Top UAE art moments of 2018 - and the one that shocked the world

It’s been a year for remarkable happenings and new institutions taking root

A scene from Jameel Arts Centre's opening ceremony in November 2018. The Saudi organisation is now offering grants for artists and art professionals hit by the coronavirus crisis. Courtesy Jameel Arts Centre
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The year 2018 started as one of anniversaries across the art field of the UAE, as a kind of deferred stardom of 2008: the studio spaces and exhibition site Tashkeel, in Dubai, turned 10, as did a number of the galleries in Dubai's Alserkal Avenue and even that old rag, The National. But as the year went on, it became clear that it was also one of new beginnings, with a new site for contemporary art in Dubai, the Jameel Arts Centre; a semi-permanent display of Arab modernism in Sharjah (sadly still a rarity anywhere), in the Barjeel Art Foundation's exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum; and an artists-run space, Bait 15, in the capital. Some projects were relaunched – such as Abu Dhabi's cherished Culture Foundation – and others announced new ventures, like the Africa Institute in Sharjah. It was the first year, too, for Louvre Abu Dhabi: even though it technically opened in 2017, we're only now feeling its effects, with the breadth of art that we can return to again and again, like spoiled children gulping for more.

There’s a solidifying afoot in the UAE’s rapidly changing art world. Here are some of the moments that defined the year.

The night there were waves in the sky: the opening of Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai Creek

On November 11, a year to date after Louvre Abu Dhabi opened, Dubai responded with the opening of the first non-commercial, non-governmental arts institution in the emirate: the Jameel Arts Centre. Emphasising community, it struck a note of rootedness from the beginning: from the Gulf artists proudly, pretend-casually, standing by their works in the opening show to the organisation's decision to list on its wall the names of the builders next to those of the curatorial team and sponsors. The first exhibition is one of charitable self-examination: titled, simply, Crude, it looks at the history of petroleum through art. On opening night, the installation Waterlicht by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde created an effect of waves moving through smoke in the sky, and the fake trees of Alia Farid and Aseel Al Yaqoub's garden turned the building pink and purple: a night of a beauty for a new place of criticality and ambition.

The evening Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi threw down the gauntlet (then bent over and picked it up himself)

“Raise your hand if you know who painted this!” Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi challenged the room at a talk at Alserkal Avenue in January.

He was bemoaning the lack of knowledge about Arab Modernism among the audience assembled that day – for only a few hands went up. Al Qassemi proclaimed that there needed to be Arab artworks on permanent view and by June, he had made good on his call: he and Manal Ataya, director-general of the Sharjah Museums Authority, opened a wing of major works from his Barjeel Art Foundation collection, on free and semi-permanent view (they will be up for the next five years). The exhibition, A Century in Flux: Highlights from the Barjeel Art Collection, curated by Salwa ­Mikdadi and on show at the Sharjah Art Museum, is exquisite, from the anguished artists of mid-century Iraq to the luminous Lebanese abstractionists, and the peerless testimonies of others in between.

Back to the future: Lucinda Childs dances in ‘Dance’ 

Lucinda Childs’ extraordinary presentation of ‘Dance’ at New York University Abu Dhabi, showing the past  dancing with the present. Courtesy The Arts Centre NYUAD
Lucinda Childs’ extraordinary presentation of ‘Dance’ at New York University Abu Dhabi, showing the past  dancing with the present. Courtesy The Arts Centre NYUAD

In an extraordinary presentation, Lucinda Childs' Dance came to Abu Dhabi. At 40 years old, its age makes the work sweeter, because this one is all about time. It is both a live performance by dancers and a film of the original dance, shot in a New York studio by Sol LeWitt in 1979. The film appears on a scrim that hangs in front of the performers, such that as the company goes through its steps, they echo the dancers of the film – in this case, Childs danced with a Childs of long ago. Much written about, the New York University Abu Dhabi Arts Centre offered a chance for the audiences to see it in the flesh, which differed from known descriptions in unexpected ways: from the presence of the grid on the floor that the dancers performed upon – that hallmark of Modernism – to the awesome majesty of the conceit itself, a pas de deux between past and present.

The wild and weird world of M A Ibrahim at Sharjah Art Foundation

Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s ‘Bait Al Hurma’ 2018, part of his Elements exhibition at Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s ‘Bait Al Hurma’ 2018, part of his Elements exhibition at Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation

In March, Sharjah Art Foundation opened Elements, a joyous show of ­Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s painting, sculpture and al fresco graffiti: scuttling sandy figures, brightly striped robots, prehistoric forms splashed across the courtyard. Ibrahim has always worked in his native Khor Fakkan, and there is a hint of the outsider artist about him, in the sheer wildness of his imagination. But this show also underlined his mastery over his material, in the inventive pursuit of world-making that he nails every time.


Read more:

The influential female voices shaping the UAE art scene 

Rise of the art residencies in the UAE

How resistance has emerged as a trend in the UAE art scene


The return of the Cultural Foundation

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - The Souad Massi Trio performed at the Cultural Foundation amphitheatre, which is part of the Qasr Al Hosn structure on December 7, 2018. (Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)
Souad Massi’s Cultural Foundation show. Khushnum Bhandari/ The National

This month the Cultural Foundation reopened in the centre of Abu Dhabi, after having been closed for 10 years. An integral part of city life, it provided the first exposure to art, theatre and cinema for most of those who grew up here, either by exposing them to it or as a place of debut exhibitions – a legacy beautifully borne out in Artists and the Cultural Foundation: The Early Years, the show curated by Maya Allison and Alia Zaal Lootah. The Foundation's famed openness and community spirit found its way unexpectedly into the opening festivities at a moment when things went wrong. As the Algerian folksinger Souad Massi was performing, the electricity suddenly cut out. She paused briefly, then kept on singing. She and her two co-performers, percussionist Rabah Khalfa and guitarist Mehdi Dalil, moved closer to the edge of the stage and the audience followed suit, streaming down from the stands to sit on the ground in front of her. With no mic, and no lights except those of the buildings around the Qasr Al Hosn square, everyone came together: a magical start for the new Cultural Foundation.

Salah M Hassan hat trick: Sharjah March Meetings, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Africa Institute

Salah M Hassan at the Africa Hall in Sharjah. Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation
Salah M Hassan at the Africa Hall in Sharjah. Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation

One is outing oneself as an irrepressible nerd here, but some of the most thrilling moments this year were three lectures delivered courtesy of a single man: Cornell University professor Salah M Hassan. During the Sharjah Art Foundation's annual March Meetings he appeared as the affable, but probing, interlocutor to the Malian filmmaker Manthia Diawara, drawing out personal stories from Diawara as well as the larger story of black cinema in the United States. In April he filled in at the last minute for Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi at a lecture at Louvre Abu Dhabi (organised by its confrere, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi) and left a crowd stunned by the history of an artist – a traveller, activist, and Sudanese intellectual – whom many only knew in passing. And then in September, the UAE gave up and simply handed him the stage – what else are you going to do with passion like that? He co-led a conference at Sharjah Art Foundation reconsidering black abstraction, and is rumoured to be the future director of the new Africa Institute, which will open in 2020 in Sharjah, under the auspices of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi. 

Honourable mentions

The National tried its darnedest to get the best of the art scene in 2018 to you, but a few things slipped through its fingers. Here are the honourable mentions: the stories that should have been.

Hashel Lamki and Mohamed Al Mazrouei’s Alibaba at the NYUAD Project Space

This was a beautiful show of two artists’ work: one younger (Lamki, who graduated in 2017 from the SEAF programme) and one older (Al Mazrouei, a veteran Abu Dhabi artist who used to work in the library of the Culture Foundation). The connections between them are material: Lamki works in Al Mazrouei’s old studio (and Al Mazrouei’s entire house, which has become the artists’ space Bait 15 while he is in Cairo). Many of Lamki’s works were patient re-explorations of the detritus that Al Mazrouei left behind, such as paintbrushes, a fan and soap, while a largescale painting, made together, depicts a nightmarish scenario of hanging meat and deserted corridors. What can partnership ward against?

Between the Visible and the Invisible at Maraya Art Centre, curated by Azadeh Fatehrad

This show was organised around the idea of vision, with works that leaked out into lyrical examinations of ghostliness: the town in Northeye in Sussex, abandoned in the Middle Ages, in a video by Leah Fusco, or Pia Sandström’s He happened not to be there, made after the loss of her father, which shows her sister wearing their father’s clothes, re-enacting scenes Hiroshima mon amour in their family home.

The one that made the world take stock

The day the Banksy shredded itself at auction I saw this and thought: wow! And then, hmph. But it turned out that was the story: totally indicative of 2018, this work by Banksy showed the minuscule feedback loop between shareability, reaction, and seemingly authorless memes.

For those who slept through these two weeks on Twitter: At the moment the hammer fell at $1.4 million (Dh5.1m) at Sotheby's on Banksy's Girl with Balloon, a device in the frame activated a shredding machine, turning the work into ribbons. The prank initiated a tidal storm of tweets, with sentiment pro and con flowing back and forth across the pool of social media.

First up were the tweets of delight: Banksy sticking it to the luxury end of the market, confirming his street credibility by refusing to let his work be collected by the select few. Then came the tweets of incredulity: surely Sotheby’s was in on the game? How else would they have allowed for the work to auction in its own frame, and how did no one notice its weight?

Next were the angry tweets: now the work is worth two times as much! And finally, bounding in like stragglers from an all-nighter, were the memes: the iconic red-and-yellow McDonald’s fries holder being shredded into yellow chips; a Christmas tree shredded into green boughs; an iceberg shredded into rushing water, in a note on the state of the environment. As if we didn’t realise it in 2018, no one can agree on anything.