Every weekend Zahidah Zeytoun Millie used to venture into the calm mangroves of Umm Al Quwain from her old home in the United Arab Emirates. From her small, red kayak she painted the water trees, known as mangroves, that grow out of estuaries across the Arabian Gulf. The UAE is actually home to nearly 50% of all mangroves in the Arabian Gulf. But little by little, she noticed how the serenity of the mangroves was disrupted.
The World Wide Fund for Nature states that more than 35% of the world’s mangroves have been demolished. The remaining 150,000 square kilometers face a number of threats including overharvesting, overfishing, pollution, and climate change. Mangroves are nurseries to many hidden lives, like fish, birds, turtles, crabs and more.
From 2012 to 2017, when Zahidah lived near these coastal mangroves and painted them, she shed light on the danger these trees face. Just over the tree cover, she could hear the bustle of encroaching city life. “The daily destruction of the mangroves was my motivation to keep painting,” she recounted. “My art projects often highlight forgotten issues.” As a thematic artist, she focuses on humanity and nature and is influenced by mythology, poetry, science and philosophy.
“Mangroves are not well known by the people, and not necessarily respected as a subject to draw, paint or sculpt through the eyes of many around the world,” she says. Naming her series “Mangroves from the Water,” Zahidah found painting mangroves had become an opportunity to recognize the delicate balance between nature and urban life.
Mangroves help prevent erosion in coastal areas, act as incubators for marine species and reduce carbon emissions. “It’s madness to harm them”, says Zahidah, and yet she could see the harm on a daily basis.
Kayaking through the estuary, Zahidah would remove tangled fishing nets, a threat to turtles and corals in the area. When she walked or jogged through the mangroves, she collected rubbish, like plastic bags, water bottles and even socks. She built rock barriers near the mangroves to prevent cars from driving over plant and animal life. King tides usually leave puddles full of small fish, but instead of the birds coming to collect them, cars drove over them. Fresh green algae was collected for private fish nurseries. Camel farmers cut trees to be used as fodder for their camels. At night, hunters came to take crabs from the mangroves.
“I feel deeply connected to nature and my sense of responsibility for it is akin to looking after a family and protecting them,” Zahidah says. Originally from Latakia on the Mediterranean coast of Syria, Zahidah correlates the loss of habitat in her war-stricken country with the destruction of homes. When she was a child, her mother would encourage her to look after the plants. “She used to say that if we look after plants, the universe will be side by side with us and listen to us.”
Using rubbish collected from the mangroves, Zahidah created art installations along the road to the mangroves to show passersby their impact. She also created a solo exhibition at the Ras Al Khaimah National Museum and sent the proceeds to Syrian children in need.
Wanting to expand the work, Zahidah put together a team called “Mangroves from the Water.” They began with a 2015-2016 touring exhibition in the UAE that received enormous attention and attracted world-renowned ocean conservationist, Celine Cousteau, the granddaughter of French conservationist Jacques Cousteau. After the touring exhibition, Zahidah started thinking about establishing an annual festival for the mangroves. Putting her idea into action, the first festival was located by the mangroves in the very same Umm Al Quwain she had been painting.
The “Mangroves Festival” in 2017 was a massive communal collaboration, connecting volunteers, schools, colleges, museums, environment organisations and groups, artists, scientists, families and musicians, all united to preserve the environment. In January 2018, the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment announced that 30,000 mangrove trees would be planted to develop marine areas across the UAE. A few months earlier, Zahidah had moved to Australia with her Australian husband and child and planned to start a new festival in Victoria. Before leaving, Zahidah and her team organized one last art event by invitation of the Ajman Municipality in April 2017, calling on the reduction in the use of plastic bags.
But even without Zahidah kayaking and painting the water trees, her love of the mangroves will go far. She hopes the festival will continue on in the UAE each year, raising awareness about this beautiful and ecological important area across the Arab World.
Find out more about Zahidah Zeytoun Millie here: http://zahidahart.com/
Aya Nader is an Egyptian independent journalist studying at Simon Fraser University’s Global Communications program. She tweets at @ayanaderm.