping with the cultural development of the region. When audiences in the region have the opportunity to view, comment and discuss artistic practices then automatically this will lead to a vibrant art community.


How did you first become interested in art?

I come from a family that has always been interested in culture. Also, extensive travel around the world helped me grow my interests.



What particularly interests you about art in the Middle East?

I think art is global and it is not about art from the Middle East or South Asia. The growth of practices’ thought processes and manifestations consequently are of deep interest to me.


How would you access the arts and culture industry here today?

The Sharjah Biennale, Fairs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and the numerous gallery shows are just some of the ways to access arts especially in the Emirates.



How do you think museums such as Guggenheim and Louvre coming to the UAE has impacted the arts scene?

Two words – Absolutely fantastic! What their presence does and will mean to us as a community in the Middle East is fantastic.


What more would you like to see happen to ensure the UAE is recognised on a global scale for its art and culture scene?

Many projects have already put us on the world map such as the Museum of the Future, Louvre, Guggenheim, and Sharjah Art Foundation. But we have to ensure we continue with the same passion and dedication.



What do you think it takes for young upcoming artists today to be successful?

Institutions such as Sharjah Art Foundation, Guggenheim etc. are currently creating platforms and opportunities for young artists to showcase their talents to international and domestic audiences. We too at Ishara are very proud of what we have done in the last four years.


You have been in Dubai for over four decades – tell us about your personal experience and how you have seen the city change.

I have been the lucky one – to see the growth of a country is an opportunity that only a few people have. Today there is no city better than my beloved Dubai.



This issue is about success – what does success mean to you?

I don’t know about “success”. I strive every day to be a better human being and create moments where I still learn.


What is the biggest lesson you have learnt that you would pass on to the younger generation?

Respect and good ethics in all aspects of my life are integral to my life every day.


Who is a person that has inspired you throughout your career?

I have been inspired (and continue to be) by my colleagues – their commitment, care and love.



What else is coming up for the foundation in the coming year?

We shall continue to put up exhibitions that are thought-provoking, highlight exploratory artistic practices and that initiate a dialogue within the community.