To get to Tashkeel, you must drive away from Dubai, and towards the leafy expanses of Nad Al Sheba, where, down a tiny road, is a low-slung, sand-coloured building. It was first a local supermarket in the 1980s, and then was transformed into a nursery school. Images remain of its walls festooned with coloured letters and its rooms full of Lilliputian tables and desks. It then became an art school, and – here is where our story starts – Tashkeel, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week.
The site is now a network of studio spaces and design facilities that support artists and designers. The downstairs of the open, airy building is a site of production: a darkroom, photography studio, 30 workshops including screen-printing, and an exhibition space. Upstairs contains studio spaces, for artists and designers of all prefixes: graphic, fashion, jewellery, textiles.
The early stages
In a recent book reflecting on Tashkeel's anniversary, Reference Point: A History of Tashkeel and UAE Art, Tashkeel's founder, Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, says she began Tashkeel after recognising what life lacked post-art school.
“I didn’t want to lose the critical environment that I had experienced at university, which challenged me as an artist,” says Sheikha Lateefa. “I realised during university that the public view wasn’t as critical.
“Maybe it is more critical now, but at that time, everything was applauded.”
Her father, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, former ruler of Dubai, who died in 2006, had acquired the equipment for the school that Sheikha Lateefa had attended, which was scheduled to close. His daughter proposed instead that the school be transformed into a site for studio spaces for artists, with facilities to support their art-making.
Sheikha Lateefa's memories are a reminder of how social norms have changed in the Gulf, where art and cultural organisations were groundbreaking both in terms of laying down the foundations of an arts and cultural scene, and in staking out the kinds of social roles that Emirati men and women in the young country could play.
Putting it all together
When Tashkeel was founded, the profession of the artist was seen as yielding such low prospects that most parents only supported architecture and design degrees – and indeed, to this day, undergraduate programmes are few. Even Sheikha Lateefa’s idea of having men and women work side-by-side was a potential dealbreaker.
"At the time, the reaction was, 'You're going to have a mixed environment, are you sure?'," Sheikha Lateefa tells me during our interview about Reference Point. "I explained that I wanted to create an environment with a lot of transparency – it wouldn't have closed spaces. My goal was to create a respectable place where women and men could work side by side and where everyone would know their boundaries."
On her mother’s suggestion, Sheikha Lateefa asked for permission from her uncle Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, who gave the project his blessing. And with that, Tashkeel began.
'Never say no to an artist'
The centre has emerged into one of the crucial pillars of the Dubai arts scene – an early place of support for many of the city's key artists, such as eL Seed, Wissam Shawkat and Latifa Saeed (who studied with Sheikha Lateefa and was the very first member of Tashkeel). Of the four artists in Louvre Abu Dhabi's recent Co-Lab show, for example, three – Talin Hazbar, Zeinab Alhashemi, and Khalid Shafar – have been Tashkeel members. The fourth, Vikram Divecha, participated in its Critical Practice Programme, a master's-like mentoring programme that Tashkeel began in 2015.
The development of the organisation has been organic and responsive, and in many ways artist or even project-led. Sheikha Lateefa and her associate, Jill Hoyle, who was her tutor at art school, have worked hard to keep the artists’ needs at the core.
“In the many years that I have spent working in the print rooms of Tashkeel,” writes Manal Al Dowayan, a Saudi artist who was a member when she was based in Dubai, “I have challenged the team with my outlandish requests of impossible materials, skilled assistants and equipment. They somehow always appeared magically.
“I have always felt that the secret motto of Tashkeel is ‘Never say no to an artist’.”
Despite its central role on the arts scene, Tashkeel doesn't fit into any neat category. In addition to studio space and facilities, it hosts two yearly exhibitions, the Open Call and Made in Tashkeel, which have been a first exhibition opportunity for many artists.
It offers residencies for international artists, who come for six months to a year, and partners with other organisations on shorter ones. In 2010, it expanded into spaces in the Bastakiya neighbourhood of old Dubai, transforming renovated houses into further studio spaces, and participating in Sikka Art Fair with workshops.
It also runs two programmes, the Tanween design programme and the Critical Practice Programme, which aim to provide artists and designers with further education.
“We realised that a lot of people were coming out of university, working for two years minimum and then applying for master’s [degrees],” says Sheikha Lateefa. “So, our observation was, how can we help these artists advance – not necessarily go on to a master’s – but how can we help them become full-time artists?”
Tashkeel is resolutely non-commercial and has forged greater links with the varied Arabic communities of Dubai and Sharjah than have many other contemporary art organisations, which often look towards the West. Around the table that gathers every day for lunch – which arrives, catered, with pasta, biryani and curry dishes – you can hear the choruses of "bas" and "yani" that confound new Arabic speakers.
Tashkeel’s support for design, which in the UAE has stronger overlaps with Arab idioms, also plays a factor in its wider breadth of demographics.
Its 10-year anniversary exhibition, which opens on Wednesday, shows work by Tashkeel artists such as Hind bin Demaithan, Maitha Demithan, Areej Kaoud, eL Seed, Manal Al Dowayan and Wissam Shawkat.
Although Sheikha Lateefa resists being drawn out on what the future holds for Tashkeel, the fact that this exhibition inaugurates the Tashkeel Art Collection suggests a more institutional role for the organisation.
Reference Point, Tashkeel's 10th anniversary book, uses the occasion to set down in print what have remained oral histories of the past decade and to reflect on the past 10 years not as an arbitrary selection of time, but a crucial period in the development of Dubai's arts scene.
Ten years ago was the financial crash and a slowing of the speculation that surrounded it. Many of the major international art organisations put down their roots around 10 years ago: Art Dubai, the Global Art Forum, and a number of the key commercial galleries.
Within these commercial enterprises, Tashkeel is an anomaly: not only for its non-profit status (it is financed through partnerships and privately by Sheikha Lateefa), but for its focus on community-building.
Indeed, this is one of the reasons the period of 2008 to 2018 appears particularly significant: it is bookended by a shift at the other end, towards the institutional or non-profit, such as the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, Alserkal Avenue’s Concrete space and the forthcoming Jameel Arts Centre – a panoply of non-profit spaces for which Tashkeel has already laid the ground.
10 Years Later features new pieces by 16 artists and designers and runs from Wednesday until April 26, at Tashkeel, Nad Al Sheba 1, Dubai, open 9am to 10pm, Saturday to Thursday (closed Friday). For more information, go to tashkeel.org