Creative force

From furniture-makers to writers, a wave of international artists has fallen under Dubai’s spell. Vision speaks to several such individuals who have been moved by the emirate’s unique energy to create significant bodies of work

Images of Dubai ricochet between sweeping caramel-coloured sand dunes and hyper-modern skyline – and of course both have a long tradition of captivating artists and writers. Over the past few years, the city has been capitalising on this momentum.

Since its 2009 launch, the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority (DCAA) has been instrumental in laying important groundwork and infrastructure for the city’s home-grown and visiting talent. Just this year (2011), the DCAA collaborated with young Emiratis in the opening of the Pavilion, a one-time estate agent’s office that has since been transformed into a hub for exhibitions and performances. The not-for-profit Pavilion, located near the base of the Burj Khalifa, is a significant step in the promotion of the city’s cultural activity, ensuring that the inspiration expressed by artists in and visiting the region will be a signature part of the city’s ongoing cultural dialogue.

The Pavilion, located near the base of the Burj Khalifa, is a significant step in the promotion of the city’s cultural activity, ensuring that the inspiration expressed by artists in and visiting the region will be a signature part of the city’s ongoing cultural dialogue

Inspiration and serendipity go hand in hand for Stockholm-based designer Katrin Greiling. Take, for instance, the idea behind her Bidoun furniture series. Commissioned by the eponymous Middle East arts magazine, the concept for the collection came to the 33-year-old, who was living in Dubai at the time, when a group of Emirati Bedouins appeared across a sand dune, surprising her with bags of dates and peeled oranges during a quiet desert retreat. Their hospitality extended to a campfire dinner, where she caught her first glimpse of Emirati architecture in its original form – the tent. “I started to look at the objects the Bedouin use in their daily lives, which gave me a deeper understanding of the history and essence of design originating in the Middle East,” explains Greiling. Inside the tarpaulin structure she found stacks of colourful mattresses used as couches, which would, come evening time, transform into beds. “Their nomadic lifestyle influenced both the function and design of their furniture,” she observes. “After experiencing these tents, I knew I wanted to create something reflecting this mobility.”

Artists in their own words

Shumon Basar
Shumon Basar is a British writer, editor and art curator based in London

Q: How would you describe your time spent in Dubai and the Gulf region?
A: My experience of the Gulf is like a time traveller who can only go in reverse, even if he wants to go forward. I arrived in Dubai when it was futuristic: a post-colonial, post-modern state of exception for the Middle East. It was all the things you weren’t expected to expect in that part of the world. I’ve continued to travel around the adjacent areas, as it ripples out. I’m piecing thousands of years of space and time together, even though a lot of it feels like it only started in the middle to end of the 20th century.

Q: How would you say the city inspired the book you are currently writing, World! World! World!?
A: Dubai seemed to me to be this incredibly proficient vehicle to understand the transformation from the tail end of the 20th century to the start of the 21st century as the gravitational centre of the world shifts back eastwards. It’s no accident that these modern narratives spring from the same contested ‘cradle of civilization’ source as ancient Mesopotamian, Sumerian and Persian narratives, and more. Any true understanding demands that you unearth the layers and layers of time. This is why my novel’s protagonist is a historian. He has to be.

Linda Davies
Linda Davies is a British author who wrote the successful Djinn quintet of books for teenagers

Q: How did the idea of the Djinn series first come to you?
A: I was walking along the beach and there was no one on it. I found an intricate shell, which seemed as if it had a map on the inside. I thought, ‘what if I was a boy and I would travel to the place that this map showed?’ And then I thought what if a djiin [genie] kidnapped this boy’s parents? And that was really how it started.

Q: How would you say the city of Dubai has affected the work you have created?
A: The city is a pretty inspiring place. It is a modern metropolis, but if you dig deeper, ancient mythology is swirling around. There is a rich tapestry to play with. Modern Dubai has glamour, and there is also the beautiful and ancient Dubai where you can find all these amazing stories.

Anne Spalter
Anne Spalter is a mathematician and artist from Rhode Island, USA, who specialises in combining art and technology. She created the first fine art digital media courses at Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University, and has the largest collection of early computer art in the US

Q: What were your very first impressions of Dubai?
A: Seeing this city that sprung up from desert, and all the amazing buildings was thrilling. There is such a different environment there from the United States, where things just move more slowly.

Q: How does it connect with your work, which is often comprised of geometric patterns?
A: It was so exciting seeing all the patterned architecture and graphics. As an artist and maths major, to be immersed in all that patterning that you see in a textbook gives you ideas. It reflects a larger order and a spiritual view of the universe, which is part of the idea behind patterns in Islamic artwork.

Q: Any plans to come back and create something in the city?
A: I want to do a project using those big screens at the Dubai racetrack [Meydan Stadium]. I would like to have big patterned works displayed on them because they are very dramatic. They can resonate with the cities of the East and West, old and new.

Katrin Greiling
Katrin Greiling is an award-winning German industrial designer with a studio in Stockholm

Q: What do you remember from your very first time visiting Dubai?
A: When I arrived I came with no great expectations of getting ahead as a furniture designer. Rather, I wanted to make it an adventurous trip and learn as much about the culture as I could.

Q: How did your weekend trips to the desert affect the design of your Bidoun furniture series?
A: It was fascinating for me to be allowed to share in Bedouin leisure time and participate in their customs. The word ‘heritage’ gained importance when I lived there because of the global crisis. If you lose something, somehow that highlights your roots again. It was important for me as a designer to be able to communicate with locals who somehow lost their own perspective on culture. And so it was these observations of them practising a Bedouin life that influenced both me and the Bidoun series.

Katrin is represented by Dubai’s Empty Quarter Gallery