Rise of the art residencies in the UAE

Setting time and space aside for creativity is not new, but UAE’s cities are providing fertile soil for education of artists and all that’s crucial for a thriving arts scene

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In 1954, a cash-strapped Jacques Cousteau pitched British Petroleum to lead a reconnaissance mission in the waters off the coast of Abu Dhabi. Despite reluctance over the French explorer and filmmaker's "showboat" character, BP enlisted Cousteau and his boat, the Calypso, on geological surveys mapping the ocean floor – not an idle pursuit, as the mid-1950s was the time of competition for oil concessions among the Gulf States, with Shell Oil planes reportedly "buzzing" the Cousteau-BP operation.

This meeting of fame, oil claims and marine history is the subject of an investigation by Michael John Whelan, a Berlin-based Irish artist in residency in Alserkal Avenue's new studios, which are tucked in a row behind the Concrete exhibition space. In four identical rooms, accessed through opaque sliding doors and kitted out sparsely but functionally, Alserkal Avenue is welcoming its second cohort in a residency programme that began last year.

Warehouse 421, too, has just opened artists' studios, hidden behind the site's exhibition space and looking out onto the fully equipped studio of Nagwa, with its whirring 3D printer and lightning-flashing laser cutter. Warehouse421's studios, which will later be open to UAE residents, are hosting three artists, from Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Lithuania, from the new Art Dubai Residents programme, with another Art Dubai cohort at in5 Design at D3 in Dubai and still another at Tashkeel. And Art Jameel has also recently announced it will partner with the London-based Delfina Foundation across a range of programmes. These include the development of residencies at its sites, including Jameel Arts Centre, when it opens in Dubai this winter, and the forthcoming Hayy: Creative Hub in Jeddah.

Art residencies in the UAE

Residencies are nothing novel in the UAE. The Sharjah Art Foundation and Maraya Art Centre, among others, have long hosted artists to come to live and work for short periods in Sharjah. Tashkeel in Dubai has run a residency programme since 2008, in addition to hosting artists on A.i.R Dubai, the former Art Dubai residency programme.

But they have become more frequent, both within the UAE and abroad.

Less public-facing than other components of the art world, such as exhibitions or art fairs, residencies play an important role in the development of an artist's career. Organisers often set up studio visits to local curators and writers, giving the artists exposure to networks and knowledge.

“Residencies are an alternative form of education,” says Aaron Cesar, director of the Delfina Foundation, who has recently been appointed as senior adviser to Art Jameel. “If you take a case like Dubai, there is an artist community there, but it isn’t equitable in terms of commercial versus non-commercial. The clusters of artists’ studios, grassroots organisations – all these things are only now emerging to complement the commercial gallery system that Dubai has had for a while. In this context, residences are important for artists because similar to a developing country or one that doesn’t have a strong education system, residencies can be an important form of engagement around artistic practice.”

And they tend to have, as Areej Kaoud, who undertook an A.i.R Dubai residency at Tashkeel in 2016, puts it, “a knock-on effect. Residencies act as a form of representation”, similar to that of a gallery’s representation of an artist, she says. She notes the exposure and number of opportunities that arose out of her time in the A.i.R programme.

The importance of residencies

They also offer a chance for artists to focus, away from domestic or – to a large extent – financial pressures. Residencies vary in terms of what they offer, but most give artists studio space and accommodation, and some give a stipend. The Alserkal Avenue artists, in what should surely be the plot of a sitcom, live together in a villa, and generally commute into work together – by Uber – each sliding through the doors into their respective studios.

Relatively speaking, Alserkal Avenue's is a sober set-up. Other residencies offer studio spaces in a floating "ice island" (itself a work by American artist Andrea Zittel), sited near Indianapolis, or in bold sheds dotted around Fogo Island, an island off Newfoundland in Canada. "Residency-hopping", or living from residency to residency, has become a popular way to avoid high rents in European capitals (even better if you can offer your flat on Airbnb at a profit). There is, already, a backlash against this practice.

For an emerging art scene such as Dubai, which has been commercially-led, residencies are a way of bringing artists into the community, and of creating long-term links. eL Seed, for example, had a residency with Tashkeel in 2013, and is now based here.

Read more:

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For Tashkeel, which offers studio spaces to local artists and designers, residencies have become an important extension of its identity. “We have learnt that six to 12 months is the optimum duration for a residency at Tashkeel,” says Lisa Ball-Lechgar, the deputy director. “The impact of such an extended experience on the artist’s practice is profound and the connections made with the practitioners and residents of Dubai are deep. Just as Tashkeel wishes to be a part of the artist’s story, so too do we want them to part of ours. Any shorter than six months, a residency risks simply scratching the surface of a place as multi-layered and fascinating as Dubai.”

The artists

Art Dubai’s artists come for a shorter period – generally four to eight weeks – with the residency geared towards a project to be exhibited at Art Dubai. This year, the residencies are co-organised with the artists’ galleries, who nominate the artists and then show their work in a dedicated section of the fair. The idea is to expose the artists not only to new connections, but also to inspiration from the city.

Kristina Alisauskaite, a painter from Lithuania who is based at one of Warehouse421's studios, has begun a series of portraits based on traditional Khaleeji women's clothing. Iabodiou Piko, from Indonesia, is creating wild canvases with a personal iconography representing his time here, with small scribbled mosques and significant terms such as the number of his bus route and his hotel room, and even the hotel name – Marriott – found among the elements. For another painting, he mixed Abu Dhabi sand with bitumen to paint a canvas in large-scale, gestural scrawls.

Sand – that elemental material – seems a favourite among residents. In the Alserkal Avenue studio occupied by Whelan, with his project on Cousteau, a neat pile of sand and two bottles of sea water all sit on the floor, like keen guests waiting for the party to arrive. Whelan will make a film based on Cousteau's expedition, in addition to the 1809 Battle of Ras Al Khaimah, in which the British won the power of the seas – an event he found out about since arriving here.

'We don’t reserve the residency only for artists'

Alserkal Avenue's programme is relatively unique for being open to writers and curators as well as artists, reflecting the needs of other art professionals. "Just as Alserkal Avenue wants to serve many different kinds of creative practice," says Vilma Jurkute, the director of Alserkal Avenue. "We don't reserve the residency only for artists."

Art Jameel has announced few details on its programme, which revives a collaboration between Antonia Carver, who used to head Art Dubai, and the Delfina Foundation, which also partnered on A.i.R Dubai.

"We're also keeping the exact nature of the co-programming we can now do, as partners, open-ended," says Carver. "Part of the joy of like-minded collaborations is to allow for brainstorming and open discussions with artists and other practitioners. Delfina Foundation will work with Art Jameel to help us plan out and activate the studio spaces we have in the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and Hayy: Creative Hub in Jeddah. And we are starting to explore how we can create further opportunities for artists and for exchange across all the sites both organisations work in – London, Jeddah, Dubai, Cairo and beyond."

The Alserkal Avenue residents host open studies on March 19 from 11am–8pm in the residency spaces, off the Yard, and their works are on show from March 19 to March 24. The Art Dubai Residents’ work will be shown in a space between Exhibition Halls 1 and 2