Best yet to come: UAE arts and culture wish list for 2015

The Arts&Life staff look back at the key moments of 2014 – ones that marked turning points in the local scenes – and share their hopes for a smashing new year.
Lady Gaga made her Middle East debut in 2014. We’d like to see more women artists perform in the UAE. Ali Haider / EPA
Lady Gaga made her Middle East debut in 2014. We’d like to see more women artists perform in the UAE. Ali Haider / EPA


The UAE’s got talent

The local music scene is increasingly coming into its own. In the past year, a couple of initiatives have been launched to make the wider world aware of what we already knew – that there is some serious home-grown musical talent.

One of the most impressive is the Metronome concert series created by the Abu Dhabi collective White Cube. What started in August as a month-long festival where local, unsigned artists performed in Abu Dhabi coffee shops, has grown into a continuing monthly concert series at Khalidiya’s Urban Bites. Another project that’s progressing well is the weekly Abu Dhabi Soul gigs at Saadiyat Beach Club. Let’s have more initiatives like these, please.

Disappointingly, Rolling Stone Middle East’s Street to Stage event did not return to Dubai this year after its successful inaugural edition in 2013 – here’s hoping local rockers get another chance to shine with its return this year.

Any ladies in the house?

With the exception of Lady Gaga’s performance at Meydan Racecourse in September, and Diana Krall headlining Dubai’s Blended festival in May, the local music calendar has been bereft of gigs by A-list women artists.

Let’s hope the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s forthcoming headline slot at February’s RedFestDXB festival marks the first of many major female singers making their way to the UAE.


With Syria’s influential television production industry rocked by the violence ravaging the country, many of the leading talents and production houses are looking to Abu Dhabi as an ideal base.

This year saw the successful launch of the drama series Al Ikhwa. Filmed in Abu Dhabi in collaboration with twofour54’s production services arm Intaj, the soap-opera stands out as one of the first pan-Arab drama series to be shot here. The series’ success – it is now in its second season – will hopefully influence more production houses to create eclectic series with the capital as a backdrop.

* Saeed Saeed

Sandance stutters

Last year was the year that Sandance lost its grip as the country’s leading music festival – in the aftermath of the chaotic New Year’s Eve event that left many people stuck in traffic for hours – as a slew of serious new contenders cropped up at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre.

Early 2014 saw radio-centric RedFestDXB and the rootsy, grown-up Blended debut – and both are returning this year (in February and May respectively).

The second half of the year also saw the inaugural Party in the Park, and the first NYE Masterjam, while the Dubai Jazz Festival returns to the venue in February after three years at Festival City. How many more events can this one space take? We hope to see plenty more, but the fact is that everyone on the music scene will tell you the same thing – we need more venues, big and small. We hope to see that happening in the coming months.

Bands on a run

Congratulations must go to the unprecedentedly long list of UAE-based bands that released new music in 2014. Among the highlights were Empty Yard Experiment (EYE)’s phenomenal second LP Kallisti, jazz drummer Rony Afif’s NYC-recorded debut Zourouf and Kicksound’s eponymous breakout EP – let’s hope for loads more this year.

More importantly, perhaps, we would love to see a band from this country truly break out of the region. EYE’s recent 10-date tour of the United Kingdom was a major achievement and should serve as an inspiration to others.

To help with this, nothing stimulates creativity better than a regular informal showcase where artists can share their work in progress live, with little pressure.

Freshly Ground Sounds and Metronome are doing wonderful things for songwriters but the UAE still lacks a regular weekly open-mic, where anyone can just show up and play. Let’s hope somebody makes this happen.

* Rob Garratt


Lights, camera, action

It was impossible to miss the influx of major international film productions last year. Abu Dhabi got the ball rolling with the Furious 7 shoot at the start of the year, before rumours that the emirate’s desert would double for Tatooine in Star Wars: Episode VII were confirmed to be true by The National.

The capital didn’t slouch on the Bollywood front, either. Bang Bang! burnt some rubber on the Corniche at the start of the year and Akshay Kumar’s Baby made more than one visit to film scenes. Dubai’s reply came in the form of Bollywood big hitters such as Welcome Back and Hamari Adhuri Kahani (Our Incomplete Story).

We’re hoping for more of the same this year.

Emirati film

It has also been a bumper year for Emirati cinema. Saeed Salmeen’s Sun Dress was the only major Emirati film to go on general release last year, but with Ali F Mostafa’s From A to B, Waleed Al Shehhi’s Dolphins and Fadel Almheiri’s Abood Kandaishan due out this year, local filmmakers have been far from quiet. Mostafa’s From A to B made history as the first Emirati film to open the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October and hopes are high for when it goes on general release today.

We hope to see plenty more activity in the local film industry, to keep the momentum going. Tharwa, a new Dubai production company, looks set to play a big role.

The small screen

DMI’s flagship English-language channel, Dubai One, announced it was bringing in-house production to an end to focus instead on purchased content. One unexpected, and yet to be judged, result of this is the launch announcement at Dubai International Film Festival of the online TV channel Dubai on Demand, which is picking up much of the former Dubai One talent to host new shows. We’ll see how that fares after its debut this month.

* Chris Newbould


Public displays

Despite all the expansion in the local art scene there is still a lack of public art anywhere in the UAE.

The Beirut-based Arab Fund for Art and Culture put up five commissioned pieces alongside Dubai Creek, which deserves praise. Abu Dhabi Art said it was going to install art all over the city, but sadly only ended up putting works on Saadiyat Island, where the art-conscious already gather.

At the recently opened Yas Mall, there is a fantastic installation depicting falcons in flight by the South African artist Marco Cianfanelli. And we are happy that the Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer will be installing an interactive piece on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche for 10 days this month.

But we hope that steps are taken to install more public art across the UAE this year.

Studio spaces

As more people start to view the UAE as a regional hub for the arts, we need more places where artists can gather, work and exchange ideas. Tashkeel, the studio hub in Dubai’s leafy Nad Al Sheba district, is a lifeline for emerging artists, but it is always full to capacity and we could do with many more places like it.

Abu Dhabi Art Hub is also an excellent institution, with about 15 rooms for artists to use and spend weeks in residence. We hope they continue to expand their activities and that others follow suit.

Street wise

This year, eL Seed, the French-Tunisian street artist, spent all year in residence at Tashkeel. But there are still no walls that artists like him can use freely to paint on. We would like to see some walls donated for artists to paint on and brighten up our cities.

Art education

Although we have artists emerging at all levels and countless initiatives to train the future generations, we still do not have a fully fledged art school. New York University Abu Dhabi, Zayed University and the American University of Sharjah offer some study options but we really need an institution offering an MFA course.

* Anna Seaman


International acclaim for the region

It’s always nice to see celebs giving regional designers a bit of a helping hand when it comes to promoting their brand.

One well-known face who has supported burgeoning and established Middle Eastern brands is the inimitable Lady Gaga. Dubai-based Essa Walla gave the pop star a range of 75 pieces to choose from and among them a black chiffon number that she wore during her visit in September. We also love that the Dubai couturier Rami Al Ali was favoured by the rising star Talia Storm at the Dubai International Film Festival. Ellie Goulding opted for UAE-based designer to the stars Furne One at the MTV Music Awards in 2013, while singer Paloma Faith plumped for a stunning Michael Cinco gown for the Met Gala. We hope to see this trend continue in the coming months.

Too many fashion weeks?

There are some stalwart style events on Dubai’s calendar, including Fashion Forward, which quickly made a name for itself as a smoothly run operation. But others have tried to ride on its couture coattails and failed.

Fashion Week Middle East was tipped to rival FFWD and even advertised that the respected designer Betsey Johnson was to send designs down the catwalk. This didn’t materialise and the event was dogged by late starts and schedule changes. It was a similar state of affairs at India Fashion Week.

Let’s see better planning and organisation this year at all events.

Interview etiquette

When an A-lister comes to town and journalists are invited to meet them, a one-on-one chat is preferable. From press conferences at which only three questions are allowed from a room packed with hundreds of hungry journalists, to email interviews that are not returned in time to meet a deadline, it can be a tough gig.

On the upside, generous time slots granted for interviewing acting legend Sir Patrick Stewart, actress Sarah Jessica Parker and designer duo Dolce & Gabbana were much appreciated and will hopefully serve as a sign of things to come this year.

* Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane


Centre stage

Last year there was great progress in the performing arts scene and we can’t wait for more in 2015. Whether it’s an increase in locally created productions or innovative collaborations with resident and international artists, the UAE has had a sustained run of theatre production, dance and stand-up comedy. We even had horses take the stage when Cavalia came to town during the Qasr Al Hosn Festival.

Last year saw us start to break away from a reliance on large-scale, imported productions for quality entertainment. Theatre enthusiasts banded together to create opportunities to promote talent.

Two such grass-roots initiatives were the Courtyard Playhouse in Dubai and the Resuscitation Theatre in the capital. We’d like to see more collaborative and experimental theatre in 2015, created by, with and for the local audience.

International shows could benefit by involving resident artists during tours.

Stay a while

The appetite for international shows is also growing and we’d like to see that fuelled by more award-winning productions staying for longer periods.

The British television actor James Gaddas established Raw Theatre Productions in Dubai and took on 18 roles in the play Billy Bishop Goes to War in April. The Bollywood actress Shabana Azmi played the head of a dysfunctional Punjabi family in Happy Birthday Sunita in November.

This year, we’d like to see resident actors go places. There is a need to develop more study options in theatre and acting. One such initiative is by the Middle East Theatre Academy in Sharjah and The Kevin Spacey Foundation. We’d like to see that duplicated in the other emirates.

* Afshan Ahmed


Food trucks

This year, food trucks crashed onto the country’s culinary scene to an eager and hungry crowd of foodies. One company to watch, aptly called The Food Truck, has plans to introduce several themed trucks across Dubai in the coming months. Their first food truck, called Jake’s by The Food Truck, launched in November, selling bagel burgers across Dubai. Salt is another notable food truck that has more than 50,000 followers on Instagram.

There are others, too, such as Melt and Desert Chill, which are sticking to frozen treats, fruits and smoothies, while Ghaf Kitchen, the Vida Food Truck, Moti Roti and Meylas Emirati Kitchen (along with The Food Truck and Salt) offer much heartier fare. Expect to buy more food off the street in 2015. And don’t miss the street-food events that will be a major highlight of Abu Dhabi’s and Dubai’s forthcoming food festivals.

Uncooked food

The raw food movement is in full swing and, though they are still few and far between, raw food cafes are popping up across the country. Raw Foods in the World Trade Center Souk is Abu Dhabi’s first (and only) cafe dedicated to raw food and cold-pressed juices. Other cafes catering to raw food aficionados are all in Dubai: Comptoir 102, Bestro, The Farm and Omnia Gourmet. What we’d like to see more of in 2015: more locally produced, organic fruits and vegetables available at all restaurants – not just health-food cafes.

Speciality dessert shops

Instead of cafes selling a wide range of desserts, 2014 saw more cafes specialising in just one treat. Love Doughnuts in Abu Dhabi sells gourmet doughnuts with outlandish flavours. Molten Me in the capital focuses on lava cakes. Eclair in Dubai serves unique flavours of the classic pastry and there’s the new Pie Face Bakery in Yas Mall, which sells pies shaped like a face. We want more, please.

Brunch makeover

The brunch concept desperately needs a makeover. They’re all starting to look the same and, though a few restaurants have tried to liven things up by offering evening or Saturday brunches, it’s not enough of a twist. We want something new and fresh, and perhaps not quite so ... excessive.

* Stacie Johnson

Published: December 31, 2014 04:00 AM


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