In June this year, a group of people in Dubai got together for a book club at the gallery cluster Alserkal Avenue. Its lofty aim was to conquer Marcel Proust’s seven-volume literary masterpiece In Search Of Lost Time – that Mount Everest of novels – with gentle but persistent guidance from American art critic Kevin Jones.
The book club had enough time to cover only the first volume, which comprises some 500 pages of dense prose. But its ambition is somewhat emblematic of United Arab Emirates’ own grand efforts to grow its arts credentials and shed its image of being a “cultural desert” – an image that, incidentally, Singapore once struggled with.
In the past decade, arts in the Emirates have been on an upward trajectory, especially with the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum in 2017.
This November alone, there was Dubai Design Week, the art fair Abu Dhabi Art, the well-established Sharjah International Book Fair, the first Fikra Graphic Design Biennial and the first art book fair Focal Point, the opening of the country’s first non-governmental art museum Jameel Arts Centre, and, of course, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s first anniversary – which has already drawn more than one million visitors.
So many firsts in one month is a feat for any country, but is nothing to the UAE, which has been in a hurry to transform itself into a developed nation since the turn of the millennium – even at the risk of being called “manufactured” and “artificial”, labels which Singapore is also familiar with.
There are three cities that make up the country’s creative triumvirate: Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Less than a two-hour drive away from each other on the coast of the Persian Gulf, each has its own game plan to boost its creative hub status. Here’s what they offer.
Alserkal Avenue is the must-visit for any art lover in Dubai. The warehouse district-turned-gallery cluster is the Middle East’s version of Singapore’s Gillman Barracks or China’s 798 Art Zone. It features 15 of the region’s strongest galleries in one district, showcasing regional and international artists. These top galleries include Carbon 12, Gallery Isabelle Van den Ende, Grey Noise, Lawrie Shabibi, Leila Heller, The Third Line and Ayyam Gallery.
The district began organically in 2007 when Ayyam Gallery decided to open its space within the industrial area. But soon, other galleries followed and the district’s reputation grew quickly. In 2015, Alserkal Avenue founder Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal decided to expand Alserkal Avenue by converting his nearby warehouses into some 40 leasable spaces. His team received some 1,400 applications from various businesses that are not necessarily related to art.
Mr Alserkal says: “By then, Alserkal Avenue had become not just a physical place, but a philosophy, a way of thinking, an attitude. Other businesses wanted to join our creative community and be part of our way of life.”
Today, Alserkal Avenue is a 92,000-square metre lifestyle destination filled with everything from cafes and restaurants to hipster retail stores selling sneakers and even vintage cars. There’s even an independent cinema showing art and foreign films, a black box for theatre plays, and an outdoor performance venue.
Alserkal now attracts not just art lovers, but also foodies, fashionistas, hipsters, classic car fans, homeowners looking for avant garde furniture, and just about anyone else drawn to the good life.
Recently, it also opened Concrete, a large multi-purpose arts space that’s the first building in UAE to be designed by Rem Koolhaas’ firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Concrete now houses a touring exhibition from London’s Hayward Gallery titled Adapt To Survive: Notes From The Future, an exhibition that imagines how the world might evolve – perfect for a future-oriented city that is Dubai.
Alserkal Avenue isn’t alone in boosting Dubai’s image as an arts hub. Just opened is Jameel Arts Centre, an independent contemporary art institution that’s committed to showcasing strong works and collaborating with artists.
Supported by the wealthy Jameel family of Saudi Arabia, the Jameel Arts Centre has 10 gallery spaces, studios, art gardens, a sculpture park and the country’s first open-access arts library and resource centre – all housed in and around a three-storey waterfront complex designed by the award-winning Serie Architects. Artworks now on display include a monumental thread construction by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota and installations made out of everyday objects by Saudi Arabia’s Maha Malluh.
Its director Antonia Carver says the arts centre is “the first of its kind in the Gulf – a non-commercial and non-governmental private institution with a civic mandate… We are here because we want to have a maximum impact in a global city with a global public and to contribute to the local scene.”
Together with stalwart events such as the annual art fair Art Dubai and the major creative festival Dubai Design Week, Alserkal Avenue and Jameel Arts Centre are banishing criticism of Dubai being culturally arid. In fact, the arts are playing an increasing role in galvanising Dubai’s population of 3.1million people, of which only 23 percent are Emiratis and the rest hail from all over the world.
As Ms Vilma Jurkute, director of Alserkal Avenue, explains it: “Dubai has a big transient population of young successful professionals. Their median age is 30s. For many, the arts speak a common language and has become a way for people of various cultures and nationalities to connect in Dubai.”
You might have heard of the Rain Room, a famous experiential artwork that mimics continuous rain throughout the day. When a person walks through the Rain Room, motion sensors detect her presence and stop the water from falling directly on her. It will, however, continue to pour all around her, giving the powerful feeling that she is some divine being able to control rain and stay dry amid a downpour.
The Rain Room, created by artist collective Random International, received a lot of press when it toured major art venues such as London’s Barbican (2012), New York’s Museum of Modern Art (2013) and Shanghai’s Yuz Museum (2015).
But in May this year, the Sharjah Art Foundation opened a permanent home for the Rain Room in the residential area of Al Majarrah in Sharjah. In the first week, thousands of UAE residents and tourists queued for hours to get into the room, which permits only a handful of people in each time.
“We had a lot of children from the streets, and even some folks from the old folks’ home, coming in to experience rain,” says Tuba Tortop, the Marketing and Communications Manager at Sharjah Art Foundation. “Considering that it only rains four or five days a year in the Emirates, you can imagine the excitement of seeing a downpour.”
Wet or dry, it’s fairly easy to immerse yourself in the city’s art. For a population of just 1.4 million, Sharjah has a surprisingly high number of good museums, such as the Sharjah Art Museum, Calligraphy Museum, Museum of Islamic Civilization and Museum of Archeology. Not surprisingly, it has several noteworthy awards to its credit, including the Culture Capital of the Arab World 1998 (UNESCO) and the Capital of Arab Tourism Award 2015 (The Arab Council of Tourism).
But global art connoisseurs fly to Sharjah mostly for the top-notch Sharjah Biennial, widely regarded as one of the best biennials in the world. Though it was founded 25 years ago by Dr Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, the biennial really only entered the big league after his highly-competent art-trained polyglot daughter Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi became involved.
Now President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Ms Al Qasimi is ranked 37 on Art Review’s influential Power List of global art figures and has successfully attracted almost every important curator and artist to the biennial.
She created the foundation’s yearlong exhibition programme, which currently features strong exhibitions by Guyana-born British artist Frank Bowling, Kuwait’s Ala Younis and Egypt’s Amal Kenawy. The latter artist, in particular, left behind a striking legacy of video and performance art after her death in 2012 of leukemia at the age of 38.
On top of that, Ms Al Qasimi has also overseen the successful reopening of the city’s once-famous Africa Hall to foster ties and understanding between Africa and the Gulf, elevating Sharjah’s status even further as a cross-cultural hub.
As the capital of UAE, Abu Dhabi had taken on a high-stakes challenge to be the cultural crown jewel of the region. Its colossal Saadiyat Cultural District was supposed to be an international attraction housing at least three major museums – the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum. But the collapse in oil prices in 2014 and the political turmoil in the region forced the latter two to be put on hold.
Only the spectacular Louvre Abu Dhabi had opened by Nov 2017, to resounding success. Its one million visitors within its first year is roughly one-eighth of last year’s 8.1 million visitors to Paris’ Louvre Museum, with whom Louvre Abu Dhabi has a US$1.2 billion agreement with.
But the museum is pleased with its performance. It’s now among the top 70 museums worldwide – and the only one in the region that can make such a claim. It is also one of most visited attractions in Abu Dhabi after the exquisite Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
Early critics complained that it looked more French than Arab; that its displays of Monet, Manet and Matisse outshone the works from the region; and that prime spots in several galleries were reserved for European works. These feted works include Henri Matisse’s Woman Reading On A Black Background (1939), Paul Klee’s Oriental Bliss (1938), and James Whistler’s iconic painting of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (1871), one of the most famous paintings in history.
While there’s certainly basis in these criticisms, there are also signs that the museum is trying to rectify that: A portrait of French king Louis XIV that once hung in the gallery of 17th century art has been replaced by a portrait of an 18th century Ottoman statesman Mehmed Said Pasha. Other galleries show a greater presence of Middle Eastern, African and Asian art and antiquities, while a strong temporary exhibition highlights the archeological treasures of Saudi Arabia.
If the museum’s curatorial approach needs some tweaking, the Jean Nouvel-designed building – with its gorgeous latticed dome resembling the mashrabiya, the traditional Arabic pierced screen – is a stunning feat of architecture, easily ranking as one of the most beautiful new museums of the 21st century. Like Frank Gehry’s Museum Guggenheim Bilbao, the Louvre Abu Dhabi building is a breathtaking attraction in its own right.
Meanwhile, the annual Abu Dhabi Art – the only other major art fair in UAE besides Art Dubai – celebrated its 10th year anniversary earlier this month. Held at the iconic Manarat Al Saadiyat, its commercial section features international and regional galleries such as Galleria Continua, Hanart TZ Gallery and Custot Gallery. Its non-commercial section was even more exciting with strong international names such as Rachel Whiteread, Samson Young and late Singapore sculptor Kim Lim. Like its spiritual cousins Art Dubai and Alserkal Avenue, Abu Dhabi Art has been pivotal in nurturing the local collecting scene which, while small, is certainly growing.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photos: Alserkal Avenue & Sharjah Art Foundation