A woman in a burqa drinks Arabic coffee, a boy in a ghutra leads his camel by the harness and a falcon spreads its wings – the spray-painted pictures are fantastically lifelike.
Completed in five weeks by Miami-based Elio Mercado and his team of nine artists, the 600-metre installation, alongside the main Abu Dhabi to Dubai motorway, was launched this month and has already attracted great attention.
The project comes on the back of a similar initiative in Dubai’s City Walk retail development that showcased 16 pieces of street art from the world’s leading urban artists.
Both have achieved what all public art should: provoking discussion among the local creative community on the nature of the art form.
The works have also inspired debate among local artists; given the obvious cost and creative resources spent on these projects, were they really the best way to reflect the country’s vibrant artistic community?
We asked Aldar and Dubai City Walk to comment on outsourcing the artists but neither had responded by the time of going to press.
Katharina Moeller, co-founder of the Abu Dhabi Arts Collective, says that while it is a great idea to introduce more art into the public arena, the initiative could have been carried out more organically.
“There are so many talented artists who work in this exact realistic style here in Abu Dhabi,” she says. “I believe it would have been easy to find artists from the city itself to produce a very similar mural, and this would have given artists here a chance to contribute to the city they love.”
Fathima Mohiuddin, a street artist born and raised in Dubai, identified this same issue in 2011 when founding The Domino – a platform that connects artists with organisations looking to commission public art.
Since then, she has facilitated murals in a variety of corporate and public spaces, including the offices of Emaar and Virgin Megastores in Dubai, as well as at festivals such as Mother Of The Nation in Abu Dhabi.
A tireless advocate of street art, Mohiuddin believes public installations have the potential to represent communities in two ways: through the creator of the work, and the substance of the content.
“I’ve always worked for that and there’s quite a big community of individuals who have been actively pushing for public art to happen in this country, with these goals of substance in mind,” she says.
“However, as this kind of art has become more trendy in the UAE, I think a lot of values are being compromised. I understand why somebody may want to fly in one of the big names – as a young scene and community we may not necessarily be at the skill level that a lot of these artists are at – but it feels like we are importing something that is supposed to start on a local level first and, therefore, missing the point.”
Building a local skills base
Mohiuddin raises an interesting point. Perhaps the decision to search abroad for artists is essentially a practical one.
“Public art is a highly specific skill set, quite distinct from other forms,” says Maya Allison, founding director and chief curator of the New York University Abu Dhabi art gallery. “In many cases it requires the engagement of serious engineering and materials consultants, as the work is meant to be semi-permanent. Unlike in a museum, public art must be able to withstand weather conditions and human interaction without becoming damaged or being a risk to the visitor.”
Allison is involved in running the annual Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award at the university – an initiative that challenges young artists to design a piece of art to be shown in several outdoor locations, including on the campus. She points to such programmes as sowing the seeds for a future in which locally based artists will be favoured over international talent for large-scale projects.
“It may be as simple as a question of needing time for the education and experience of this generation to ripen to the point that these elements can all work at once,” she says.
One thing is certain: whereas two years ago the debate about public art was focused on its absence shortage, now there is a general consensus that there is no longer a shortage.
In Sharjah, two large-scale murals by Dubai-based artists have been completed in the past couple of years. Organised by Jederiya, an initiative from the Maraya Art Centre, one of them is an eye-catching piece created by eL Seed in January of last year.
The French-Tunisian calligraffiti artist painted the words of an Arabic poem in twisted freestyle lettering on the walls of a building on Bank Street.
In March, British-Iraqi artist Marwan Shakarchi, whose goes by the artist name Myneandyours, adorned a wall in Al Khan with his trademark clouds.
“The importance of any mural in the public sphere is the shock factor,” says Shakarchi. “It needs to be unexpected so that you become curious and start thinking about it. My clouds do not tell you anything, they just exist – and that leaves the possibilities open for anyone to interpret them as they like.”
It is hoped that the increase in public art, and greater awareness, will result in future opportunities for local artists.
Jill Hoyle, manager of Tashkeel studio hub and gallery in Dubai, helped to arrange a public mural by resident artist Ruben Sanchez. She says further education is key.
“If people learn about the importance of street art, then it will almost certainly open doors for our home-grown artists,” she says. “Besides, art in the public space is much bigger than street art.”
She is right – street art and murals are only one aspect of public art. Sculptures and installations are equally as important and can be even more engaging if done properly. For example, Maraya Art Park in Sharjah opened in 2013 with a portable interactive sculpture by Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal called The Hierarchy of Being – a giant camera obscura that allows visitors to see the world upside down. This year, several commissioned outdoor sculptures were created as part of the park's Imitation Game exhibition.
Maraya also manages Al Noor Island, which hosts several installations. Director Giuseppe Moscatello says they are always looking for more opportunities.
“We are actively growing Maraya Art Centre’s public-art platform as we look for suitable spaces and create new artist collaborations,” he says.
In January last year, Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Pulse Corniche was set up in the capital by Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi team. Though a short-term installation, the canopy of light beams projected upwards by powerful searchlights was memorable for many.
Knowing your art
Then there is the debate about what public art really means. In a country where soaring temperatures mean it is difficult to spend time outside for several months of the year, does public art have to be in the street?
Rachael Brown is co-founder of Capsule Arts, a Dubai-based art consultancy company that works with developers in the hospitality industry to install original pieces of art in malls and hotels. One of their latest projects was Rove Hotels, for which local artists were commissioned to create art for public areas.
“When you look at the geography of Dubai and how people interact here, you see people using hotels as a social environment more so than any other country,” she says.
“Therefore, our hotels and our malls have become our public spaces.”
The main challenge, she concludes, is not a lack of public art in the UAE – whether it is out on the street or in communal spaces – but the lack of knowledge about it, both among the public and the artists themselves.
“There has been so much growth over recent years in this area and there needs to be a bit of education alongside that,” she says.
"Sculptures or artworks go up overnight and people don't pay attention, or they don't understand. In New York, for instance, people seek out the Robert Indiana Love sculpture and they take time to know about the artist.
"I think the next step in the UAE is to give people more information and to have more collaborations with local artists to bring them into the foreground.”