The pragmatic hub of art in the region

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 2nd April, 2010

Dubai isn’t quite there yet, but with a bit of fine-tuning there is no reason why it shouldn’t seize the initiative.

After a week of taking in all the art at Art Dubai and Bastakiya Art Fair, I felt quite invigorated to say the least. Both fairs were extraordinary — one very up-market with visitors dressed to the nines strutting their latest Manolo Blahniks, seen analysing Kader Attia’s deafening installation History of a Myth: The Small Dome of the Rock , and the latter boho-chic and relaxed in what it had to offer. It was very refreshing; I felt that many of the pieces of art crossed the line in their subject matter and at the end of the day that is essentially what art is meant to do — leave you pondering, or in extreme cases quite horrified, about a certain message. Despite the critics condemning the fairs’ censorship policy, Art Dubai left me asking one significant question: As the city of Dubai moves in this creative and commercial direction, are we really getting it absolutely right?

Art Dubai certainly proves that the world of art and culture in the region has moved from the traditional notion of a gatekeeper ministry approach to private and semi-government institutions moving things forward in a positive manner. This avant-garde fair idea takes a great deal of foresight for a city in this region and yet again Dubai has proven that it has taken the initiative and jumped first onto the bandwagon. Take the Bidoun Lounge Art Park and the Global Art Forum for example — substantially off-beat talks where people interested in the world of art get together very informally to hear international curators, artists and collectors share their views. Over the years they have proved to be stimulating. This shows that Dubai can be a pragmatic art hub of East meets West, where debates occur. After all, we are geographically placed in the middle of both worlds and demographically we qualify as a city with a critical mass of over 180 nationalities living and working together. This all sounds very positive, and coupled with a large amount of wealth owned by many collectors in the region and the many galleries that already exist, Dubai seems to be on an ideal cultural pedestal moving towards the success level of fairs such as Art Basel Miami and Frieze in London. Nevertheless, I believe the city has a great deal to get right before it is close to being dubbed the ‘pragmatic hub’ of art in the Middle East.

Firstly, and at the top of my list, is the creation of art-education institutions that cultivate and incubate creative young minds. On the periphery, Dubai does have some good non-profit organisations — such as Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre — which continuously feed the minds of young people and adults in the fields of art, drama and music. However, my interest lies in the educational institutions of a higher level such as universities that teach the fine arts. Once this happens, we will see the emergence of many talented Emirati artists who would look up to and learn from legends of the previous generation such as Najat Makki and Abdul Qader Al Rais, and see them entering into international auctions such as Christie’s and Bonham’s as their predecessors did.

Public art

Secondly, I would like to see the development of art in public spaces. Aren’t urban developments meant to be where people learn to appreciate the meaning behind creative installations and sculptures? This has an impact on their understanding of each piece of art that they will ever come across. I am a great believer in art in public spaces — so much so that I feel we need to create a designated committee to this end. In the 1970s we did see an abundance of sculptures, such as falcons and traditional coffee cups, all over the country, but after that not much was created. These creative installations could be placed everywhere, from park benches to main roads, from designs on metro manhole covers to architectural building designs. This is one of the ways that we can inculcate a sense of curiosity and innovation in the minds of our youth.

Last but not least, we need to witness the birth of our very own Middle Eastern Contemporary Art Museum. The wave of visitors at Art Dubai certainly proves that there has been a thirst in the region for something as substantial as this. With prominent collectors such as Sultan Sooud Al Qasimi and artists that exist within the region who have personally told me they would fully endorse the idea by donating some of their top pieces, I am absolutely sure that we can put together an impressive museum that would attract the mobile population of the UAE and many people from all over the worldwho visit.

For argument’s sake, let us go back to the original question. Is Dubai the pragmatic art hub of the Middle East? Perhaps not at the moment, but it is certainly on its way there. We just need to inject some of the above to get there a bit faster.

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3 thoughts on “The pragmatic hub of art in the region

  1. I think the underlying argument here is that should Dubai claim another regional title in a different industry?

    Where finances, titles, big institutions and commercialism have been concerned, Dubai seemed to have the strongest hold on the commercial art scene title (commercial in the sense of hosting a commercial art fair, Art Dubai for 4 years and hosting major art galleries like Cuadro and The Third Line) until quite recently with the recession, and combined efforts from the surrounding countries to promote arts and education (Qatar, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi).

    What should be a far more important concern though is that as you mention, we should be aiming to promote the arts from both a top down (educational – setting up art/design schools and institutions, artist residencies/workshops, discussions, etc) and bottom up (grassroots: art in public spaces, encouraging street art, supporting creative publications and events, change the views/mentality/awareness/perception/and most importantly eye for creativity) approach. And this will not and should not happen overnight, neither should it be forced without a purpose.

    Secondly, and more relevant to your question, rather than competing with each other, the region should have a unified aim and each take on a different role to achieve ‘our renaissance’ or movement towards a Middle Eastern contemporary art scene. Whether it means one country hosts major art institutions or museums, whereas another becomes the hub for creativity in the sense of workshops, inspiring surroundings, and yet another becomes the location for key educational institutions, etc..

    Though funnily enough, it was not until Abu Dhabi (an emirate competing with another emirate is just another typical day of middle eastern kids in high school competing over who has a bigger/better bike) secured the Guggenheim and the Louvre, and more recently setting up Al Saadiyat, that not just the world but our region woke up and started listening.

    This also opens up another can of worms: are we more enticed by the prestige, title, attention and competition of hosting and creating this new movement (not to belittle the efforts and initiatives of the artists and organisations/publications in the Gulf that have been promoting and pushing forward the art scene way before these art fairs popped up) rather than actually supporting the minds and needs of these creatives of our generation and the next?

    It is not an unspoken truth that a career in the creative industry in the Middle East is not a well-paid or prestigious let alone be viewed as a full-on career, except in very few instances. The ‘starving artist’ takes on a new meaning here and this is not only in the sense of just being an artist, but a curator, fashion designer, photographer, graphic designer, and maybe only slightly less relevant to interior design only more recently (Architecture probably being one of the few design fields that are seen as a career that is respected alongside business, finance, medicine, literature, etc).

    The ideas of putting together a Museum of Modern Art are already underway: the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi is well under construction, albeit it being designed by internationally renowned Frank Gehry, whom I’m a big fan of yet kind of goes back to make you think, will it just be a cookie-cutter version of the NY/LA one, including content?

    Closer to the initiatives are the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, which boasts of the most extensive (not to mention expensive) collection of Islamic Art, which supports a more than worthy and relevant art/cultural movement for the region. However, the rumors of the collection beating a Western collector’s initiative to put it together, this goes back to the argument of ‘are we just doing it for the international attention’?

    And coming up more recently is the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bahrain, being designed by internationally renowned Arab architect Zaha Hadid, which seems so far to be the closest to achieving this.

    What is interesting and had also come up in numerous panel discussions including Abu Dhabi Arts last year, is the concern, mainly from Western art professionals (collectors, curators, critics, museum heads, etc), about the ability to ‘fill up’ these museums with art that is contemporary, that is from the Middle East, that is relevant and that can compete and show its character on an international level. And their concern, though we do have various local talented artists and collectors, is still quite legitimate.

    I think the initiatives that have been put forward so far like commercial art fairs may help to raise awareness and are a good move forward, the introduction of credible art institutions (Guggenheim, Louvre, NYU) will provide opportunities to the younger generation who previously would not have had the option to consider design. And there are optimistic young artists who are all doing their part to promote and increase it..

    So with all the above (I do talk a lot! lol), I think my main conclusion is that rather than competing against each other for the title of ‘art hub of the Middle East’, the region should work together for a unified aim of creating this Middle Eastern art renaissance.

  2. Luma – I see where you’re coming from, and it makes absolute sense. However, taking a step back, a unified approach is somewhat absent from much of the GCC’s recent development. True, Qatar has opted for an education and sport skew, and Dubai the more financial-hub “plus a bit of everything” angle, but they all overlap too much, and as a result you end up with mothballed projects that never see the light of day, or levels of “supply” when the “demand” was never there to begin with such as with real estate.

    Currently the GCC member states are struggling to unify their currencies (2010 deadline has come and is nearly gone). The plan for a regional VAT (value added tax) looks to be another issue that will follow a similar path. Unifying the art community is another one of those ideas that makes good sense, but everyone in the room thinks they’re best for the job.

  3. Thanks Ali you’re absolutely right that it will prove difficult to coordinate the strategies of the Gulf states seeing as each seem to be duplicating rather than coordinating in all other industries and services.

    However, the beauty of the creative industry is that it manages to flourish and unify on its abundance and differences. Competition drives creativity, innovation, interest and awareness. Having thought about it, there is no wrong doing in producing more facilities, inspirational venues and opportunities for both artists and local communities to thrive, inspire, produce art and experience culture in each state (instead of funding another finance/real estate/commercial/etc ‘hub’).

    If our governments choose not to coordinate these cultural aims to avoid duplicating efforts, it might actually be a blessing in disguise, letting the grassroots approach takeover as how it should be done, by the creatives themselves – who knows, this may even fix the problem we currently have of duplicated identities amongst the Gulf States. I do feel it would be a nice change from all of us being pearl-diving, horse-painting, oud-playing states wouldn’t it..

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