Our new arts and culture commentator, Hind Mezaina, celebrates the artistic scene in Dubai and champions the Al Fahidi district as a possible future arts hub
A young city with an emerging arts scene, Dubai has grown its arts and culture profile significantly in the past ten years. The emirate has made its mark on the global cultural calendar, with events like the Dubai International Film Festival, Art Dubai and Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Contemporary art galleries tend to be clustered in the DIFC Gate Village (in Dubai International Financial Centre) and in Al Quoz, the industrial part of Dubai town. Of late this area has been colonised by small, independent galleries and cafes, particularly around the warehouses of Alserkal Avenue.
It brings to mind art districts in other cities such as London, Berlin, and New York, where creative minds spot the potential in the neglected and overlooked, using the areas as a blank canvas for their artistic endeavours. Neighbourhoods are born from the abandoned spaces, evolving into the nerve centres of creative industry and become magnets for culture and entertainment.
In the 1970s landlords in the historic DUMBO (District Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) area of New York found willing tenants among artists and bohemians willing to endure poor living conditions for cheap rents. The result was the Artist in Residence programme in which units were let out to artists, and the area developed into a thriving arts scene.
In Peckham, southeast London, everything from an empty sausage factory to a disused multi-story car park has been reclaimed in the name of art. The 10 storey car park has become home to the Bold Tendencies art project, which since 2007 has attracted over half a million visitors.
Artists in Al Quoz are drawn to the same thing as artists all over the world – large, inexpensive spaces that can be transformed into artistic venues. Over 30 galleries now reside in this area bounded by industrial units and desert. A couple of years ago two galleries from the Gulf region exhibited at Art Basel for the first time – the Green Art gallery and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, both from Al Quoz.
Another area that is currently nurturing the seeds of an art scene is the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, with its wind- tower houses and scenic view of the creek. Currently there are a handful of museums, galleries and cafes there, such as the Majlis Gallery, which has been around since 1989, and XVA Gallery and Hotel, which was established in 2003. It is a popular tourist spot where visitors by the busloads are dropped off to see “historic” Dubai and admire its exteriors.
Since 2007, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood has hosted an annual art event every March to support and showcase UAE based artists. SIKKA Art Fair consists of a commissioned arts programme of new work from emerging Emirati and UAE-based artists, including filmmakers, musicians and performing artists. Many works are site-specific – responding to the historic architecture and sikkas (alleyways) of the quarter.
At the moment the festival is just a month long but there is huge potential for more permanent artistic colonization. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before Al Fahidi’s many empty houses are opened up to house artists, as studio spaces, or all-year artist residencies with independent shops, edgy boutiques and quirky cafes to follow.