Making a scene

From the visual arts to movies, music, literature and theatre – in this introduction to our art and culture special report, Vision explores the breadth of Dubai’s creative achievements and ambitions

The gallery is full, so people are spilling out on the pavement, hobnobbing under the street lights that also illuminate the neighbouring assortment of warehouses, furniture wholesalers, repair shops and mysterious sheds that make up the industrial district of Al Quoz. Inside the plush, serenely minimalist space, the art set nibbles on canapés and glugs champagne.

It’s another warm, sultry Dubai night in March, and time for yet another hectic dash around the seemingly endless carnival of private views, receptions, events, performances, vernissages, finissages, talks, presentations, cocktail parties and dinners that have come to infect the city each springtime with successively stronger tidal waves of activity and excitement. To the first-time visitor heading to Dubai for the March art fairs, the December International Film Festival or the year-round swelling programme of arts, dance, music, theatre, literature and film, the emirate’s hectic cultural calendar always comes as a surprise in its range, quality and ambition.

‘We’re seeing cool and trendy audiences looking like they’ve just stepped out of London or New York, people with real individuality’

Rachael Brown, Head of Special Projects, The JamJar

Year on year, the programme grows, as this ever-changing city continues to evolve. The past decade has seen an astonishing, audience-driven blossoming of a scene that, in its diversity and scope, reflects the city’s own unique cultural composition. Thanks to the cosmopolitan, relaxed attitude to international lifestyles in Dubai, one can pick up a listings magazine on any given date and discover a range of diversions, from Indian kathak-dancing to Norwegian smorgasbord buffets.

“There is a large young community here, who are motivated and engaged with arts and culture on an international and local level,” observes Rachael Brown, Head of Special Projects at Dubai’s The JamJar venue, a dynamic cultural hub. “Many of them have grown up here and are now forming an audience that’s hungry for new experiences. At The JamJar, we’re seeing cool and trendy audiences looking like they’ve just stepped out of London or New York, people with real individuality.”

Much has been made, quite rightly, of the continued ascendance of the Dubai art scene, now replete with two art fairs, international auctions and a plethora of galleries. Yet while the art scene flourishes and grows internationally – this year’s Venice Biennale features the second appearance of the UAE Pavilion, highlighting the work of three leading contemporary Dubai artists – the domestic scene spans ever outwards. Music, theatre, film and art – the city state’s resident population, drawn from around the world, has adapted Dubai’s infectious DIY ethic to kickstart and support fledgling enterprises across the cultural spectrum.

“The use of the word ‘community’ here in Dubai poses a challenge in itself as there are so many different communities within one city,” says Millie Tsai, General Manager of Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre, which currently hosts some of the teaching space for the Centre for Musical Arts.

“Dubai is becoming more and more cosmopolitan and the art scene is growing fast and becoming more exciting year on year and I think that eventually we will see the same kind of changes and improvements in the performing arts as we have seen in the visual arts scene over the past few years.”

DUCTAC’s (Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre’s) year-round programme spans touring productions of old favourites such as West Side Story as well as concerts and exhibitions, and classes and workshops across nearly every creative genre. Since launching five years ago, the result of a home-grown fundraising programme by British expats, the centre now occupies a pivotal role in the city’s cultural life. And in a pioneering sense too, as DUCTAC has managed to unite the city’s diverse population as a whole.

“Emiratis are constantly developing new ways to hold onto their own culture and traditions while many of the expats are also still very much immersed in their own cultures,” says Tsai. “Each culture is trying hard to maintain their own traditions and way of life but they can’t help but be influenced by the other cultures around them. Over time, this has created a third ‘culture’ that is specific to Dubai. It is this ‘melting pot’ that makes the emirate such an exciting place to be involved in the arts.”

Recent enterprises such as the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature demonstrate the city’s knack of building on a relatively small domestic audience to create something far bigger. Emulating the growing global trend for literary mega-bashes such as the Hay Festival in the UK, the four-day programme offers residents a chance to meet with hundreds of authors from around the world and engage with a dynamic series of workshops, talks and readings. As the Middle East’s largest annual literary festival, it also comes replete with a vibrant Fringe programme.

The JamJar’s Rachael Brown agrees that there is a distinctive flavour to the art, music and theatre currently being seen across town.

“Recently, it’s started to feel as if people are actually investing in their futures here and not just passing through, which is why we’re seeing more locally produced music, theatre and more.”

One of the most internationally visible success stories of recent years has been the Emirati film scene. As with the art industry, film in the UAE has been bolstered by the arrival of global events, such as the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) and its companion event, the Gulf Film Festival. DIFF, which has seen the city virtually transform into a giant cineplex each December, screening hundreds of films from the Middle East and beyond, has actively fomented a filmmaking culture in the region, thanks to the introduction of in-competition programmes including categories specifically for Gulf filmmakers as well as Middle Eastern auteurs. The results are tangible – at last December’s event, the Festival screened 157 films from 57 countries, including 41 world premieres, 13 international premieres, 58 Middle East premieres and 32 Gulf premieres. Of that tally, nearly half of the films shown were from the Arab world. This quantum leap in production owes much to the passionate outlook of those behind the event. DIFF’s Chairman, Abdulhamid Juma, of parent company TECOM at Dubai Media City, has been a driving force behind the Festival since its 2004 inception.

“From within Dubai, they wanted us to be Cannes from the first year! Dubai is really ambitious, Dubai doesn’t really get involved with anything until it’s first-class and big. It’s all about mega-thinking. I knew what Dubai wanted to see. Today, we are very proud and happy with where we are. We have a long way to go, but we know what to do. In 2010, we had over 50,000 people in Dubai watching these films. So everything is in place.”