Dubai's art scene buzzes

It's been a couple of years since the first galleries started opening in the Al Quoz district but its transformation into the happening focus of a burgeoning art scene continues apace.

Follow the artists, goes the adage, to those in search of the next Bohemia. It's a few years since the first galleries started opening amid the old iron mongers, carpentry warehouses, car showrooms and-out-of-town supermarkets of Dubai's Al Quoz district, and the place may still seem like an industrial wasteland, but its transformation into the happening focus of a burgeoning art scene continues apace.

The Third Line gallery first identified the area's potential five years ago and since then, other galleries including Meem and Carbon 12, and art-centre hangouts for "collectives" such as Jam Jar and Shelter, have flocked to install themselves on the hard shoulders of its desolate highways.

Tonight, the Emirati art dealer Rami Farook launches the flagship headquarters of his art gallery, Traffic, on Umm Suqeim road, a four-warehouse compound opening on to a terrace and garden.

And following the success of the Abu Dhabi Art fair, he's marking his arrival with a full-scale bash, and even flying in the rapper The Narcicyst, from Canada to perform.

It was Farook's growing collection, now amounting to more than 200 pieces, that prompted the move, and the new premises are intended as much to house that collection as to provide a commercial exhibition space and business HQ.

"We simply outgrew the old space, both in terms of the business transition I was making, and the direction I was taking personally," he says.

"The move to Al Quoz was natural. There ceilings are higher, and the rents are lower. We'll have double the space, and the terrace and garden are ideal for sculpture."

The premises comprise four warehouses now converted into immaculate exhibition spaces. A lounge, reception area, bookstore and cafe lead on to two galleries, with a third and fourth warehouses serving as offices and private viewing rooms. The new galleries will provide the breadth and scope to show his own collection, while allowing him to invite other collectors to show their work.

"I've felt for some time that I wanted to share my collection in public," says Farook. "I've got so much in storage that I haven't been able to enjoy, and I wanted to make the space available to other collectors."

Farook divides his work into nine categories, including Arab, European and Asian contemporary art, as well as more traditional work, and new media such as street art. "I think of it as a body of work, and I wanted that body to be strong as a whole. I hope to help artists develop, particularly those not from the region, or whose work hasn't been presented properly in the past."

The opening show, entitled The State, is loaded with polemical charge, gathering the work of artists from 10 countries, including Russia, Iran and Cuba, and referencing the September 11 attacks, worldwide perceptions of Islam, and regional upheaval.

"It fits the current climate in terms of what's happened since 9/11, with the war on terror, and the conflicts and internal struggles we've seen in the Middle East," he says.

"We're not activists, but we're aiming to document the times we're living in."

The Traffic booth at the Abu Dhabi Art fair posed a visual dialogue between two artists: the Dubai-based American James Clar, and Abdulnasser Gharem, a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Arabian army. Works by both will figure at the opening.

Farook also used the fair to expand his own collection, picking up a piece by next year's Abraaj Capital prize-winning artist Shezad Dawood from the London gallery Paradise Row.

Tonight's show will feature another Dawood entitled Nation of Islam, a solid gold knuckle-duster set with fake diamonds spelling the word "Allah".

"It touches on notion of Islamic fanaticism, and current global perceptions of Islam," says Farook.

The centrepiece, Mounir Fatmi's Save Manhattan III, comprises 90 speakers shaped to resemble the pre-9/11 New York skyline, with the speakers playing sounds recorded on the city's streets. It previously formed part of the 2007 Venice biennale. "You get a real feel of being in New York before that day," says Farook.

Another focal point is a photographic piece by Sama Alshaibi, which at first glance appears to depict the minarets of mosques, but on closer inspection turns out to be a missile silo. Somewhat incongruously however, the image was in fact shot at a US military facility in Arizona. "It plays on issues surrounding politics and religion, such as Switzerland's recent banning of minarets," says Farook. "What's fun about this piece is you realise it's not at all what it seems."

Mona Hatoum's porcelain sculpture Witness is another key attraction, inspired by the monument in Beirut's Martyr's Square commemorating Lebanese nationalists hung by the Ottomans in the First World War.

Meanwhile, the show's commercial exhibits by the Iranian artist Hesam Rahmanian are selling like hotcakes. "Two-thirds have gone already, so we must be doing something right," he says.

* Timur Moon