Hidden gems of the UAE: seven spots artists go for creative inspiration

Explore the Emirates' artistic side, from vibrant street art to open studios and pottery classes

With Louvre Abu Dhabi, Alserkal Avenue and Etihad Modern Art Gallery, not to mention a Guggenheim in the works, the UAE is undoubtedly up there with the world’s cultural giants.

Yet it’s the pocket-sized art hubs, locally inspired street art and community classes that really bring the Emirates to life.

In this series of guides, we speak to the experts – the tour guides, the nature lovers and the photographers – to unveil the UAE’s hidden gems.

For our fourth instalment, we’re speaking to the artists about where they go to uncover their creative sides.

Hidden in plain sight: street art in Sharjah and Dubai

Muralist Dina Saadi has adorned the walls of the UAE with bold and colourful art, and one of her most striking works is nestled away in the coastal town of Khor Fakkan in Sharjah.

The waterfront became a canvas for Saadi in 2019 when she was commissioned by Maraya Art Centre as part of its Jedariya project, a street art initiative which aimed to beautify Sharjah’s streets.

Saadi’s mural, which depicts a colourful Siamese fighting fish complete with an eye-popping abstract tail, is only one in a stunning series of works that have transformed the area, and the waterfront is high on her list of recommendations for art lovers.

“Khor Fakkan is a beautiful city with multiple murals right by the water,” Saadi says. “I stayed there for a week while working on my mural there and I discovered all kinds of hidden gems.

“Right across the street from the murals there are lots of small shops and restaurants where you can try some local treats – I love the sour sliced mango they sell in a cup.”

Another collection of Saadi’s murals is hidden in plain sight in Dubai Marina.

“I painted three long murals at Marina Walk that you can sit on and become part of the artwork,” she says. “It’s on the huge staircase where people usually sit or work out.

“I spent around 25 days painting three murals measuring around 40 metres in total.”

She still visits the works to this day. “I go there to walk, enjoy the sunset and get frozen rolls from a little ice cream kiosk right under the mural.

“It’s also a great place to get coffee, and I became friends with the kiosk owners, so they used to bring me amazing Turkish coffee every day when I started working, to give me a little boost of energy.”

A treasure trove at Dubai Design District

Saadi’s final recommendation is a treasure trove as opposed to a hidden gem, but in an area as saturated with art as Dubai’s d3, digging out the most spectacular pieces requires an expert eye.

“D3 is a great place to see big murals painted by local artists like Tarsila Schubert, whose mural is in Building 5 next to one of mine,” she says.

“Myneandyours has a mural not far from there and another massive one that covers the full entrance of Building 2 car park.

“Even the ceiling is painted; it’s like walking into an immersive artwork with colour on all sides.”

As well as local artists, d3 has attracted talent from all over the world, with world-renowned artists travelling from as far as the US and Brazil to leave their mark in Dubai.

Keep your eyes peeled for one of the world's most famous street artists, Shepard Fairey, famed for his Andre the Giant Has a Posse and OBEY brand, and for designing Barack Obama's winning "Hope" presidential campaign.

“There’s two big murals by the legendary Shepard Fairey between Building 10 and 11,” Saadi explains. “You can also see Fernando Chamarelli’s murals in Building 6 by both sides of the entrance.”

Dubai for eL Seed: an open studio and local arts hub

French-Tunisian artist eL Seed’s calligraffiti style has been exhibited all over the world, but at his studio in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz, there’s a strict open-door policy.

“My studio is different to anything else in the city,” he tells The National. “I have an open studio because I feel it’s important to let people see what an art studio really is and witness what it is to be an artist.

“I welcome people to stop by and hear me speak about my work. It’s not a gallery, it’s a working studio and it gives an insight into what being an artist is all about.

“Sometimes people can see what I’m working on, but it’s never guaranteed.”

Outside of his studio, for eL Seed there’s nowhere in the UAE quite like Tashkeel, an art space in Nad Al Sheba that hosts exhibitions and workshops.

“As an artist, I find Tashkeel so inspiring,” he says. “There’s a calmness there that’s really refreshing and a lot of artists work there, so it’s a great place to interact.

“It used to be a school and the energy of the place is still the same. Their goal was to educate and my goal is to inspire, and that’s not such a common thing in Dubai.

“A lot of the time, art galleries are really business orientated but it’s the energy that makes Tashkeel special. I would definitely say it’s a gem.”

The UAE’s best art classes

Artist Leena Kewlani gave up a high-flying career in advertising to focus on pottery and has dedicated much of that time to scope out the best art studios and workshops in the UAE.

“There’s a beautiful studio called Yadawei in Al Quoz,” she says, with a smile. “It’s a lovely pottery studio where you can disconnect from the world and just create something.

“Not a lot of people know about it, but I love it and I’ve been going there for a while.

“It feels like a community and it’s a lovely wide-open space where you can just relax and breathe.”

A 15-minute drive from Yadawei Ceramic Studio lies Dubai International Art Centre in Jumeirah 1, where Kewlani teaches pottery and art.

“The building has been there since the 1970s and it’s a real art community with all manner of classes from silk painting to glass painting and watercolours,” Kewlani explains.

“There’s also an on-site gallery and a little cafe where you can chat with like-minded people and really immerse yourself in the scene.

“There’s no place quite like the UAE to be inspired by art.”

The best places to get creative in the UAE:

  • Street art in Khor Fakkan, Sharjah
  • Murals at Marina Walk, Dubai Marina
  • Murals in Dubai Design District
  • eL Seed’s open studio in Alserkal Avenue
  • Tashkeel, Nad Al Sheba, Dubai
  • Yadawei Ceramic Studio, Al Quoz, Dubai
  • Dubai International Art Centre, Jumeirah 1, Dubai
Updated: November 21st 2021, 11:28 AM