Dubai is on an important cultural journey

Art collector, design entrepreneur, curator and cultural ambassador – Rami Farook, owner of Dubai art gallery Traffic, is all these and more. He takes time out from his busy international schedule to tell Vision why art is so important for Dubai

Thirty-year-old Emirati Rami Farook is a man of many hats. From art collector to design entrepreneur and gallery director, which cap fits best?

“Curator, without doubt!” he tells me. “It’s such a satisfying process, dealing with artists; creating, producing and finally exchanging work.”

Farook’s Dubai-based gallery, Traffic, was created in 2007 as he sought to unleash the city’s rich creative potential. But that wasn’t always the plan.

He was studying management at Boston University in the late 1990s and considering a doctorate in Psychology. However, he decided to return to the UAE to work for the family firm, Farook International Stationery. Farook put pen to paper, collaborating with local designers to develop a new brand called Light, which ignited his creative spark, but left him unfulfilled.

“I got into graphic and product design, but eventually outgrew it due to certain limitations, be it functionality or dependency on client momentum,” he says.

“So, I took time out and went travelling. I went to Paris, Amsterdam and Cologne, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon Damien Hirst’s exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London that I knew what I wanted to do. I had no knowledge of art, but I was inspired. A week later, I discovered The Third Line gallery in Dubai. I saw a piece I loved, bought it, and became a collector.”

Traffic was born soon after, with the philosophy of “creating, exhibiting and exchanging”, says Farook. “I’m lucky that the gallery has the generous space to hold museum-type exhibitions and I like the exchange that results from that, in the form of more collaborations, fair trade and overall social developments.”

Proving that art can flourish in an industrial zone, Traffic’s 1,500sqm multipurpose space in Al Quoz combines two galleries, an artistic residency studio and Farook’s personal collection of more than 300 works.

“If money were no object I’d love to buy The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst,” he says, describing the iconic tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde. “Or, the complete works of Swiss artist Roman Signer, who tends to blow everything up! But I must say I’m very happy with the three or four pieces we have by him so far.”

But Farook’s appreciation of art is not restricted to the contemporary, for within his gallery’s walls, street art is hung next to fine art, while new media and traditional Islamic pieces sit comfortably side-by-side.

Artists currently represented include Shaikha Al Mazrou, an Emirati whose large-scale installations investigate the use of mass-produced electronic waste. And Bahrain-born Saudi national Faisal Samra, whose Resistance solo exhibition fuses painting, sculpture and video to explore different states of the human condition.

Cross-border art
While Farook remains loyal to cultivating Dubai as a cultural capital, he is passionate about taking regional art across borders, and celebrated Saudi-born artist Ahmed Maher will be travelling with him to the 2011 Venice Biennale.

Meanwhile, in May, Dubai-based American artist James Clar represented Traffic in its first international art fair outside of the Middle East, at Art HK 11 in Hong Kong.

Farook believes the perception of Dubai that the ‘outside world’ holds is a fair one, saying that “those who have experienced the city see it as growing, all-inclusive, organic and collaborative.”

“The city is now positioned as a hub for Middle Eastern art, in much the way that London is an artistic hub for Europe,” he says. “Compare that to when we started Traffic: Dubai’s art scene was a lot smaller and there was nothing to benchmark ourselves against. There were fewer than five galleries and the economic boom was at its peak.”

“For Dubai to accelerate its standing internationally, we need to not only develop public exhibition spaces, but also increase the number of art programmes in schools,” he says. “We also need to educate parents that art can be a profession, not just a hobby.”

Far from standing on the sidelines, he’s rolling up his sleeves and getting involved and pays regular visits to schools from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi, hunting for the Damien Hirsts of tomorrow.

“Many years ago I started critiquing the work of art graduates, offering guidance and encouragement. Then about three years later, I went on to curate the show of one of those students,” he says. “So, this year I decided I wanted to launch The Graduates at Traffic and we’re planning to exhibit the work of around 10 students from UAE schools this month. And it’s not just Emirati artists – for example, we’re very impressed by students at the Sharjah School of Fine Art from Argentina and Saudi Arabia.”

Farook’s dream is to lend fresh graduates a helping hand, creating for them a commercial platform and, ultimately, a secure gallery representation. It’s a win-win situation, he tells me, as “from our side we’re unearthing hidden talent and hopefully they’ll get to sell their work.”

Rami Farook is a busy man who works long hours before going home to two “joyful and hyperactive children”, but before we end our conversation I ask him about the origins of the gallery’s name?

“Well it wasn’t actually my first choice,” he tells me. “I really wanted the gallery to be called Space, but that was already being used by various organisations. So we decided upon Traffic, which in hindsight was such an important symbol of the UAE’s culture back in 2007, and in Dubai specifically as we were all sitting in traffic.”

“But the name also symbolises Dubai’s important cultural journey, its direction. And I also love the democracy of the name. Meaning that when we’re sat in traffic, be it in a Ferrari or a taxi, we’re all exactly the same.”

“However, there was one more name in the ring,” he laughs. “Circus! Because I just knew this would be chaos!” for more information