Dubai’s contemporary art hub set for expansion

For years Al Quoz has housed local and international artists, providing them with large, inexpensive spaces to release their creative spirits. With help from Alserkal Avenue, the hub is set for growth and stability, as major expansion plans take hold 

From above, Al Quoz looks like a non-descript industrial area. Squat warehouses of corrugated metal sprawl across the long, rectangular strip in western Dubai, some eight kilometres from the Arabian Gulf. But for years, the grey space, devoid of skyscrapers, has provided artists with a place to breathe. Local and international creatives have flocked to the gritty neighborhood and since risen to prominence. As cultural critic Hind Mezaina said at the end of last year, “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.”

As the scene swells in the region – Christie’s art sales in Dubai more than doubled to $29.6m between 2012 and 2014 – Al Quoz is settling into its status as the hub of contemporary art in the Middle East with some help from Alserkal Avenue, an organisation founded in 2007 and spanning 250,000 square feet in the area. It is an encircled district undergoing major expansion. To accommodate rising demand for space, the Avenue’s founder and patron of the arts, Abdelmonem Alserkal, has allocated an additional 820,200 square feet to grow the area to over double its current size.

Dubai is a difficult city to navigate for visitors

Tairone Bastien, Programming Director, Alserkal Avenue

In many ways the Avenue is a support network and gelling agent; from bringing together collaborators from diverse disciplines and providing programming, to the more practical responsibilities such as housing numerous galleries, offering studios, building a black box theatre and holding day markets – it is also key in opening up the area to enthusiasts while protecting the privacy artists need to work.

“Dubai is a difficult city to navigate for visitors,” says Tairone Bastien, Programming Director. “We are working on the development of the first live-in artist residency. There are of course a number of artist residencies already established in the UAE, but by adding the live-in element, we’ll be able to offer a more grounded and integrated experience for visiting artists.”

Pakistani artist Mehreen Murtaza
This site-specific installation by Pakistani artist Mehreen Murtaza, supported by Alserkal Avenue, is titled 'Deep Earth Object'

Also on the agenda, the Avenue is planning artist commissions, performances, outdoor film screenings and curated, community-wide events to begin in autumn. Its annual Quoz Arts Festival returns later in the year, a two-day celebration that will be themed on performance.

“In the nearer future, we’re really excited for our next international project, which will take place mid-July, 2015 in London. We are developing a new work by the Dubai-based artist Lantian Xie in collaboration with Delfina Foundation as part of the Shubbak Festival.”

People had been spending their time looking at art. Safina gave them pause, taking their attention away from a focus on art as objects or images towards conversation

Anabelle de Gersigny, Curator, Safina Radio Project

Launching a cultural radio station in Dubai has also been discussed, and Safina Radio Project, a recent Avenue commission, went some way in exploring the possibility. The mobile studio on a boat at the recent Biennale di Venezia showcased recordings and invited visitors to listen in.

Anabelle de Gersigny, the project's curator, says: “In terms of the participants and audience who were at Venice, on the boat, the context was very important. People had been spending their time looking at art. Safina gave them pause, taking their attention away from a focus on art as objects or images towards conversation, with a combination of travelogues and performances which explored artistic practices, with a broad spectrum of artists whose practices draw from a variety of social and political contexts.”

Rabab Ghazoul, an artist and contributor to the project, used her father’s email correspondence with family, politicians, religious figures and journalists as material.

The idea of the homegrown is not to just limit initiatives and ideas to Dubai, but to also provide a springboard for ideas that may begin here, whether its curators, artists or creatives in other fields, and take them beyond our borders

Tairone Bastien, Programming Director, Alserkal Avenue

“Whilst in my mind it became noteworthy as the sum total of someone’s attempts to make a difference, my father is endlessly cynical, and this also interests me - what drives him to continue writing?,” she says. “The Safina Radio Project was a chance to begin the conversation in a way, air some of the material from this archive, and start a dialogue about it.”

Back in Dubai, part of the Avenue’s ambitious expansion is to allocate more space for international collaborative projects; partners include the New York based Leila Heller Gallery and the French gallerist Stéphane Custot.

“We are open to working with international artists, and definitely plan to do so - however we’ll always seek to work with them on projects that are in dialogue with the region,” says Bastien. “Artists and curators here need more opportunities like this. We’re building and supporting the community at home but we also need to support ideas that can travel and operate internationally. The idea of the homegrown is not to just limit initiatives and ideas to Dubai, but to also provide a springboard for ideas that may begin here, whether its curators, artists or creatives in other fields, and take them beyond our borders."