It boasts a lot of the tallest, the biggest, the grandest, and Dubai was never one for sitting back and resting on its laurels. Cue an ever-ambitious striving for one more label: to also be the city of firsts. So it only naturally followed that Dubai would be the world first to get its own Microsoft font – free for use worldwide.

The project commissioned by Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, and launched by The Executive Council of Dubai in partnership with Microsoft saw a font that reflects innovation and is future-facing, all the while keeping true to its heritage. Designed by Dr Nadine Chahine — who had previously lived and taught in Dubai and has witnessed the city’s growth firsthand — with a font family of four weights, it was made to create harmony between Latin and Arabic.

But it’s more than just a font. And to reiterate it as a tool to share thoughts and stories, Dubai Font recently roped in artists from various fields for a new project, a short film titled #ExpressYou. Spanning literature, fashion, design and sport, these individuals tell their journeys in Dubai, and their many ways of expressions.

‘#ExpressYou is designed to encourage self-expression, promote art and creativity,’ says Engineer Ahmad Al Mahri, Assistant Secretary General — Government Communication and General Secretariat Affairs. ‘Through the #ExpressYou campaign, we’re relaying the message that Dubai Font is not just a digital medium for reading and writing; it is also a means to communicate our rich heritage, tying it with our modern present, along with our aspirations for the future. Dubai Font mirrors our values and global aspirations — an inspiration for creating the #ExpressYou film.’

Maddison J ten Bohmer, author

Australian expat Maddison J ten Bohmer, 16, has been writing ever since she could read. She wrote her first book when she was about six to seven years, wrote everyday on what she did, then wrote various short stories. Until she finally started on a big one that she actually finished, written all in the Dubai Font.

Maddison's fantasy novel, Elements of Straefor, was launched in Dubai in October 2017, making it the first book in the Dubai Font
Antonin Kelian Kallouche

Maddison says she was lifeguarding on a beach in Dubai one day when she saw a big model with the hashtag Dubai Font — ‘It was bigger than me,’ she says. ‘And I thought, I have to check this out. So I went on the website, and the story was really interesting. And it was also really easy to download, and really quick and easy to use.’

She then contacted a publisher, who immediately said it’d be an amazing idea to publish a book in the Dubai Font, because it’d be the first full book to have done so — ‘and we wanted to get there first!’ she laughs.

Her fantasy novel, Elements of Straefor, was launched in Dubai in October 2017, marking two feats – as both the first book in the Dubai Font, and Maddison as one of the youngest published authors in Dubai at just 14.

Her favourite genre has always been fantasy and otherworldly stuff, and she says the story of teenage survival was one she’d been toying with for a long time. But she says it’s a testament to the various avenues Dubai offers to channel creativity, that her idea was finally put onto paper in the city, when she did a write-your-book-in-six-months course at the Dubai International Writers’ Centre with author Nicolas Forzy, who helped her with her characters and structure, until she eventually had a full book in her hands.

‘There’s always something new here, the city’s always building something new, and that gives me so much inspiration. Dubai is my home, living here for nine years, so it’s kind of the only place I remember living in, because I’ve grown in this culture in the UAE, and Dubai is just the centre of it.’

And with something always going on here, turning those ideas into opportunities isn’t tough – Maddison says she’s found all sorts of creative channels here. While living in Bahrain for a while, she recalls flying all the way to Dubai just to attend the annual Emirates Lit Fest.

‘And it’s not just writing — music, dance, drama classes there, open mic nights…there’s always something to do here that will help people be more creative.’

Maddison says publishing the book has been one amazing journey for her — ‘every child says they want to write a book but no child actually means it. To be one of the youngest authors in Dubai, and to have been the first to write in the Dubai Font — it’s an incomparable feeling.’

Maddison was at school when she got the message that she was to be featured in ExpressYou, and says she just sat staring at her phone thinking, ‘wow, I’m going to be in a film.’ But she also felt she bore a deeper responsibility — that of getting younger kids to read physical books and write more. ‘So it was both a way to promote reading, and at the same time using the Font as a shout out to a city I love. I’m leaving Dubai when I finish school to go back to Australia, so with this book I can take a piece of Dubai back with me.’

eL Seed, calligraffiti artist

Born and raised in France by Tunisian parents, eL Seed suffered an identity crisis when he was a kid. He was disconnected from his Arabic roots, speaking only the Tunisian dialect of the language at home. As he started feeling a growing need to go back to his roots, he decided to learn to read and write standard Arabic, which is when he discovered Arabic calligraphy.

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‘The funny thing is,’ eL Seed says, ‘because of calligraphy, I didn’t have to choose between my French and Tunisian identities — I was actually able to reunite them.’

eL Seed then proceeded to merge his love for street art with Arabic calligraphy, giving rise to a form of art known as calligraffiti. His art has been showcased on buildings, museums, and mosques around the world, including in major cities such as London.

‘Each project is special to me, some more than others. The energy and passion put into each is same, so I can never choose which one’s a favourite - it’s like asking which of your kids you prefer.’

But he has a favourite in Dubai – his installation for the Dubai Opera. ‘I love it for the statement it represents, a declaration of love for calligraphy right in front of the Burj Khalifa, and I love the energy of the piece.’

While he counts the Arabic script as inspiration, he also quote a French artist who said ‘inspiration is for kids, work is for an artist.’ And that’s how the artist defined himself; as someone who puts in a lot of work to open a new journey.’

Another project close to his heart is one he did in Cairo, centred around a marginalised community that has collected the trash of the city for decades. He created a piece that covers about 50 buildings, visible just from a certain point. ‘It was such a personal, human experience beyond anything I ever expected.’

He stresses on how important it is to be part of the community in Dubai too, to be part of an art scene that he wouldn’t call new, but emerging.

 

In the city that is now ‘home for me, with all the opportunities it’s given me, and its nomad culture that accepts other people and their ideas,’ he saw the Dubai Font as a new channel, a platform to share a different profile. ‘It’s called Dubai Font but it’s not about Dubai, it’s about the people who make Dubai. It’s important to show the people, to humanise the city.’

eL Seed says it was Dubai Font sharing the same values of tolerance and acceptance and inspiration as that of his work that connected him to them ‘and knew immediately I wanted to associate with the project. The ExpressYou film was like a movie set, it was a great experience, a platform for me as an artist, on how people can express themselves in different ways. But importantly, it was a statement. It was a way for Dubai to communicate that yes, everything is big, everything is shiny here, but there’s a much deeper layer. I think it breaks the wrong ideas of this city.’

His advice for emerging artists here is four-fold: ‘Work, dedication, believe in your dream, believe in something. And in Dubai, with the authorities having made such real wins with their constant push for creativity, you always know there’s a larger plan – you know you’re going to have a great journey.’

Maria Iqbal, designer

Ask Maria about her journey in art, and she’s quick to reply that it’s anything but linear, with all the twists and turns that mark the path to self-discovery. She studied business, worked in advertising, and then eight years ago decided to become a full-time artist.

‘I wasn’t happy doing what I was because I always thought you grow up and you do a job,’ Maria says as we chat in her Al Quoz studio. Everywhere I look, there are playful, quirky, loud colours and oversized patterns in vivids. ‘Yeah, I don’t do subtle, do I?’ she laughs.

‘I’d always heard art was just for fun, that you don’t make a living out of it. When I moved to India for a year while in advertising, I met some creative people in Mumbai who all felt I was wasting my time and that I needed to be a full time artist. That gave me the incentive and confidence I had needed.’

For Maria, who arrived in Dubai when she was four and spent 15 years here before moving to the US for a while, it was a homecoming of sorts when she returned to the emirate in 2011. And things immediately started etching themselves into place. ‘My dad used to be in interiors so I had all this antique furniture sitting here — that was my canvas.’

Starting with furniture, she held exhibitions at a few places including interior design event Index. That got her a lot of attention, and an acquaintance who was working for Fashion Forward asked if she did fashion or accessories. ‘I said “sure”, and used clothes as canvas. That was my entry into fashion,’ she says.

The inspiration was Maria’s obsession with cinema and its stars. ‘All that colourful pop art iconic imagery — I don’t do shy little sketches or careful lines. I was always loud and out there.’

Hating to pigeonhole herself, she has come up with a term to describe the mix her art is: surreal pop with a dash of fantasy — a term that has received impetus and appeal only over the past few years. Maria is ecstatic about the change art has encountered, the line between fine artists and commercial ones blurring. ‘When I started, I was putting faces on my clothes and people were perplexed. Now even big brands have bags with art on it, Gucci to D&G.’

Her clientele is mostly women in their late 30s and 40s, and she attributes this to more freedom. ‘Back then everyone was told to act their age, with monochromatic boring black bags. Now art is in furniture, in interior design, and it’s no more just white walls.’

Over the years here, Maria has worked with Mercedes as an ambassador, with fashion brands such as Estee Lauder and Sephora, Samsung and Coca-Cola. She equates her rise up the art ladder with that of Dubai’s — still growing, always learning, never bored.

‘When Dubai Font [team] contacted me for ExpressYou, there were no constraints. It was more ‘take this and run with it’. So I used the font, and put words using the font on a cloth for the video. I’ve always said I want to be a walking piece of art, so I wore this and they filmed me.’

Maria emphasises on the message over the medium – one of encouraging people to be themselves. ‘We are all different, and everyone is going to bring something new to the table. Earlier, we all followed the same kind of route – doctor, lawyer... Now we can all make a living from being different.’

Maria attributes a sense of fearlessness as a key to her success. ‘I used to be very scared of whether people would like my art. Now, who cares — not everyone has to like you. What makes you a successful artist is when everybody doesn’t like you. Because that means some people will really like you.’

She’s quick to recount the UAE’s influence in her creative life. ‘An artist constantly needs new material, to be in a place that is encouraging everything from architecture to fashion. I feel if I wanted to do something, this is the best country to do it. Whenever I’m trying to do something here, I feel supported. I’ve taken my stuff and gone shooting in the middle of a street, or put a model in a crazy outfit, and no one’s asked me to stop. Novelty is really respected and encouraged here. If I did that in the middle of Chicago, I’d be sure to get weird looks!’

Does the diversity here helps bring a unique perspective to the creativity bred here? ‘If you’re in a place where everyone is from the same background, trying something new won’t really be accepted. My classroom when growing up here had 35 students, and I think they were of 35 nationalities. You take [diversity] for granted.’

And the artist who sent out a message to audiences to freely express themselves says shooting the ExpressYou video ended up being a gamechanger of sorts for her too. ‘One of the things I realised after the video is how much I was stopping myself. As much as I was going with the flow, I felt I was not expressing myself completely. I thought I should walk the talk. It made me want to be more authentic and true to myself. I stepped back, took a break. You have to know what makes you happy and for that it means you must stop, reflect. I’m working on my illustrated book now using the Dubai font.

Diaa Allam, calligraphy artist

An urban planner and architect by profession, Diaa, about eight years ago started searching for what he was passionate about and rediscovered calligraphy, which he had loved since he was a kid. The Egyptian artist born and raised in the UAE then started teaching himself the art all over again, and improving his handwriting — until it became his full-time job.

‘I use freestyle modern script in Arabic and like to do geometric shapes, portraits, animal shapes, all in Arabic calligraphy — even 3D illusions,’ Diaa says. ‘I inscribe motivational and inspiring messages into murals, but it was performing live art in Arabic calligraphy that brought me popularity as audiences tend to interact more when they see it live.’

But popularity is hardly his end goal; Diaa talks of just one aim through his art — that of encouraging people to be more curious and interested in the beauty of Arabic culture. ‘With calligraphy, I try convey a message that is timeless not just for Arabic speakers but everyone — anyone can relate to my art.’

Dia has worked on two Guinness Record projects, in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah — the longest graffiti scroll in the world, and the longest glow-in-the-dark mural. He’s dabbled with calligraphy in almost all the emirates, from murals in Ajman and Dubai museums to those in Abu Dhabi and the Dubai airport. He’s also worked with brands like Google. ‘That was an interesting experience, working in 3D designing with visual reality. It made me more interested in a different kind of design too.’

He describes himself as an Egyptian artist with an Emirati spirit, and draws parallels with his and the city’s journeys, saying he always feels he works not just for himself but for the home he lives in. ‘I’ve seen how Dubai went from a small city to a world-class one, and that’s something I always aim for with my art. Seeing Dubai now and looking back at where it was about 30 years ago motivates me to do more and give more. I always tend to get inspired by Emirati culture, and I like to present that using calligraphy and live art.’

This ode to the country is strewn throughout his work. In Ramadan last year Diaa did a live show in The Dubai Mall, where he did the Burj Khalifa and a traditional building called Burjeel in Arabic calligraphy. He also did a portrait of Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Diaa says he’s been inspired by the Dubai Font ever since its launch, seeing it as ‘from Dubai to the world, just as my art is from me to the world.’ Which is why he was really excited when approached for the ExpressYou video. ‘The idea is intimate, and makes you want to speak up more about the future, about yourself, your experience, struggles. It’s all about how hard you work on yourself and on doing something different… if you do, the recognition follows, and you will always find the place to express yourself.’

Diaa says Dubai’s competitive environment has made artists like him want to push their limits every day ‘in anything they do, not just art. I’m always trying to do things never done before in my line of work.’

He vouches for the significantly improving art scene here, having seen a lot of initiatives that support local talent, and even bring international talent to showcase here.

So invested is he in promoting Arabic calligraphy, he went on to create his own brand Naht designs, which brings Arabic calligraphy more into the mainstream and people’s lives — not just on walls, but on smartphones and watches, furniture and clothing.

Diaa is confident about the UAE’s future in the creative scene. ‘Because there’s such support for creativity and excellence, the country will always be creative, different and productive.’