5. Rapport: Dubai
By Global Art Daily’s Editorial Board
Published on August 1, 2020
︎ Rapport is a section dedicated to reflecting on a city’s current cultural scene. Written collaboratively by our Editorial Board, this section aims to take a snapshot of the city at the time of writing.
The unfortunate rescheduling of its 2020 Expo notwithstanding, Dubai is pushing boldly forward into the third decade of the new millennium. Now, as some of us have been fortunate enough to have visited the UAE in the early 2000s, we would like to offer a brief retrospective, by sharing some of these first impressions of the Arabian Gulf metropolis as it anticipates the new decade.
It goes without saying that Dubai was, at the time of our first visit, a city of much more modest proportions than the metropolis we know today and one which remained, by and large, centered around the mouth of the Dubai Creek and East Jumeirah. While many of the megaprojects, including the Dubai Marina, were well underway at this time, the prospect of this Indian Ocean entrepot transforming into the mega-city we know today, remained difficult to imagine.
The sheer novelty of the city led many foreign observers to shower the city in vitriol.
The sheer novelty of the city led many foreign observers to shower the city in vitriol. With apparent impunity, a number of critics would describe Dubai as a city without ‘culture’ and lacking in ‘authenticity.’ While it seems, in retrospect, inconceivable to speak of a group of ‘people without a culture,’ this line of attack continued to generate biased tropes of the city and its inhabitants for years to come.
Nonetheless it appears that, a full two decades later, the fledgling Gulf port has been vindicated by the sheer volume and dynamism of its cultural, economic, and urban development. While it would, in almost any other context, appear to be naive to speak of ‘authenticity’ in such an unqualified fashion, it took well over a decade for this discursive membrane to burst. When it did, Dubai’s overwhelming cultural magnetism helped the city’s own voice emerge from the Western press’ suffocating tired cliches.
While many of the physical and intangible infrastructures which characterize Dubai’s urban spirit were only beginning to take shape during the early 2000s, the historical precedent and material for this cultural boom had long been extant. Indeed, the circuits and exchanges which characterize the Indian Ocean world constitute the axiomatic from which the city has grown. This movement of people, ideas, and objects became Dubai’s blueprint for its development.
Of course, well before the establishment of British rule in the Middle East, the south-eastern Arabian peninsula flourished under the Omani sultanate, at one point centered in Zanzibar just off the eastern Swahili coast. With the advent of European Imperialism, first by the Portuguese and later by the British Empire, the volume of exchange between these regions was further consolidated, leading to the implementation of the Indian rupee in the UAE.
While many of the physical and intangible infrastructures which characterize Dubai’s urban spirit were only beginning to take shape during the early 2000s, the historical precedent and material for this cultural boom had long been extant.
The collapse of the British Empire heralded a new era in the Indian Ocean and so, with the independence of the UAE declared in 1971, Dubai quickly emerged as a critical node in this arena. We should however distinguish Dubai’s strong cultural appeal from Abu Dhabi’s more pronounced history with governmental cultural institutions. The nation’s capital housed the first cultural institution in the UAE. The Cultural Foundation, inaugurated in 1981 under the visionary eye of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was a cornerstone project for the founding of the nation. It was in many ways ahead of its time in establishing an institutional space for Abu Dhabi’s future global art dialogues.
Dubai’s place has been one of a trading center, fortified by the links which had been established historically between the Arabian Peninsula, Eastern Africa, and India.
Dubai’s place has been one of a trading center, fortified by the links which had been established historically between the Arabian Peninsula, Eastern Africa, and India. One of the most obvious examples of this is its world-leading aviation industry, epitomized by Dubai International Airport, the busiest airport in terms of international passenger traffic. The largest contributing factor to Dubai’s eclectic culture is the diversity of its people and their cohabitation in a city which, in many ways, reflects the crude realities of a brave new world. In many ways, the vestiges of the modest Gulf port we encountered on our first visit have been all but surrendered to oblivion, as the world continues to spin, on a new, non-Western axis.
Art is Power
It is not only the melange of Middle Eastern, Indian, and African culture which makes Dubai a compelling model for global culture in the postcolonial period; Dubai also occupies a significant cultural role in the GCC region. Dubai has continued to assert its leadership as one of the models for the MENA region through its focus on maximizing economic prosperity and continually reinventing its identity. While paths for global engagement in the region have been manifold, to be sure, Dubai offers a compelling example, which, especially in the GCC region, has thus far had the most pronounced resonance, constituting a paragon for universal emulation.
This is, amongst other factors, the effect of a series of institutions, incentives, and events which have emerged in parallel, spearheading Dubai’s bold new jump to cultural prominence. While some of the most familiar are the annual Art Dubai fair or the recent opening of the Jameel Arts Centre, other grassroot initiatives have had an equal, if more subtle impact on the emergence of a distinctive local arena. It is Dubai’s ability to absorb and synthesize the currents of global culture and particularly those strands emanating from the Arab and Indian Ocean circuits which has set its vantage point apart.
“What the GCC has realized is that there is quite a lot of capital and soft-power in investing in the arts. Look at Desert X Alula in Saudi Arabia, or Saudi’s purchase of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi.”
- Christopher Benton
Dubai follows the GCC region’s strong governmental inclination towards the development of art institutions dedicated to cultural diplomacy and cross-cultural exchange. Christopher Benton (@christopherjoshuabenton), American-born and Dubai-based artist and creative director, comments: “What the GCC has realized is that there is quite a lot of capital and soft-power in investing in the arts. Look at Desert X Alula in Saudi Arabia, or Saudi’s purchase of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi.” The UAE’s capital has indeed made headlines with its mega-museum projects on Saadiyat Island, including the world-renowned Louvre Abu Dhabi. “Obviously Abu Dhabi was looking for that Guggenheim Bilbao multiplier-effect with the building of their edition of the Louvre and soon to be Guggenheim Abu Dhabi,” expands Benton, adding that “the [UAE] government’s vision flows from top to bottom: you have the large infrastructure projects, the art fairs, and then you have the individual artist support, which I think is quite substantial here.”
3. Christopher Benton, Ghetto Majlis, (2017). Copyright Christopher Benton, courtesy of Christopher Benton and SIKKA Art Fair.
4. Christopher Benton, Say No to Bachelors Thronging Residential Neighborhoods (2019). Copyright Christopher Benton, courtesy of Christopher Benton and of Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.
Being the epitome of the practicing artist in Dubai, Benton was awarded the prestigious Salama Bint Hamdan Emerging Artist Fellowship (SEAF) in 2019. His work was exhibited at the Jameel Arts Centre and he has participated for two consecutive years at the SIKKA Art Fair, a fair showing emerging artists in tandem with Art Dubai during Dubai’s annual March art week. As far as non-governmental art institutions are concerned, Benton confirms that the Salama Foundation has “become an incredibly generous and crucial testing ground to get emerging local artists to the next level.” He adds that the launch of the Jameel Arts Centre “has had a massive influence on the art system in the UAE, with its emphasis on supporting not only established and mid-career artists but emerging ones, too.” A particularly robust pillar of this initiative is their support program aimed at artists, curators, and writers under the age of 25.
Alserkal Avenue: Fashion-Art Fusion
While the keen observer will recognize the polycentric nature of Dubai’s drive towards cultural prominence, certain initiatives are difficult to overlook in terms of their role as catalysts of this development. Chief amongst these is Alserkal Avenue, a cultural initiative which emerged in Dubai’s Al Quoz industrial district in 2008. Emerging with a series of galleries, scattered among the industrial-use facilities of the Al Quoz area, Alserkal Avenue has continued to grow in tandem with the organic reverberations of the Modern and Contemporary Arab Art market.
Alserkal Avenue has been one of the main forces behind the establishment of Dubai’s contemporary art market. However, new warehouse openings revealed possibilities to expand the gallery hub’s umbrella of activities beyond fine art sales.
Alserkal Avenue has been one of the main forces behind the establishment of Dubai’s contemporary art market. However, new warehouse openings revealed possibilities to expand the gallery hub’s umbrella of activities beyond fine art sales. The result is a creative cluster which combines visual arts and commerce, wellness and innovation, contemporary art and fashion, community and creative economy.
Rami Farook (@ramifarook), artist and entrepreneur, epitomizes the blurred lines of Dubai’s creative economy. He is the owner of Satellite and General .3am (@general.3am), a studio gallery and streetwear store respectively, in Alserkal Avenue. In 2007, he started Traffic, a design gallery in Al Barsha area before moving in a 10,000 square feet space in Al Quoz, right at the time Alserkal Avenue began to take shape as a hub for local galleries. Farook first began collecting art and used the walls to show recent acquisitions while “mixing freedom of expression with formative function.” In 2008, he hosted his first artist resident, new media artist James Clar, “who ended up becoming a friend and teacher” before Farook represented him. He recalls that “by the time we moved to Al Quoz, we became an arts center, showing the collection and emerging socio-political artists of the region represented by the gallery.”
“In our 10 years at Satellite, we’ve explored most artistic formats,” Farook looks back. “I think it became a safe haven for anyone looking for a shelter, studio, and launch board. I find many younger artists exploring new mediums and methods so it’s only natural that the space encourages that.”
- Rami Farook
In 2011, Farook started Satellite as a studio gallery. “In our 10 years at Satellite, we’ve explored most artistic formats,” Farook looks back. “I think it became a safe haven for anyone looking for a shelter, studio, and launch board. I find many younger artists exploring new mediums and methods so it’s only natural that the space encourages that.” Speaking of operating outside the strict confines of contemporary art, Farook has a refreshing perspective. “These days we don’t collaborate as much with strictly-speaking ‘art world types’ and we instead prefer working with looser, more flexible artists.” For example, beginning in September 2020 and running for a whole year, “the space will function as a studio, gallery, and chef’s table pop-up.”
Farook’s multi-disciplinary approach mirrors Alserkal Avenue’s evolution. Upon the advent of its inception, Alserkal consisted of a few white-cube galleries hosted in warehouses on parallel pedestrian-friendly streets. It now hosts an upscale hair salon, a vintage car dealership, ready-to-wear boutiques, as well as an array of creative agencies, multipurpose spaces, and coffee shops.
Ashley Al Busmait (@themirageedit) also exemplifies this new, hybrid identity. She is an Emirati-Mexican fashion blogger, who shares her striking fashion photography shots in Dubai and its surroundings with her audience of more than 15,000 followers on Instagram. She describes herself as a ‘Fashion Taste-Maker’ and was previously known by her alias Desert Vogue. Referring to her source of inspiration, Al-Busmait remarks “I have always been heavily inspired by the vast and beautiful landscapes of the UAE and take pride in featuring them in my photographs to share with my audience. The contrasting energy between the glorious desert sands and the contemporary architecture seen throughout the city of Dubai makes for an interesting anomaly and depicts just how much the city has progressed.”
Throughout the years, Al Busmait has produced many photoshoots on the warehouse-lined streets of Alserkal. She describes the relationship between the concrete-and-steel infrastructure and her personal minimal aesthetic as “magnetic.”
Alserkal Avenue has played a large role in the development of her style. Al Busmait, often seen wearing designs from regional brands, has matured into a fervent proponent of subtle, impactful minimalism. As she explains, “Upon entering the gates of Alserkal Avenue four years ago, I had no idea just what an integral part the newfound creative incubator would play in my artistic journey as a young aspiring Fashion Content creator in Dubai. Every time I visit Alserkal I can't help but marvel at the way the sun reflects onto the sleek facades of the exceptionally modern warehouses and the sense of inspiration it ignites in me.” Throughout the years, Al Busmait has produced many photoshoots on the warehouse-lined streets of Alserkal. She describes the relationship between the concrete-and-steel infrastructure and her personal minimal aesthetic as “magnetic.”
“For me, the change signified a 'coming into my own' era where I made a decision to explore newfound artistic liberty that I had been suppressing for a very long time.”
- Ashley Al Busmait
In many ways, the young fashion taste-maker is an iconoclast choosing purist silhouettes in a country characterized by its lavishness, gold opulence and embroidered fabrics. Al Busmait also recently transformed her personal style by cutting her long hair short at Chalk, Alserkal Avenue’s newly opened hair salon. “This is something I had been meaning to do for a very long time but only recently summoned up the courage”, she shares. “For me, the change signified a 'coming into my own' era where I made a decision to explore newfound artistic liberty that I had been suppressing for a very long time.” With her new razor-sharp haircut, she defines a new wave of fashion bloggers from Dubai who are less interested in flashy logos and more inclined towards a blend of masculine and feminine silhouettes, straight lines, and overall clean, utilitarian, and functional minimalism.
Alserkal Avenue has incubated a new model for private enterprises engaged in the public good: while fostering a new creative economy, its concentration of galleries and shops also gave space and inspiration to foster Dubai’s new creative generation. For Benton, Alserkal Avenue holds a central place in Dubai’s contemporary art scene. “Before Alserkal Avenue launched, Dubai’s art district was probably DIFC, Dubai’s financial center. While proximity to capital is good, imagine Manhattan’s Chelsea galleries in the Financial District. It just doesn’t work.” Alserkal Avenue is today Dubai’s go-to location for the arts. Benton remarks that especially with the launch of Ishara Foundation and the OMA-designed Concrete space, “it has grown from a strictly commercial art gallery hub to one which has educationally-minded and institutional credentials, too.”
“Before Alserkal Avenue launched, Dubai’s art district was probably DIFC, Dubai’s financial center. While proximity to capital is good, imagine Manhattan’s Chelsea galleries in the Financial District. It just doesn’t work.”
- Christopher Benton
Al Busmait also agrees on the educational and community-building aspect to Alserkal Avenue: “the thriving community of creatives and art aficionados who frequent Alserkal have played an integral role in my self-development, encouraging me to partake in public speaking events and network with like-minded individuals.” She mentions spaces such as Cinema Akil for their selection of independent films and Techarc coffeeshop. “I believe Alserkal Avenue will continue to play a fundamental role in Dubai's community as a safe haven for regional creatives to explore themselves,” she concludes.
Maturing at a breakneck pace, Dubai’s many cultural initiatives have decidedly borne their fruits. As artists and fashion bloggers can attest, the original frames which oversaw the rise of Dubai’s arts scene, especially Alserkal Avenue, have now expanded to form a citywide cultural awareness. As for what the post-pandemic future holds, Al Busmait is optimistic: “every time I walk through the Alserkal Avenue complex I look up at the LED sign installed by conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll that reads ‘When will you return?’ and I think to myself, very soon with a smile.”
“Every time I walk through the Alserkal Avenue complex I look up at the LED sign installed by conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll that reads ‘When will you return?’ and I think to myself, very soon with a smile.”
- Ashley Al Busmait
Many thanks to Christopher Benton, Rami Farook, Ashley Al Busmait, Akkasah: Center for Photography, and Alserkal Avenue.