At a glimpse, the Dubai Collection’s first physical exhibition of nearly 70 artworks hints at crucial moments in the region’s modern and contemporary art history.
Beyond that, however, the show indicates a push by the Dubai government to boost patronage in an art scene that has largely been run by the private sector.
Opening to the public on Saturday, November 6 at the Etihad Museum in Jumeirah, When Images Speak: Highlights from the Dubai Collection includes artworks owned by 11 collectors.
Most notable among them are Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and his daughter Sheikha Latifa.
There are also works from the corporate collection of investment firm ARM Holding, a leading partner of Art Dubai, and from the private collections of entrepreneurs in Dubai including Cyba Audi, Charles Al Sidaoui and the Samawi family.
Most of the works on view are by Arab artists from the latter half of the 20th century, along with some contemporary pieces.
Curated by author and academic Nada Shabout, the show unfolds in three thematic chapters.
The first, Abstract Variations, explores how modern Arab artists turned to abstract forms to forge new ways of expression. It includes a luminous work by Kamal Boullata titled Illumination II (2001), from the private collection of Ali and Rafia Malas.
There is also Khaled Ben Slimane’s Exploration No. 2 (1988), an earth-coloured canvas etched with markings, and The Falling Dot, a 1972 painting by Iraqi painter Dia Al Azzawi, eye-catching for its abstract sinuous forms. Both works are from Sheikh Mohammed’s private collection.
The second chapter, Societies in Transition, includes works by Baya Mahieddine, the Algerian artist who fused Amazigh, Arab and Islamic influences in her depictions of women, and Lamya Gargash, the Emirati photographer who has often reflected on the UAE’s development through architecture.
Evoking the Environment, the final chapter, looks at how artists deal with place and landscape, from the natural to the urban, with works by Nouri Al Rawi, Faiq Hassan, and Zeinab Abdel Hamid, who have uniquely depicted scenes from Arab villages.
What is the Dubai Collection?
A year and a half in the making, the Dubai Collection is a partnership between Art Dubai and Dubai Culture, and it presents a unique model for the region.
For one, it is not a collecting body. Rather, it acts as a mediator, loaning artworks from its network of patrons and developing an archive and art shows around them.
The Dubai Collection’s website, which details all the works in When Images Speak, was launched on Thursday.
“We’re like the Spotify of art collections – a central repository where people contribute their artworks,” says Carlo Rizzo, special adviser to the Dubai Collection.
"We then make them accessible in two ways, with a digital archive and temporary exhibitions."
Patrons retain legal ownership of their existing acquisitions but can lend the artworks to the Dubai Collection for temporary exhibitions and digital archiving.
Patrons can also make new acquisitions with advice from the Dubai Collection Curatorial Committee. The loan agreements stipulate that the artworks must be part of the collection for at least a decade.
Rizzo says the initiative hopes to bridge the gap in the emirate’s art infrastructure, where a publicly run contemporary art museum has yet to be built.
Previously, Dubai has focused on museums dedicated to heritage and history. When Images Speak is the first art show to be exhibited at the Etihad Museum since its opening in 2017.
“There was a need for a public art collection in Dubai," Rizzo says. "We had this idea of having a collection that reflects the spirit of the city, rather than the individual collector’s preferences."
To do that, the initiative needed people who could oversee the provenance and significance of the works entering the collection.
“The first and most important thing we did was to establish an independent committee that would vet the quality of the works," Rizzo says. "It adds a layer of expert decision-making.
“This is what makes the difference between just showing something that is a private collection and showing something that is a curated selection.”
The committee includes the show’s curator Shabout, as well as: Muna Al Gurg, who works on Dubai Culture’s museum development projects; Maryam Al Dabbagh, a writer and researcher living in the UAE; Murina Al Sayegh, a freelance curator; Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel; Catherine David, deputy director of Musee National d’Art Moderne in Paris; and Venetia Porter, curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle East art at the British Museum.
The public-private partnership behind Dubai Collection sets it apart from the approach of other emirates like Abu Dhabi, which has opted to link up with major institutions such as Louvre and the Guggenheim, both of which have been building their collections for years.
The Sharjah Art Foundation, founded by its president and director Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi in 2009, has built its own collection, while the Sharjah Museums Authority has been presenting exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, photography and Islamic art for years.
The Dubai art scene so far has largely been supported by patrons, galleries, and artist collectives, including Abdelmonem Alserkal, founder of Alserkal Avenue, which has housed a number of art galleries in the industrial area of Al Quoz.
Alserkal is now part of the Dubai Collection steering committee, along with Sheikha Latifa, Noura Al Kaabi, also Minister of Culture and Youth, Abdul Rahman Al Owais, also Minister of Health and Prevention, Mohammed Al Mur and Muna Al Gurg.
The launch of the Dubai Collection is a promising move and an experimental one, which carves a bigger role for Dubai Culture in the local art scene.
But a permanent art museum is not yet in the works.
“We’re not focusing on that at the moment. What we need to focus on now is to make the works accessible to the public and launch a digital archive at the same time,” Rizzo says.
“The collection is about art. As long as we are able to show it to the public to generate new learning and new research, we are fulfilling the duty of the initiative.”