Marla Allison: Natives Sharing

Since graduating from IAIA, Institute of American Indian Arts, Marla Allison has grown personally, and creatively. Through self-expression and opportunities to be a participant in the international art community, Marla has been inspired by others, while sharing her own creative vision. Marla Allison

For the month of April 2017, the Laguna Pueblo village of Paguate was without their progressive young painter. She seized the opportunity to participate in an artist residency in the United Arab Emirates under an invitation from the Abu Dhabi Art Hub.
Allison was first contacted by the Art Hub in September through her Facebook page not long after she finished showing her work in the Santa Fe Indian Market. The Abu Dhabi group informed her about their artist residency program. The artist expressed an interest which began the application process, including submitting 20 images of her completed paintings. Allison didn’t expect to be selected because of the quality of the work by the many Native American artists applying.

Allison’s wait to find out if she had been selected took four months, December through February, but it seemed much longer she admitted. Finally, in March, she received the news of her acceptance via an email. She was among the four Native American artists from the United States who were accepted to participate in Native American Art Month in Abu Dhabi. The four other artists chosen to participate were Monte “Black Pinto Horse” Yellow Bird Sr., an Arikara/Hidatsa painter, Ben Pease of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes, Mayan and Nahua muralist and street artist Votan Henriquez, and Dine’ weaver, Emma Robbins.

Although she was surprised to be chosen Allison said, she “had left the month of April open just in case she was accepted. To be included in the inaugural group was pretty phenomenal.”

For about the first two weeks after landing in Abu Dhabi, the artists were given the opportunity to become acclimated. While gathering their materials they also learned the history of the Arab people, an education that seeped into their work and provided a cultural exchange of the heart.

“We were mostly in Abu Dhabi, sometimes in Dubai. We had a lot of trips back and forth,” stated the artist. Abu Dhabi Art Hub

An Arab philosophy that Allison could closely relate to was the desire to advance modern ideas while continuing to honor their traditions. This progressive idea has been promoted by Abu Dhabi’s current Sheikh Zayed, who has been most generous with his new-found wealth from the development of oil-rich properties. Allison lives in a world that is facing the same struggle, of honoring the past and their elders while keeping pace with a modern world. The artist depicted the blending of traditional practices with the modern in her painting of a woman surrounded by pottery motifs of both the Pueblo and Arab cultures.

Under Gold Embellishment

One event that the artists regretted just missing was the camel races. A visitor to the Hub, who had attended the races was able to share videos with them. The Pueblo painter compared it to a Pow Wow with observers to the dances, eating food, and a lot of socializing. Native American get-togethers are great for the latter, especially when there is a mixing of tribes and an opportunity to make new friends.

This photo is apparently of a race in a small village. The artist learned that “in smaller villages, people ride the camels, but in a professional race they are guided by a machine because the weight of a human slows them down. A true racing camel can cost $20-$30 million. Even a very old camel, because they can still breed and have that status of being a racing camel.”

racing fan
Racing Fan
Camel races in Abu Dhabi
Enjoying the Dance
Pow Wow dancers

Another treat that the artist shared with me was her little stash of dates. This was special to her, I could tell by the way she generously rationed a few to me, and I almost felt guilty trying them. But in listening to her story, the dates treat made the whole journey seem closer and so romantic. The artists had been taken to the Liwa Oasis located on the tribal lands of the Bani Yas tribe, the location of many date plantations and the Liwa Date Festival held in July each year. The Liwa Date Festival attracts about 2,000 date growers and tens of thousands of onlookers, and offers folklore competitions and heritage shows. Dates were first cultivated in this area by the Bedouin who found underground water resources, developed them, and began to plant date trees. Historically, the leading family of the Bani Yas is now the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, Al Nahyan.   Liwa Oasis

The Hunter

Allison collected the different types of dates in the marketplace, there were three. Khudri, from Saudi Arabia, Medjool, which is said to have originated in Morocco, but Allison said the market carried a Palestinian variety, and Ajwa, considered to be the most beneficial for one’s health and is from Medinah.

To allow the artists complete freedom to create, and experience the culture, their Art Hub host supplied a staff of three women from the larger group of employees. The women, who happened to be Filipino, acted like combination secretaries, chefs, and personal assistants. One woman was well-informed about galleries and artists, the second woman cared for their printing, computer, and graphics needs, and the third was their cook.

“She was just phenomenal,” said Allison about their cook, “she had a menu, but I didn’t know what I wanted. I told her to make me whatever, and I’d eat it. She knew what I ate and didn’t eat, and she would just surprise me. For instance, she made a burrito with Pakistani bread, almost like a tortilla, but cooked on both sides, real flatbread folded, it was amazing. Everything was fresh that day.”

How did the Art Hub relate to the way Native American artists presented their themes? Was there a level of similarity, did they consider her voice in which she expressed traditions to be very modern? Surprisingly, the painter didn’t meet many local artists, “because there aren’t many local artists, they’re all artists from other countries here. Being an artist is a real luxury. It’s not something that people do because everyone is struggling to work.

How did the Art Hub relate to the way Native American artists presented their themes? Was there a level of similarity, did they consider her voice in which she expressed traditions to be very modern? Surprisingly, the painter didn’t meet many local artists, “because there aren’t many local artists, they’re all artists from other countries here. Being an artist is a real luxury. It’s not something that people do because everyone is struggling to work.

If they’re in the regular class of labor and family and they have time to paint then they’re not using their time efficiently. There’s not really a middle class. There’s a big difference in lifestyle with the people of the upper class. Those people who are in the upper class may have time to learn skills, like goofing off and painting. I could see how fortunate I was to be there because if I wasn’t an artist and was there, I’d be working my tail off.

Even being a painter, I was still working my tail off. The whole time I was there I was trying to figure out how to do my designs, how to do my styles of painting, because I do a variety of styles of painting: Mosaic style, pottery design, fractal broken-up pieces. I had to discern how to relate this to their culture, how to connect their culture with mine and how I paint.”

It turns out that in the artists’ free time they walked around the city, visited mosques, took a leisurely break for tea. During these walks, the Paguate woman couldn’t help noticing the elaborate tilework in designs on the floors and on the walls, “a lot of texture in layers on even the mosque, the Grand Mosque.”

“It was glorious. It was quite beautiful. We got to walk around the city and drank Moroccan tea, even the platter had all this design work on it, and so I translated that to be pottery design.  With the pottery design I figured I could transfer back and forth between the tile and pottery design. That was one idea I did for a painting. Another idea I had was two gentlemen drinking coffee in a desert setting because this place is desert. Another one, their elder women make pottery and transfer water, so I did a painting of two women, mostly silhouette, one Bedouin woman carrying her own style of pottery that would carry water, and then right beside her I did a Laguna woman with a pottery on her head and one in her arm. But then, standing side-by-side it was almost like sisters just walking home from gathering water. With their long shawls and full coverage, their silhouette resembled our Laguna woman silhouette. The only difference was a slight difference in dress and pottery shape. So, that was pretty cool.”

Along the Desert Path
Women of the Desert

Allison and the other artists were under a contract with the Art Hub that functioned as a trade. The artists would be well fed and cared for, with a place to stay, and in exchange their work would be added into the permanent collection of the Art Hub in Abu Dhabi.

I asked Allison if she thought her hosts might have learned anything from her. She had to think for a minute, and then realized that the sophisticated Emirate people, who have hosted artists from many European countries and around the world, had never experienced the Native American culture, and so didn’t know what to expect. As events turned out, everyone was very comfortable. The Native artists had their own traditional upbringing which emphasizes respect, no drama, and unlike some artists who expected to be catered to. Allison mentioned that they, the Native American artists, even picked up their dishes after a meal. They made a good impression that put their hosts at ease.

They took their gratitude even one step further. As their hosts were so warm and generous as to take very good care of the visiting group, even paying for all their meals out when they went to the city for dinners, that after a while the visitors reciprocated the hospitality, picking up the tab. That’s only polite.

With their diligent work ethic, there was little time to just “hang out” with one another. Surprisingly, the artists worked all night and into the early morning hours. Allison found that talking to the Pakistani night guard was an unexpected cultural exchange. The artist shared her sketches and asked for his interpretation in his native language, Pashto. She now has a lovely memento of her visit, her own sketchbook with descriptive interpretations in Pashto, a visually beautiful language.

Setar, Hargosh, Daraja
First sketch w/Pashto translation
“Ant” translated
Order-out American














Was there anything that the painter found especially new and impressive during her visit? She was able to think of at least two things that she found impressive, each in their own way. The first was the architecture.

“The amount and glory of the skyscrapers and the cities … they were just completely mind-blowing, and the best architecture, I would guess, in the world. That was truly magnificent, to just drive into the town of Dubai, just to see skyscraper after skyscraper, one in front of the other.

As we’re moving past them, it’s like these giants that are just gorgeous, different designs, some look woven together. They’re spectacular, and inside as well.”

“The second thing that was surprising was the amount of respect that locals gave, at least to us, and women in general. For a woman, it’s her choice to wear a cover, the head cover. It’s really the choice of the woman, there’s no pressure.”

It is the personal, and religious, choice of Muslim women in the area, whether they choose to wear a head covering. There are different levels of coverage, according to a woman’s personal preference. The abaya is a robe covering, then there is a head covering, and thirdly there is a full face covering. Women who make the last choice are demonstrating their full devotion to their husband and saying, in effect, they don’t need male attention from anyone else, noted the painter.

The third most surprising thing was the class separations. When we were there, the laborers wouldn’t even eat with the workers. They don’t even socialize. Also, the workers didn’t socialize with the owners or the upper-class office workers. The laborers were surprised when the artists would talk to them or wanted to socialize with them because they were typically spoken down to and given orders, Allison recalled.

“So, the night guard was in his own social area, and when we would invite him into the Hub to have pizza or something, we would tell him to come on in, but out of respect he would say ‘thank you,’ but he didn’t even come in. I had to ask, why is that? Even our drivers, that would take us around the city, they were in that laborer section, and the workers that work in the Art Hub, they just don’t socialize. They talk if they have to, but not really like a family style, it’s not very open.”

Allison expressed that, on the one night they were allowed American food, she attempted sharing a pizza with the night guard who had his own “modest” bowl of soup with crackers, a normal homemade meal. While she didn’t say that he joined them, she did say she noticed his obvious pleasure that she shared their meal with him.

It was Allison’s personal observation that all the visitors were treated with respect. But, she recalls, for the first few weeks she was looked at strangely. Their expression seemed to say, “you are not even supposed to look at me.” Not looking directly at a person is a way of showing respect. They were also curious about her own attitude because, as she learned, she was not supposed to look at, or speak to them. Eventually, the locals realized that the painter was not flirting, but that she was being friendly and respectful. Even one of Allison’s new friends, the night guard, remained at a respectful distance. She said that on their American food night she attempted sharing a pizza with the guard, who had brought his own meal from home. While she didn’t say that he joined them, she did say she noticed his obvious pleasure that she invited him to share their meal with him.
Allison now has new friends a world away, that keep in contact with her. The painter’s visit to Abu Dhabi could be classified as a success, both artistically and socially.


  • images of paintings and sketchbook courtesy of Marla Allison.

      ** images of camel races and Pow Wow from