Opinion: ‘Let’s see Dubai’s heritage shine through’

A host of successful international events has put Dubai on the cultural map. But, in these globalised times, is it time for the emirate to assert its artistic identity?

When you travel the world, you realise that most cities today feel surprisingly kind-of-the-same. There will most likely be a Starbucks at the airport, a comfy-enough Hilton bed to sleep on somewhere nearby, and the standard array of luxury shopping choices such as a Cartier or a Hermes to satisfy your shiny, scented and silky creature cravings. These days it’s awfully hard to shop for items that are authentic and indigenous to a world city, because the city’s internationalisation required its own accompanying ‘de-nationalisation’.

In Dubai, all of these international and universal symbols of luxury make their requisite appearance. When you see something shiny in Dubai, it’s probably real gold, and if it says ‘Chanel’, it’s most likely an exclusive limited edition. These items are certainly ‘authentic’ but what they lack is the uniqueness of being authentic to Dubai’s own history and culture.

‘The Burj Al Arab, the winds of change and the global nature of Dubai are terrific ingredients for finding a truly authentic identity in the 21st century’

I have visited Dubai twice now, as part of the Davos World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Design. There I joined a multidisciplinary group of thought-leaders to demonstrate the potential of design and design thinking to catalyse economic growth and social change. In my own work as an artist, and as a designer for companies such as Sony and Google, I’ve seen how art and design can serve as both agents of change and as cultural cornerstones.

Historically, many places in the world have forged their cultural identity through an architectural symbol. When we think of Paris, the Eiffel Tower comes to mind – erected for a world exposition; in China, the Forbidden City – an ancient seat of power; in the United States, the Statue of Liberty – a first welcome to immigrants.

And in the case of Dubai, I think of the Burj Al Arab – a hotel shaped like a traditional Arab dhow (boat) that epitomises luxury. The wind that powers a sailboat symbolises change. And for that reason, the Burj Al Arab seems a relevant symbol for Dubai – where change is rapid and the turnover of international guests high. In some sense, it’s a permanent symbol of an impermanent relationship with the world, and my guess is that Dubai’s burgeoning art scene will flourish further still when its people start to get more in touch with what has permanence in their culture versus that which has been brought in.

By way of illustration, let me tell you a story about the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), one of the preeminent colleges of art and design in the USA, where I am President. Our oldest building on campus, the Waterman Building, housed RISD’s first formal art education programme combined with the first art museum in this region of the United States. It’s where local citizens of all ages and all creeds came to appreciate fine art, and to make art at a level that would one day exceed all the world’s highest standards. Eventually we would expand to a complex of 47 buildings to host and develop the talent of the famed glass artist Dale Chihuly, the legendary painter Julie Mehretu, and the visionary filmmaker Gus Van Sant. In short, a little building became the catalyst for an entire movement to educate some of the world’s finest artists and designers.

The Burj Al Arab, the winds of change, and the global nature of Dubai are all terrific ingredients for finding a truly authentic identity in the 21st century. Already, promising signs are appearing of a global arts scene, such as the Dubai International Film Festival or the Al Quoz contemporary arts district. The more these cultural events and developments can allow Dubai’s heritage to shine through, the better.

For Dubai to fulfil its destiny as a global centre for the arts, it must continue to foster great local human talent, with the emphasis on learning, creativity, and forging its own identity. Arts education in Dubai will be the catalyst for its people to recognise their place on the world arts stage. I watch with interest and I wish the region luck.