The UAE School Taking Art To New Heights

This Abu Dhabi school is taking art instruction to the next level with exhibitions, art sales, past-students now attending some of the world's most famous art schools and alumni joining global fashion houses...
The UAE School Taking Art To New Heights
By C Hoppe
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Although had heard good things about Raha International's art programmes, it wasn't until we visited the school that we realised just how special the facilities, staffing and programming actually were...

We spoke to Raha veteran of 10 years, secondary visual arts teacher Daniela Parkinson, about what she thinks fires the creativity of the school's students.


What do you think makes the art department at RIS so different from other schools? 

Taaleem has always been highly supportive of this department allowing for a variety of resources across many disciplines, such as a kiln, printing press, cameras and high-quality practical resources. The quality equipment assists the teachers in developing excellent art-works.

Our purpose-built facilities also assist this: A theatre, Black Box for photography shoots, large hallways act as gallery spaces, large, purpose-built art rooms and a permanent studio which provides the students with space for large construction works that do not need to be packed away, rather students come and go during the day where they find spare time to work on these larger images. For 10 years, students from many grade levels have donated exceptional artworks to a school collection which have been professionally framed, sponsored by the parent body and the administration.

The interior of our buildings, offices, hallways, clinic, classrooms, and stairwells are therefore covered in artworks for all to enjoy. Many of these works are from our departing Grade 12 graduates who are often accepted into the prestigious Art schools around the world.

Staff love working in this department, and so turnover is very low, which provides a consistency to the programme.

Our new colleagues are encouraged to develop the existing units, further refining the exercises and keeping the curriculum current and supported. We always select Visual Arts teachers who have a diversity of skills which further expands our programme.

More than one arts course is offered to our middle years students. The Visual Arts is specialised in Grades 9 and 10, whereby students are encouraged to reach excellent standards using multiple materials allowing for diverse experiences such as ceramics, film, photography, print- making and mixed media installations. They are encouraged to see their acquired skills in the “real world”, as teaching staff focus on professional jobs that exist in the commercial industry.

Additionally, as a department, we try to bring in Artists that live in the region to carry out workshops or come in and speak with our students to further expand their knowledge and skills. Most recently our current Grade 12s took a watercolour course over a few weeks and will be exhibiting their artworks featuring the different techniques learned. Our students also visit the Art Fairs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and exhibitions at NYUAB which expands their ideas on these questions and provides access to current art making practises. Teachers also participate in workshops and exhibitions enriching their skills and ideas which follow on to their students.

As staff stress the value of the Arts, the artworks displayed are often beyond a “high school’’ quality. All students come to admire the works displayed and an expectation and pride has been established.


Why does the IB programme work so well for really innovative art programming?

Unlike other curriculums, the IB ensures that all students study 3 Arts programmes from Grades 6 to 8; Music, Drama and Visual Arts.

The students must go on to study one field for 2 further years during Grades 9 and 10 (where at Raha we also add Media Studies).

This provides all students with a deep appreciation for the Arts. In the future, as global citizen with developed arts knowledge, they will participate and support the Arts as audiences, buyers of art, practitioners and workers in future IT and design industries.

The critical thinking skills in these courses are exceptional. Where other courses focus just on the making of the work, the IB focuses on the thinking skills and processes which can make these images relevant, conceptual and diverse.

Students are consistently reviewing, not so much the process, but rather what was challenging for them, what are some other workable solutions and how were they able to resolve them.

I prefer to call my courses, ‘Concept Creators’ rather than Visual Arts.  I always ask them, “What are you saying to an audience?” Our students reflect on the times they are living in and produce works which offer opinions, relatable to their peers. They are critical thinkers.

As teachers, we are also continuously presenting them with images by contemporary artists, expanding their idea of ‘What is Art?’’ In the Diploma Programme, Grades 11 and 12, we have a subject called Theory of Knowledge that all students must study. One unit addresses this question and presents others; “Who determines Art and what is and isn’t Art?” “What are the standards a society uses to judge good art?”  “What is the purpose of Art?” These questions are filtered down to our middle school students in Grades 6 to 8.


The standard of art displayed around the school is really outstanding, do students at RIS become great artists or do you think RIS attracts the best artists?

“Both! I had a French family with 5 children send their boys here as they were determined to have careers in digital graphic or industrial design.  With limited English, these students went on to be my best essay writers within 2 years, achieved full marks in DP Visual Arts and entered the top Parisian graphic design university.

I have had other students with very little technical skills but impressive creativity come to us in Grades 9 or 10 and develop and refine their skills and be accepted into New Parsons School of Art in New York or many of the top institutions across Europe and Asia.”

“The reason why our displayed artworks are outstanding is because, as teachers, we don’t accept, “normal”. Individual instruction is paramount. The artwork is elevated in the last few hours of its refinement. Attention to details is the key. That takes time and patience from the teacher and let’s face it, teaching experience. I’m always surprised that so few teachers make the effort to get out and see exhibitions, or create the artwork the students are constructing to understand the challenges they will face and consider a variety of solutions or practise their own Art.”


What would you say to parents who worry that pursuing a career in art might not provide for their children/be a good choice of career?

“This is a question I’m always considering. I have a sister who was in the newspaper industry as a graphic designer and lost her job last year as this industry struggles to compete with internet news. She has had to adapt and expand her skills and now works in education marketing.

But that could be said of any commercial industry. We become specialised but we are always expanding our skills for that next job opportunity which isn’t particularly just attached to the arts.

I’m careful to always ask my senior students why they are studying Visual Art. I’ve found that the course attracts two types of students: Those that are exceptional but have no intension to go on with it as a career. They achieve high to near perfect scores which elevates their holistic diploma score.

Our first Ivy League student was an Art student who went on to study Economics at Dartmouth College. 

The second type of student wants a folio to gain access to an Arts institute. I’m always encouraging them to interview someone who is in the industry as so many students have romantic notions of these careers, particularly in fashion design. I too interview industry professionals to review which jobs are currently trending.

For example, fashion management, arts psychology, industrial design, digital design, landscape design etc. The Visual Arts isn’t just about producing artists, which is a very tough industry that two of our students have had the courage to enter. Others are focused on commercial industries and doing very well in their employment.


Which (art) universities have previous students gone on to attend?

In seven short years our graduates have been offered positions at:

U.S.A.  New Parsons School of Design, SAIC, (School of Art Institute of Chicago) Pennsylvania State University, Ringling College of Art and Design, (a feeder graphic design institute to Pixar Disney in Florida. NYU, NYUAB.

England: Central Saint Martins -University of the Arts London, Goldsmiths, University of London, Slade School of Fine Art- University College London, London College of Fashion.

Scotland: Glasgow School of Art. Italy: Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, The Florence Academy of Art.

France: Paris College of Art. 

The Netherlands: The Design Academy of Eindhoven, Willem de Kooning Academy, Rotterdam.

Australia: RMIT- Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, University Of Technology Sydney.

South Africa: Orms Cape Town School of Photography.

Canada: The University of Waterloo.


What about jobs in the ‘art industry?’ Can you tell us about past students who have gone on to have successful careers in the art industry?

Two of our first graduates have successfully entered the Arts industry, recently employed at The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi after completing a degree in Curatorship from Central Saint Martins.

The other past student completed a degree in graphic design, typography from New Parson’s School of Design. She is a designer for Adidas, Headquarter Office, Germany. Many are near to completing their studies this year in media and communications, design and technology courses and architecture.


How can interested children apply for the Diploma at RIS?

Admissions for our Diploma Programme follow our regular admission procedure. There is no fee to apply. Applications are submitted online and depending on availability, we will offer an entrance assessment and ask for reports. We are more selective in our admissions for Diploma as we do not offer an alternative (easier option) and we want to ensure that every student accepted is capable of successfully passing the Diploma. Students may also meet with the Diploma Coordinator if required to choose the course subjects. We will process applications in the Spring along with our re-registration of current students. 

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