Art in the UAE: Louvre Abu Dhabi, Sharjah Art Foundation, Alserkal Avenue and other institutions share their plans for 2021

Individuals from the UAE's leading art institutions reveal what we can look forward to in the coming months

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A difficult year for many, 2020 was also hard on the arts, with closures and cancellations affecting artists, galleries and institutions alike. With the arrival of vaccines, this year may be a little more hopeful, and those on the local art scene seem determined to forge ahead. Over the past few months, art exhibitions and cultural events have returned – from gallery openings to musical performances. Art Dubai will be back with a physical fair in March after being forced to go virtual last year, while Sharjah Art Foundation's March Meeting will also take place after being postponed.

We ask eight people from the UAE's major art institutions what they're most looking forward to this year and what they have in store.

Manuel Rabate, Louvre Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 9, 2019.  
STORY BRIEF: Interview with Manuel Rabate, Director of Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Alexandra Chaves
Manuel Rabate, director of Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo by Victor Besa / The National

During last year's stay-at-home period, Louvre Abu Dhabi accelerated its digital programming with the cinematic podcast We Are Not Alone,

as well as sharing its permanent collection online. "We will continue expanding our digital offerings, enriching digital visitor experiences," says Manuel Rabate, Louvre Abu Dhabi museum director.

“If we have learnt anything from the last year, it is how to adapt, and how to respond with agility and resilience to these uncertain times. We saw our way through the crisis; we were pushed to make changes, and to adapt quickly to the new world without forgetting we were a museum.

“For me, 2021 will be a year of Louvre Abu Dhabi operating this way – shifting as needed to best serve our audiences. We will take nothing for granted – the support and health of our staff, our partner museums around the world who continue to overcome challenges through trust and collaboration, and – absolutely key – our audiences, to whom we remain devoted in keeping curiosity, discovery and empathy alive. We will continue to tell the connected stories of humanity through art.”

Over the years, the museum has added activities not necessarily related to art for families and visitors, such as kayaking in its surrounding waters and, this year, yoga under the famed Jean Nouvel-designed dome. Rabate says the Children's Museum will also relaunch in the summer.

Antonia Carver, Art Jameel


Antonia Carver, Director of Art Jameel.

The Jameel Arts Center is set to open on November 11, Located at the Jaddaf Waterfront,  the multidisciplinary space is dedicated to exhibiting contemporary art and engaging communities through learning, research and commissions. It houses several gallery spaces, an open access library and research centre, project and commissions spaces, a writer’s studio, indoor and outdoor event spaces, a roof terrace for film screenings and other events, a bookstore dedicated to arts and culture related publications, a café and a full-service restaurant.

The centre is one of the first independent not-for-profit contemporary arts institutions in the city. It is founded and supported by Art Jameel, an independent organisation that fosters contemporary art practice, cultural heritage protection, and creative entrepreneurship across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Section:  AC WK
Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel. Photo by Reem Mohammed / The National

Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, hopes to see the art world bounce back in the coming months. "We're hoping that 2021 is a time of green shoots for the culture sector, locally and globally," she says.

Carver says "the signs are so positive", particularly in the UAE, where Jameel Arts Centre has been able to welcome back visitors since June. Public programming so far has explored sustainability, making the most of the centre's sculpture park, a site for art installations, as well as the recent gardening festival Down to Earth.

Jameel Arts Centre is also one of the few art spaces in the UAE with a dedicated artist's garden, where practitioners can explore works dealing with ecology, nature, waste and sustainability. "Outdoor public programming will remain central for us through 2021 and beyond, and we're planning some interventions with UAE-based artists alongside the permanent works," says Carver.

The centre is also preparing programmes that will coincide with Dubai Expo, which was moved to this year owing to the pandemic. It includes "a major group show based on our collection; a delve into Dubai's architectural history" and "a solo show by an Asia master, another first in the region", Carver reveals.

In the meantime, the centre is set to present major shows, including a solo exhibition by Hiwa K that will travel to Dublin and Toronto; a survey show on Arabic comics; and an exhibition curated by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist titled Age of You, which opens on Thursday, January 28.

In Saudi Arabia, Art Jameel is set to open Hayy Jameel, a major art complex in Jeddah, in November. "The construction is finished, opening exhibitions are deep into planning, the independent cinema is under construction, studios are shaping up and partners are beginning to finalise fit-out on their spaces. This is a hugely exciting endeavour that we hope will enable cross-pollination of art forms, bring the community together and give a boost to the Jeddah scene," Carver says.

Manal Ataya, Sharjah Museums Authority

Sharjah, UAE - Mar 18, 2018 - Ms. Manal Ataya, Director General of the Sharjah Museums Department and a highly influential woman in the UAE Art Scene - Navin Khianey for The National
Manal Ataya, director-general of the Sharjah Museums Authority. Photo by Navin Khianey / The National

As art fairs and exhibitions went virtual, for many in the art world it was an awakening on the importance of building digital strategies and a way to find new audiences. For museums in Sharjah it was no different. Last year, the Sharjah Museums Authority not only worked to bring immersive virtual tours of current exhibitions online, but also led discussions on the subject. The Evolving Museum conference, which took place in December, featured speakers from the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum and The National Gallery in London; the Staten Island Museum in New York; and Louvre Abu Dhabi and academics from the American University of Sharjah in the UAE.

Manal Ataya, director general of Sharjah Museums Authority, says: "Last year, which was a challenging time for museums globally due to the pandemic, we at Sharjah Museums ensured a swift response to the needs of our audiences to offer digital engagement. We launched virtual tours of our permanent and temporary exhibitions, created new monthly digital programmes, such as workshops, a lecture series and an online museum conference, and increased our overall activity on our social media.

“Focusing on the positives, 2021 is the continuation of an opportunity for us to press the reset button in all aspects of our work and make changes where necessary to further break down barriers by making access to art more democratic through digital platforms and improve our understanding of digital engagement.”

This year, Sharjah Art Museum is preparing for the return of its Lasting Impressions exhibition with a retrospective on Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine. The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization will present what Ataya describes as "an exhibition of never-before-seen objects from Venice" in the show Wonders and Inspiration: Venice and the Arts of Islam.

Vilma Jurkute, Alserkal Avenue

Vilma Jurkute, director of Alserkal Avenue. Photo by Sueraya Shaheen
Vilma Jurkute, director of Alserkal Avenue. Photo by Sueraya Shaheen

Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue was one of the first to host art events after the pandemic broke out, with art galleries reopening by the summer and the annual Alserkal Lates, an evening of exhibition openings, taking place in September.

The Al Quoz art hub has continued with its initiatives, supporting emerging platforms in the UAE by providing them with exhibition space. In November, 101 held its first physical exhibition in Dubai with the show Playing Spaces, with works by young, mostly unrepresented artists having almost sold out. The next month, Sa Tahanan Coa collective of Filipino artists held its inaugural show made up of talents from the Philippines.

Alserkal Avenue director Vilma Jurkute says its support for local projects will continue in 2021. "Today, more than ever, we need places for growth, meaning and community that are inclusive, accessible and open to all. As a socially responsible and forward-thinking cultural enterprise, Alserkal has always been dedicated to developing sustainable models for home-grown initiatives, and to supporting narratives and research emerging from the Global South. We will continue to engage our local and global communities through alternative, interdisciplinary programmes in arts and culture for our public."

She says Alserkal Avenue will also mark "milestones" such as this month's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Art Dubai and Alserkal Avenue's Galleries Weekend, Quoz Arts Fest and Expo 2020.

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, Sharjah Art Foundation

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi. Photo by Sebastian Bottcher
Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi. Photo by Sebastian Bottcher

Last year, Sharjah Art Foundation pushed both its March Meeting and Sharjah Biennial by a year. This year, the March Meeting will return in an expanded, hybrid format with online and offline discussions. It marks the launch of the Biennial, which is now in its 15th iteration.

"This is the first time March Meeting will witness the gathering of such a significant group of former collaborators and participants to explore the influence of the Biennial, and its contributions to the regional and the global contemporary art scene. This edition of March Meeting also happens to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Sharjah Biennial, which makes it particularly special," says Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president and director of the foundation.

Al Qasimi also outlined the major shows to be presented by SAF in the coming months,

including Unsettled Objects, showcasing "new and significant acquisitions from the Sharjah Art Foundation Collection", which will be shown in the newly reopened Flying Saucer in Sharjah. "The thought-provoking works on display are selected from the collection's more than 1,000 works spanning from the 1920s to the present day.

“The solo exhibition Rayyane Tabet: Exquisite Corpse also opens in March, featuring the most expansive presentation of Tabet’s ongoing project Fragments in the region. The exhibitions Tarek Atoui: Cycles in 11 and Zarina Bhimji: Black Pocket explore the careers and work of the two artists, and will continue to be on view throughout spring as well,” Al Qasimi says.

Faisal Al Hassan, Warehouse421

Faisal Al Hassan, head of Warehouse421. Courtesy Warehouse421
Faisal Al Hassan, head of Warehouse421. Courtesy Warehouse421

In Abu Dhabi, Warehouse421 is implementing a new five-year strategy. "The strategy considers what we have learnt over the past five years, the feedback we received from our members and the vibrant ecosystem we are part of, and best cultural practices worldwide," says Faisal Al Hassan, general manager of Warehouse421.

Despite a five-month closure last year, the art centre was hard at work behind closed doors. Among other things, it launched a Covid-19 relief fund for artists and a focus group initiative, the discussions from which informed its present strategy.

"Amid the pandemic, we discovered the urgent need for support and investment in capacity-building, understanding the needs, and identifying the barriers emerging artists face," says Al Hassan. "We learnt how institutions can offer support to enable them to move forward in the best way, and for this we will continue to launch initiatives and programmes aimed at supporting creative practitioners."

By the end of the month, Warehouse421 will open three new exhibitions: Float, featuring two films by Stephanie Comilang; 100/100 Hundred Best Arabic Posters; and Mina Zayed: Reflections on Past Futures exhibition in collaboration with Gulf Photo Plus.

The art centre is also where the annual Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship (Seaf) exhibition is presented. The cohorts for this year have been selected and are now proceeding with the 10-month educational programme with the Rhode Island School of Design online.

Maya Allison, NYUAD Art Gallery

Maya Allison is the executive director of the NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Art Gallery and the university's chief curator. Courtesy NYUAD
Maya Allison is the executive director of the NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Art Gallery and the university's chief curator. Courtesy NYUAD

As the virtual world became even more integral to our daily lives, this changing relationship with technology is considered in NYUAD Art Gallery's first show for the year, which is also its first digital art exhibition. The gallery's executive director, Maya Allison, calls the show a "curatorial breakthrough" for her and co-curator Heather Dewey-Hagborg.

"I've always been troubled by the question of how to show new media art, and even video art, in the physical gallery. Now was our chance to curate the work in its natural habitat of the digital realm. The pandemic forced many of us into spending far more time on screens than we might like, and this exhibition, in some ways, offers a new perspective on that relationship with our screens. It's an experiment, in the truest sense. There are some new commissions in this show that directly respond to the pandemic as well, and I'm really excited about the dialogue we hope grows from this," Allison says.

Titled not in, of, along, or relating to a line, the exhibition includes nine artists who tackle themes of technology in their works, namely, Cao Fei, Sophia Al Maria, Zach Blas, Addie Wagenknecht, Eva and Franco Mattes, Lee Blalock, Maryam Al Hamra, Micha Cardenas, and the trio of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian. The viewing experience for the show will also follow the way we navigate feeds and websites – branching out from one point to another, without any specific path.

In the coming months, the gallery will continue its online programme. Over the spring and summer, the virtual exhibition will begin its public programme with a speaker series, artist talks and tours, audience "talk-back" sessions and family programmes that will run through June. Allison says she is attempting to strike a balance that considers the challenges of the pandemic, but is also trying to find "opportunities to generate new approaches to the ideas and art that surface as a result". The strategy is to "stay as active and engaged with our research, ideas, and audiences as possible, whether virtual or 'IRL' [in real life]".

Virtual exhibitions have opened up the gallery to audiences worldwide, another consideration for Allison. "We're actively rethinking what 'local' and 'global' mean, and how to define an audience when working in the virtual realm."

Reem Fadda, Cultural Foundation 

Reem Fadda, curator of Jerusalem Lives. Photo by Sofia Dadourian
Reem Fadda, curator of Jerusalem Lives. Photo by Sofia Dadourian

This year, Abu Dhabi's Cultural Foundation established a production programme for performers and musicians in the UAE and the region, providing them with grants to create plays, dance, music or a site-specific piece. Submissions are being accepted until next month.

It is one of the foundation's ongoing initiatives, along with the return of its art residency, which will provide studio space and resources to 14 artists. Cultural Foundation director Reem Fadda sees these as part of efforts to keep the culture scene thriving. "We are looking towards gearing Cultural Foundation to really become a pivotal support for the creative sector and artists in the UAE, and the extended region and its diaspora through commissions, bursaries and production grants," she says.

"We are also keen to take a role in shaping the knowledge about the artistic scene and we are very excited about our line up of exhibitions, especially the upcoming extensive retrospective on the artist representing the Casablanca School, Mohamed Chebaa, opening in March."