Mounir Fatmi, Collages of prayer rugs on canvas, 2006.
Cultural Crossroads

A Spectacular Kick-Off for Art Season in the UAE

By Roxane Zand

J ameel Arts Centre in Dubai opened its doors to the public on 10 November, in what has been an especially busy month for arts in the UAE. Situated on the Jaddaf Waterfront, it celebrates the ‘real Dubai’ not just through its location but also by its strategy and mission.

Opening night at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai
Opening Night at The Jameel Arts Centre

The internationalism of the Dubai art scene may have occasionally overlooked focus on local and grassroots developments, and the Jameel Arts Centre’s outreach will remedy this. True to the Jameel Foundation’s core principles for creating community projects, there will be purposefully local initiatives: institutional collaborations, national narratives oriented towards the resident market, as well as supporting local artists. The new generation of artists will be identified and nurtured, and given the necessary exposure. “Working from the ground up”, Jameel Arts centre seasoned Director, Antonia Carver is sure to navigate the mission at hand with expertise and sensitivity. This new ‘kunsthalle’ is yet another piece of the thriving arts landscape in the UAE – a much-needed institutional presence in Dubai.

The well-attended opening on a balmy evening included many luminaries of the local and international art world, several of the featured artists, and curators from outside the region. UAE Minister for Culture and Knowledge Development Her Excellency Noura Al Kaabi who in her short tenure has already established herself as a thought leader in the cultural world, gave the welcoming address, alluding to the inclusiveness and internationalism of the UAE. A live music performance was followed by the public tour of the three floors of exhibitions space.

Mounira Al Solh
Mounira Al Solh

The building includes a library, restaurant, design shop, and outdoor amphitheatre, among other innovative spaces which make up this contemporary institution. The opening shows already signal thoughtful curation: three artist’s rooms focussed on their practice with a ‘zoom lens’: showing how each addressed a mode of expression. My particular favourites included refined, embroidered compositions by Mounira Al Solh, and two early seminal works by Houshang Pezeshknia. There is little doubt that this will be a well-sustained, successful model for similar institutions in the region. The vibrant Dubai art community will be drawn to this much-anticipated, multi-purpose cultural destination.

Three days later, in Abu Dhabi the Art Fair celebrated its tenth anniversary, while the acclaimed Louvre marked its first. A wealth of programming for both occasions meant that the tide of visitors had not a moment to spare: from the Symposium at the Louvre for global museum directors and curators on the 11th (which an impressive electric storm did nothing to deter), to the VIP opening of the Fair on the 13th (following the hugely popular annual Sothebys Collectors Lunch at the Majlis of His Excellency Sheikh Nayhan bin Mabarak Al Nahyan), and the Al Burda Festival on the 14th (though not formally part of the art fair), it was a seamless and engaging series of events.

As part of the Fair, Arts in Motion offered a series of performances that revealed works from the permanent collection of Abu Dhabi’s Dept of Culture and Tourism to the public for the first time. Dubai-based Sima Dance Co. paired choreographies to each of the four works by Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Frank Stella, and Joanna Vasconcelos – works which delivered spectacularly on this artistic dialogue. At the UNESCO heritage site of Al Ain, artist Imran Qureishi had created an intervention amongst the palm trees, making the fair visit to the residence of His Excellency Dr Zaki Nusseibeh even more special. The Fair reported stronger than average sales, with certain galleries faring better than others. Shirin and Isa galleries both saw brisk trade: Antonio Santin’s ‘Carpet Diem’ was an instant hit, and Shahriar Ahmadi saw more than one buyer interested. Another welcome sight was to see encouragement of makers and designers in Abu Dhabi, particularly with female designers.

Mounir Fatmi, Collages of prayer rugs on canvas, 2006.
Mounir Fatmi, Collages of prayer rugs on canvas, 2006.

Just an hour away in Dubai, Design Week in the Dubai Design District attracted major crowds. With large-scale installations scattered throughout the area, five pavilions housing ‘Abwab’, a show celebrating regional talent, and ‘UAE Design Stories: The Next Generation’ platforming 8 rising local talents, Design is set to become a focal part of the local art scene. My own pick was the Circadian Light Synthesis which explored the relationship between humans and natural light. A giant jigsaw puzzle inspired by Oriental painting wowed the crowds, as did Parametric Surfaces that combine sculpture and augmented reality.

Last but not least, the biennal Al Burda Festival in Abu Dhabi on Nov 14 was a headline-grabbing, well-attended series of talks and performances at Warehouse 421 which culminated in an Awards Ceremony. The launching of a festival to celebrate and highlight Islamic culture led by Her Excellency Noura Al Kaabi, where the Islamic art and design award – in its 15th year - is now complemented by a think-tank style series of plenaries and debates, inaugurated by His Highness Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior.

Maha Maluh
Maha Maluh

Discussion revolved around the future of Islamic art (defined as art that takes its inspiration from, and speaks to Islam at its core) and the priorities of Islamic culture. Topics included the development of audiences, the inculcation of skills, and the adaptation of digital technologies for new forms of Islamic expression. Emphasis lay on the present and the future, with 47 eminent figures from a variety of backgrounds (Dr Henry Kim from the Aga Khan Museum, prominent Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, Ines Abdel Dayem the Egyptian Culture Minister, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa Director-General of the Bahrain Authority for Culture, and CNN’s Becky Anderson who moderated the panel I was on) discussed the complexities of how to define Islamic art, how to contextualize it, and how to engage with young audiences. In the words of Her Excellency Noura Al Kaabi: “It is by exposing people to different outlooks and stories that we strengthen tolerance and bring people together.” Al Burda Festival has led the way in re-imagining the image and role of Islamic art.

On cue to round off this exciting period, Sothebys held its inaugural Watches sale in Dubai on Nov 19. In a packed sale-room at our DIFC premises, the level of interest and enthusiasm was clear. Twenty-five percent of participants were first-time, and the sale total of $2.6m dollars indicates a healthy market that will see a second sale scheduled for the spring of 2019.

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