- The city of Dubai, and United Arab Emirates as a whole, have become increasingly known as a hub for art in the Middle East and Africa.
- When I visited, I found that Dubai has dozens of galleries with a clear focus on promoting Middle Eastern and African artists with clear perspective that is far different from what one usually sees in the US and Europe.
- Abu Dhabi’s opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is another stake in the ground that the country wants to be a hub for art. But the building of the structure was marred by allegations from human rights groups that workers were mistreated.
- While the talent, money, and vision is present in Dubai, and the U.A.E. as a whole, the art scene is still maturing and not quite ready to compete with the likes of New York or London.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Dubai has long been a melting pot of Middle Eastern, African, and southeast Asian cultures. Add in billions of dollars of investment in museums, architecture, universities, and galleries and a growing understanding amongst the United Arab Emirates’ elite that art is a powerful conduit through which to convey to the world, and their people, the vision of what a modern Middle Eastern nation looks like, and you have the makings for a dynamic art scene.
“The former cultural capitals were places like Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, Cairo. But due to political and economic challenges, the dynamic shifted and it’s now here in the Gulf,” Myrna Ayad told CNN last year. Ayad is the former director for Art Dubai, an international art fair started in 2007 that is meant to compete with the likes of Art Basel.
Then you add in the tourism factor. Dubai’s rulers have a grand strategy to diversify the emirate’s economy away from oil by making it the most popular tourist destination in the world by 2025. Already, it is the fourth-most visited city in the world, with a projected 16.7 million visitors this year, according to Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index.
That’s what’s been behind its building of landmarks designed to be the biggest and most extravagant of the world, like the tallest building, the second-biggest mall, and the most luxurious hotel. A thriving art scene – with priceless and famous works of art to see – seems to be the final piece of the puzzle.
But it’s hardly all about tourism. As Dima Abdul Kader, the cofounder of emergeast, an art gallery focusing on rising Middle Eastern artists, told Harvard Kennedy School fellow Michael Greenwald, the push towards the arts is about establishing “an arts and culture framework as a core fundamental of the respective social fabric for generations to come.”
I recently visited to see what Dubai’s arts scene is all about. Here’s what it was like:
I started my exploration of Dubai’s scene by visiting Al Fahidi, the city’s oldest neighbourhood. The preserved historical buildings of the area serve as an open-air museum to Emirati culture and house numerous art galleries.
Over the last two decades, arts scenes have popped up in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. As a growing commercial center and a melting pot, Dubai has staked out a claim as the hub for the region.
While a desire to boost tourism and diversify the economy is part of the story behind Dubai’s growing arts culture, many in the scene say it’s about Arabs “challenging global narratives on the Middle East.”
The liveliest part of Al Fahidi is at the Al Serkal Cultural Foundation. Set in a traditional house built in 1925, it features a cafe in the center courtyard with small art galleries and boutiques in the surrounding rooms. It’s a calm oasis in which to while away a day.
One of my favourite artists in Al Serkal was Jordanian couple Maysoon Masalha and Bassam Al Selawi, who create “shadow art” sculptures. The wooden sculptures depict one thing, while the shadow often depicts something entirely different. This sculpture of two horses kissing shows a man and a woman in the shadow.
The real center of Dubai’s arts scene, however, is in the area known as Al Quoz, an industrial area that has recently spawned art galleries, cafes, and music venues.
Sunny Rubhar, a Dubai-born Iranian, opened The Third Line, the first gallery in Al Quoz, in 2005. She said it was in response to the racism she experienced in New York after 9/11. “What do they know about Muslims and Arabs? I knew that art was a way to change minds,” she said.
The Third Line’s focus on Middle Eastern artists was a major success and drew other galleries to Al Quoz. It eventually drew the attention of Emirati developer Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal, who established Al Serkal Avenue, a zone of repurposed warehouses that now have nearly 60 galleries, boutiques, co-working spaces, and creative businesses. The Third Line moved to Al Serkal a few years back.
There’s a co-working space at the center that doubles as a cafe, a small boutique, and an information center.
The A4 Space, as its called, is fully supported by the Al Serkal Family and is a free co-working space, with Wi-Fi and a curated book collection that you can thumb through.
I stopped for a quick snack. The cafe sells more or less what you might expect for the hipster subset: wheatgrass shots and keto-friendly protein cups.
And then I went to hit the art galleries. Ayyam Gallery, an arts organisation started in 2006, was one of the first galleries in Al Serkal. Ayyam was started by Syrian cousins Khaled and Hisham Samawi with a mission to expand “the parameters of international art.”
When I visited, Ayyam was featuring the work of Thaier Helal, a Syrian-born artist. The collection was called “Beneath The Rubble” and was an impressionistic set of mixed media works that look like different expressions of rubble in both an emotional and physical sense.
At the 1X1 Gallery, I was introduced to the work of Sunil Gawde, a Mumbai-based artist who makes sometimes-humorous, sometimes-absurd sculptures that bend reality. It’s pretty trippy stuff.
What struck me is how Al Serkal and Dubai’s scene approaches art through an unapologetic Arab viewpoint. And while the UAE is nowhere near a democracy (and freedom of the press often challenged), there’s nothing about the art that feels safe. At Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, I saw an exhibition entitled “When the Dates Turn Red,” by Franco-Egyptian artist Hoda Tawakol. It is a deeply feminist (and critical) exploration of feminine identity in Arab cultures.
One of the newest additions to Al Serkal is Concrete, a warehouse-like multi-purpose metal venue designed by famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
Concrete opened earlier this year with an exhibition by Palestinian architects Elias and Yousef Anastas. When I visited, there was an exhibition called “Adapt to Survive / Notes From The Future” featuring sometimes bleak or startling visions of the future by artists from all over the world. Like the video “I Hate You Karl Marx” by German artist Rainer Ganahl, which envisions (and critiques Western fears of) a future Chinese world order.
I particularly liked Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams’s “Tyrrau Mawr,” a video piece that imagines a mega-city in rural North Wales.
As the art world has long had a tendency towards a Western-centric (and usually white) lens, it’s easy to see the value of an art hub like Dubai. One of the spaces was taken over by a pop-up for Mozambican artist Goncalo Mabunda, whose work involves refashioning guns, bullets, rockets, and grenades leftover from the Mozambican civil war into thrones, masks, and other sculptures.
Al Serkal doesn’t only have art galleries. The idea behind the area was to create an ecosystem of creative businesses. There are also some hip clothing boutiques, like Somewhere in Between. It was holding a “garage sale” where you could buy just about anything, from leather journals to a Sega Genesis.
The Middle Eastern lens extends to the clothing designed as well. Which is to say it was cutting-edge fashionable while still being modest. Annie, my partner, picked up an ankle-length sand-coloured maxi skirt for $US15. A steal, Annie, tells me, when its retail price was $US50.
Al Serkal also hosts movie nights, events, talks, dance classes, and workshops. The programming is eclectic — everything from a screening of a documentary about Syrian refugees to a reading group for Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”
While Al Serkal Avenue seems to be thriving, I did feel like the art scene is still small. Al Fahidi and Al Serkal Avenue, while interesting, are the primary places to find contemporary culture. It’s not like it’s everywhere in the city.
While Dubai has made a bid to be commercial art center of the U.A.E., the capital, Abu Dhabi, is funelling billions into building out world-class institutions. The Louvre Abu Dhabi opened last year.
The museum is located on Saadiyat Island, which is due to have other major museums as well. The Louvre Abu Dhabi cost over $US600 million to build, as well as another $US525 million paid to France to use the Louvre name for 30 years, and $US747 million to France for art loans, special exhibitions, and management advice.
Source: New York Times
It was designed by award-winning French architect Jean Nouvel to mimic an Arabian medina, or city center. There are 55 detached rooms within an indoor/outdoor space that visitors can wander. Above there is a UFO-like latticed dome that scatters shade and sunlight.
What’s more impressive is the curation. Post-World War II American painter Cy Twombly’s Untitled I-VIII are situated next to ancient cave carvings from Saudi Arabia. The juxtaposition of the pieces reminds viewers of the Gulf’s often-ignored cultural heritage.
Calling attention to the Gulf’s cultural heritage and situating it within the global canon seems to be the point of the museum. At sunset, I witnessed a performance of al ayala, a traditional Emirati dance featuring chanted poetry, drums, and a simulated battle scene. It was mesmerising.
The major temporary exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi when I visited was a collection of archaeological treasures from the Arabian peninsula. It was, in essence, a history lesson on the region.
Source: Louvre Abu Dhabi
One of the most interesting treasures was the door and key to the Kaaba, a large cuboid structure in Mecca, Saudi Arabia considered to be the holiest site in all of Islam. It is considered to be the “house of G-d.”
The museum is forward-thinking in other ways, too. There is a “Manga Lab,” a zone for young adults and kids to engage them in another temporary exhibition on Japanese culture. It features rare Japanese retro arcade games, a virtual reality station that brings to life some of the Japanese prints in the exhibition, and art classes. I’ll be honest: I spent a good chunk of time in here.
Source: Louvre Abu Dhabi
The museum’s permanent collection organizes 600 pieces of art and artifacts from all over the world in chronological order. It produces interesting connections, like the influence of ancient Greek sculptural practices on Indian art around the time of Alexander The Great. Or this bronze Mari-Cha Lion from southern Spain or Italy, which is one of the most important Islamic works of art.
But as New York Times critic Holland Cotter noted last year, it fails to broach or critique sensitive topics like slavery, ideological repression, or war, particularly when it regards Arab culture.
Source: New York Times
In doing so, it integrates the artistic and cultural heritages of cultures usually ignored by museums (i.e. Middle East, Africa, southeast Asia) into the greater Western canon. It’s fitting that the exhibition ends with Ai Wei Wei’s Fountain of Light, which many see as a reference to the Tower of Babel.
It should be noted that international human rights groups have repeatedly criticised the U.A.E. for the treatment of the primarily Southeast Asian workers who built the Louvre and other structures on Saadiyat Island. A boycott by international artists was organised several years ago in response to reports of worker mistreatment.
Source: New York Times
The U.A.E. is far from done trying to develop its cultural scene. The massive Museum Of The Future — which looks suitably futuristic — is under construction in Dubai. And the city has set aside 500,000 square feet for galleries and creative businesses.
While the talent is emerging, Dubai and the U.A.E. may have some time to go before they compete with New York or London. Sotheby’s said last year the number of Emirati clients participating in global sales is up 157%, but a recent report found that Middle Eastern collectors account for only 2% of buyers at top auction houses.
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