How Dubai's Tabari Artspace has amplified Arab voices for 20 years

Founder Maliha Tabari looks back at the growth of the regional art scene as her gallery marks a major milestone

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It’s hard to imagine the region without a lively and expanding arts and cultural scene. But amid the plethora of art fairs, intuitions and initiatives across the country, Tabari Artspace was one of the first.

The gallery, located in the Dubai International Financial Centre, has been fundamental to the start and growth of the arts landscape in Dubai and the UAE since it opened in 2003. This year, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, founder Maliha Tabari is looking back fondly at how it has helped tell the story of the Middle East through art.

“I decided to take the responsibility at the time and thought, 'Let me open a gallery or a space for thinkers and creative minds to come together and push a narrative that's strong',” she tells The National.

Maliha’s goals and vision are plainly visible at this year's Abu Dhabi Art.

The Tabari Artspace booth displays a diverse mix of Arab artists across mediums, showcasing thoughtful and important work connected to the region in some capacity.

One part of the booth is dedicated to Palestinian artist Hazem Harb’s new body of work entitled Dystopia is not a Noun. It’s a powerful and compelling response to the conflict in Gaza and a return to the medium of painting for the artist.

Also on display, is the work of contemporary Lebanese artist Chafa Ghaddar. She has produced a new collection of work inspired by her stay at the Alfred Basbous Foundation in Rachana, Lebanon. Basbous was a Lebanese modernist artist and sculptor known for his figurative and abstract work focusing on form and fluidity. Pieces by the renowned artist are also showcased in the booth.

Tabari Artspace’s second booth is dedicated to Kuwaiti artist Alymamah Rashed’s surrealism-inspired work, including six large-scale paintings and some smaller drawings.

Two other gulf artists represented by Tabari Artspace also have work showing in the fair. Emirati conceptual artist Almaha Jaralla’s work is being shown in the Beyond Emerging Art exhibition while Emirati painter and multi-disciplinary artist Hashel Al Lamki was the chosen artist for the annual Gateway exhibition.

“I work with artists who have a human connection,” Maliha says.

“That connection is where, especially after what's happening in Gaza right now, I feel is what's needed to heal, to change mindsets, to build the narrative, to educate.”

The artists showing at Abu Dhabi Art are only a handful of the more than 20 creatives that Tabari Artspace represent and whose work is showcased in their gallery at DIFC, through their online platforms and at fairs and collaborations abroad.

While preserving and highlighting histories of craft and narratives from the Mena region and elevating young artists in the Gulf to the global stage is an important goal for Tabari Artspace, for Maliha it’s the personal relationships she cultivates with artists that truly motivates her.

“The most important journey for me is the time spent with the artists and building that relationship. Because after you do that part well, everything moves forward,” she says.

Maliha is Palestinian-Jordanian and grew up across the Gulf during the 1990s. Her plan was to be an artist herself, and she attended the Otis College of Art and Design in California and the Ringling school of art and design in Florida.

But on her return to the region, Maliha found that the arts landscape was not only severely lacking but there was not much interest, understanding or documentation of the stories and narratives of the Middle East though art.

In response to this void, Maliha first opened Tabari Artspace in 2003 on the 9th floor of the Fairmont Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai. Immediately, there was a real hunger for the gallery and their second exhibition showcasing the work of the Jordanian artist Mohammad Kaitouqa received more than 200 people on the opening night.

“People were eager and we were welcomed with open arms, but still, my job was to educate and we also needed to sell art,” Maliha says.

“It's a responsibility when I sell an artwork to a client. My job is not to decorate spaces, it's to make you feel like this painting is going to be in your collection, the value will go up, and eventually, you'll give it to your child, who will give it to theirs.”

Maliha travelled extensively across the region, choosing artists whose work she wanted to showcase in Dubai - many of which are today considered modern masters. These include, Lebanese painter and sculptor Hussein Madi, Egyptian sculptor Adam Henein, Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata and Egyptian abstract expressionist and cubist painter Omar El-Nagdi.

Over the years, as the art scene started to expand and diversify, Maliha and Tabari Artspace also shifted their focus on to GCC-specific artists, female-centred narratives and more ways to educate the public about art and the artists' journey.

Maliha elaborates that especially with the current conflict in Palestine, it’s important for Tabari Artspace to be a platform where the voices from the region feel empowered and have the stage to amplify their work, while also being a vehicle that educates the public about art and these perspectives.

“Our story, as a gallery, is that we talk about our history, we talk about connectivity,” she says.

“That's how we talk to our artists, we need to do that. And now we need to do it amplified because this is what this world needs. It needs us to educate them through art.”

Updated: November 24, 2023, 7:03 AM