Students Savor Studies in Sharjah

Eight art and design majors journeyed to the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates for two weeks in March. They worked with Sharjah students to create a large wheat paste mural that featured themes of community, communication and culture. They also spent time exploring the desert, museums and galleries, ascending the world’s tallest building and learning about Arabic food and culture.
The exchange, facilitated by printmaking professors Heather Muise and Matthew Egan, was in response to five students and two faculty members from Sharjah that visited ECU’s campus in November.
Abir Abumohsen, a master’s of fine arts degree candidate studying ceramics, said that meeting students from Sharjah at ECU in the fall created an instant connection. “When I got there, it was nice to see them again,” she said.
ECU students brought work and mounted a collaborative exhibition with University of Sharjah students. Abumohsen exhibited mixed media drawings that explored the Muslim female image in social media. Graduate student Emily Branch brought landscape work.
MFA painting candidate Andrew Wells exhibited two large charcoal drawings that explore relationships with social media. “They were big and satirical images,” he said. “There were a lot of comments about them from students and professors.”
Wells said that attending classes in Sharjah was similar to attending classes at ECU. “The professors have their little quirks and sayings,” he explained. “It’s like you never left the U.S. Students still pull out their phones during class.”
In addition to attending classes, ECU students offered presentations about their work and offered workshops. Wells used a series of 40 drawings to demonstrate stop motion animation, ultimately crushing a chicken with a rock. “You have to keep people entertained,” he explained. Abumohsen taught hand-building techniques in clay.
For Muise and Egan, sharing the Middle East with others has been a mission. Muise first worked in Sharjah after she graduated. She and Egan have returned repeatedly over the years, including two years of service during which they took a leave of absence from East Carolina. “It’s our mission to facilitate cultural exchange between ECU and the United Arab Emirates,” Muise explained. “We know everybody in arts academia there, so it works to our advantage.”
“It was an amazing opportunity,” Wells said. “Having teachers who know the place, you got to interact with locals and students who are living there on such an intimate level. We went to a lot of their shows.”
Abumohsen moved to the U.S. from Gaza when she was 12. “I grew up in a part of the middle east that was so destroyed,” she said. “It was exciting to be going to a place where there was so much advancement.” Fittingly, her artistic work is about building bridges between the West and East.
Branch says that because her generation grew up in the shadow of 9/11, she’s searching for a deeper understanding. “I wanted us to be good examples of Americans. The Middle East sees lots of negative images of Americans, just as Americans see lots of negative images of the Middle East. Now, I think we have a better understanding.”
Muise says her ultimate goal is to facilitate semester-long exchanges between the two universities and cultures.
In addition to engaging in campus life, ECU students went offroad in the desert, surfed sand dunes on snowboards, saw a falcon show, rode camels, experienced bellydancing and walked around the mall of Dubai. The trip was timed to experience the Sharjah Biennial, a festival that invited 50 artists from 25 countries to introduce their ideas of “the possible” through their art.
“The world is so small,” said Wells. “There are other places I could go, but going there, actually going and seeing, it completely changed everything.”