Museums of metro-politan art

As carriages of the Dubai Metro are wrapped in distinctive designs, Vision explores why public transport and art go so well together

Train spotting hasn’t exactly enjoyed the coolest of reputations over the years, but the last few weeks have certainly seen Dubai Metro’s carriages turn heads.

As part of Dubai Art Season, a project by Dubai Culture & Arts Authority has transformed four blue and grey trains into canvasses for artists to display their work. Complete with a hashtag, #artmetro can also be enjoyed online with excited social media users sharing photos when they catch a glimpse of one of the carriages.

The first, high-profile image to adorn a train was a compilation of shots of Dubai by keen photographer and Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed. As the weeks rolled by and more trains were wrapped in work by international artists such as Abdul Qader Al Rais, Safwan Dahoul and Rachid Koraichi, one of the initial intentions - to bring art and culture closer to the community - was achieved.

This project aims to take art closer to the community and highlights the cultural soul of our city

Abdul Rahman Al Owais, Chair of Dubai Culture

It’s a simple, effective way of answering the charge that art too often exists in a cultural vacuum, enjoyed by the few in the rarified surroundings of a gallery. But then, the idea of the mural on the move isn’t new. It goes back to New York’s subway trains of the 1970s and 1980s, when day-glo graffiti became synonymous with cutting-edge hip-hop culture.

Though this illegal artwork was quickly removed, the sense of possibility that public art offered was not lost on the tastemakers who drove modern cities forward. By 2007, carriages on London’s Piccadilly line were wrapped in a design by American graphic artist Jim Isermann as part of Art On The Underground, an ongoing initiative to “create an environment...to enhance and enrich the journeys of the passengers that are its audience”.

The programme in London also provides poster and billboard spaces for young artists; the stations often act as mini-galleries, resplendent with murals and tile designs. Similarly, the metro stations of Paris are sometimes attractions in themselves. The stunning retro-futurist interior of the Arts et Metiers stop is designed by Belgian comic artist Francois Schuiten and draws inspiration from science fiction novels. Meanwhile, Stockholm’s underground system is marketed as ‘the longest art gallery in the world'.

Dubai joins cities such as London, Paris and Stockholm in providing artists the opportunity to display work on the transport system
Dubai joins cities such as London, Paris and Stockholm in providing artists the opportunity to display work on the transport system

Back in Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum has instructed the transformation of six metro stations into spaces exhibiting artistic, cultural and creative works that celebrate the UAE heritage, traditions and culture.

The inference, then, is clear. A passenger network that's enlivening to look at and use says more about the aspirations of a city than dull trains and identikit stations. As HE Abdul Rahman Al Owais, Chair of Dubai Culture said: “This project aims to take art closer to the community and highlights the cultural soul of our city.”

Artists are keen to display their work in public spaces. Cities want to increase their cultural profile. Commuters and visitors are desperate to have their journeys made more interesting, even for a passing moment. It’s no wonder public transport networks are becoming genuine museums of metro-politan art.