Going global

What was once an ‘underground’ scene is now commanding international attention as the world opens its eyes to Dubai’s thriving creative community

As regional temperatures rise, Dubai’s art scene is far from cooling down. Local galleries are branching out and going global, says Antonia Carver, Director of Art Dubai. “Isabelle van den Eynde [gallery] has just returned from Art Brussels,” she says, “and Carbon 12 is off to the Vienna Art Fair.”

The same pattern is emerging year-round, with Dubai galleries increasingly being invited to exhibit overseas, as in the case of The Third Line Gallery, to be included in London’s Frieze Art Fair for the third consecutive year this October.

‘A thriving community of artists, filmmakers and writers is scaling heady heights and commanding international attention’

Just 10 years ago, Dubai’s cultural scene was very much ‘underground’ yet today a thriving community of artists, filmmakers and writers is scaling heady heights and commanding international attention.

A Dubai resident for nine years and former Editor of respected arts magazine Bidoun, Carver has witnessed this “extraordinary renaissance” first-hand. However, she’s modest about the instrumental role she’s played in pushing regional contemporary art centre stage.

“The growth of international interest in Middle Eastern art has been very much a group effort,” she says. “There are ‘pioneers’ – curators such as Rose Issa, who has been presenting Iranian and Arab artists in London and elsewhere for the past 15 to 20 years, or Christine Tohme in Beirut, through the Home Works festivals, for example.”

Established in 2007, Art Dubai quickly became the meeting point for regional artists, galleries and collectors. It’s perhaps no surprise then that the city is now the commercial hub for the entire MENASA (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) region, and interest from global institutions has actually never been stronger.

“Ten years ago, very few international museums had MENA (Middle East, North Africa) acquisitions committees or dedicated curators. In 2011, we had over 60 museum groups (including museum directors, curators, patrons, donors and staff) attend Art Dubai. The Tate is very active, as is the British Museum,” says Carver.

American museums are also paying attention, developing in-depth, in-house expertise: “The LA Country Museum of Art chose to launch its contemporary MENA art department at Art Dubai 2011, while the V&A in London announced the shortlist for its annual Jameel Prize,” she adds.

Closer to home, local support and cooperation is equally important, with one of the Arab world’s most celebrated cultural events, the Sharjah Biennial, having moved its dates to coincide with Art Dubai. Gulf-wide, collaborations and partnerships were also evident at this year’s Art Dubai, through the fair’s Global Art Forum: a partnership between Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.

As for the pool of local talent, Carver is encouraged by the “vibrant, innovative, DIY spirit” of the artists she sees around her, not least Noor Al Suwaidi, Reem Al Ghaith and Lateefa bint Maktoum.

Emirati artists continue to grow in numbers and confidence, the effect being felt widely, says Carver. She points to Ebtisam Abdulaziz, whom Art Dubai commissioned to make a major installation work at the 2010 fair, and Abdullah Al Saadi, whose work is being exhibited at the Venice Biennale. As with so many others, both are “influential and making waves internationally,” she says.

Bearing testament to how far the country’s art scene has come in a decade, 2009 saw the UAE establish its first pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the most highly acclaimed biennial art event on the global scene. More impressive still, it marked the first time that any Gulf nation had participated in the exhibition.

International exposure of this kind can act as a springboard to success, with Emirati artist Hassan Sharif – regarded by many to be the UAE’s father of contemporary art – being a case in point. A creator of conceptual work since the 1970s, Sharif was one of the artists shown at the ADACH Visual Arts Platform in Venice in 2009, and he’s back this year, as well as taking part in a large-scale retrospective in Abu Dhabi.

A home for established artists and a city that supports emerging talent, Dubai continues to nurture the Emirati sculptors, painters, teachers, critics and curators of tomorrow. But the growth of the city’s art industry shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, says Carver.

“It’s best to also see it in the context of other developments – Dubai Media City, Dubai International Film Festival, Five Green [a challenging and fashion-forward boutique/art and music concept store], DXB-LAB [a Dubai-based collection of international creatives], [creative hub] Shelter, and so on. It’s been very exciting to be a part of a scene that is largely home-grown and that has developed organically, thanks to the dedication of individuals committed to Dubai and the region as a whole.”

As for what will be keeping Art Dubai’s Director busy this summer? Well, preparing for next year’s fair, of course. “We’re in the process now of talking to the galleries about their 2012 booths, and the response is phenomenal.” Carver tells me. “I can’t say too much, but we have a lot of exciting plans – watch this space!”

Staying different through art
Next time you walk around a Jumeirah Group hotel in Dubai or New York, pay closer attention to the walls, for you could be staring at the contemporary art world’s next big thing.

Katherine Gass, Curator of Jumeirah’s Essex House in New York has helped shape the luxury hospitality group’s cultural platform, and oversees its ‘Artist-in-Residence’ programme.

“It all began in 2006 when we were commissioning new artwork for the refurbishment of the Essex House,” she says. “We invited artists into the hotel to contemplate its relationship to Central Park, and this evolved into the idea of an Artist-in-Residence programme. Since then, we’ve welcomed photographers, filmmakers, painters, writers and even master puppeteers to our properties.

“The programme is quite organic,” says Gass. “We’re more of a laboratory than a formally structured programme. The most important thing is that the work somehow provides insight into the site or locale.”

Jumeirah’s discerning guests have lent a great deal of support to the programme, even wanting to contact the artists directly, says Gass.

“I think today’s travellers crave a place where exciting art, elegant design and the exchange of interesting and relevant ideas can all mix,” she says.

For more information, visit www.jumeirah.com