Why Dubai needs the Jameel Arts Centre

But its first challenge will be familiar to many in Dubai: its neighbourhood of Al Jaddaf is still being developed

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Dubai needs an institution along the lines of Jameel Arts Centre. Dubai has always been part of the UAE's international profile in the contemporary art world, but then, in a blink, it had new competition from its neighbours. Louvre Abu Dhabi, the NYUAD Art Gallery, and Warehouse421 sprang up in Abu Dhabi, and the Sharjah Art Foundation successfully pivoted from producing biennials to being a year-round art institution.

Jameel Arts Centre will offer a space for serious curatorial explorations of local, regional and international artists. It will be run like a kunsthalle, bringing a curatorial and historical focus to a rotating series of group and solo exhibitions – but still have the permanent collection, like an ace up its sleeve, to help contextualise work historically. It's almost mad, given the level of production here, that Dubai hasn't had an art institution on this level before.

Its first challenge will be familiar to many in Dubai. The Al Jaddaf neighbourhood is still being developed. The location is attractive, it's right on the water, with boats gliding by, and it's near to Sharjah, where many in the art community live. It is also close to Bur Dubai and Al Satwa, which have emerged as neighbourhoods where creative collectives have thrived. It will also be near the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid library when it opens. But it isn't a well-established locale, and Jameel will have to work hard to establish itself on the regular circuit.

More importantly, Jameel Arts Centre's challenge will be to create a means for critical and historical engagement with works made from abroad and those shown here. There are numerous places to show work here, but many art events are oriented towards mere exhibition, rather serious contextualisation, and often for a crowd that organisers assume are engaging with local or Middle Eastern art for the first time.

Part of this is down to Dubai's sheer internationalism, which focuses attention away from events happen ing here. Art Dubai, for example, is a meeting point, where regional and international galleries meet others from a regional and international crowd. The Alserkal Avenue galleries are reliant on international collectors, with a reported 80 per cent of sales going to foreign buyers. Shows at Concrete, such as the current Adapt to Survive from the Hayward in London and the forthcoming presentation of works by the Dhaka Art Summit in March, likewise reflect Dubai's role in bringing others to the emirate.

The art scene, by contrast, is often purposefully local, concerned with topics germane to the UAE: the complex identity politics here, petro-­culture, labour issues and migrant populations. This local occupation isn't altogether unusual, but there is a whiff of defiance about it – these artists are invested in a "real" Dubai, or #myrealDubai as the popular hashtag has it, against the world's impression of the place as a site of transient fakery.


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This thinking is the animus behind, for example, Khaled Alawadi's Venice Biennale presentation of a pedestrian Dubai, photographer Mohamed Somji's series of immigrant Dubai residents at leisure in Deira, Vikram Divecha's collaboration with road layers, or even Sultan Al Qassemi's famous takedown in the Independent, titled: "If you think Dubai is bad, just look at your own country."

This international focus has a knock-on effect on artists, who are searching for ways to collaborate with institutions without becoming part of PR machines or national narratives that are oriented towards an international or short-term resident market. There's a wonderful, thriving scene of young artists here, both Emirati and long-term resident, who have come up through institutions such as the American University of Sharjah and the SEAF programme. They're largely doing self-­initiated projects, working at times with places like Alserkal Avenue, Maraya Art Centre, and UAE Unlimited, but mostly on a circuit that flies under the radar. (Trust me: I'm always trying to cover them and they keep flitting away.)

Jameel Art Centre is not a whizz-bang exciting thing because it’s going to give these artists international exposure, though of course it probably will. Rather, it’ll be a real addition because it’s already investing in them, through the commissions programmes it has launched, or its refusal to see them through a merely geographical or congratulatory focus.

Already, Murtaza Vali's first exhibition is bypassing geography to peer instead at the crude oil that runs underneath it: he finds a tangled web of wealth, foreign expertise (colonisation), and industrial development. He traces it through the artworks – and to some extent, the people – that engaged with it first-hand.

The team they’ve assembled know Dubai and the region, and are switched on.

We’re “working from the ground up,” Art Jameel’s director, Antonia Carver, says. For the rest of us, it’s a chance to test how we’ve been thinking about art in Dubai.