Is it just me, or is 2015 the year that the UAE’s cultural scene finally came of age? For as long as I can remember, the familiar narrative from creative types far and wide – in music, film, visual art, etc – has been that we’re riding out an artistic embryonic stage. Not quite a dry desert any longer, but always with “lots more to be done” before the Emirates can be considered properly habitable by thinking human beings.
I’m tired of such complaints. Sure, things can always get better. But on the basis of the past 12 months, there’s a convincing case to be made that we’re pretty much there already.
The world of art and design has benefited from several major new openings last year, including the launch of Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse 421 district, the long-awaited expansion of Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, and the unveiling of hipster hub d3 (Dubai Design District). Each offers fresh platforms for creatives to get their work in front of curious eyes,
The world of music – my journalistic “patch” – is enjoying a veritable heyday. An enormous round of applause needs to go to The Arts Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi, which has made me grin like a baby on numerous occasions by bringing an incredible array of performance artists to the capital as part of its inaugural programme, from jazz (Rudresh Mahanthappa) to world music (Les Ambassadeurs), as well as dance (Ragamala Dance), theatre (Theatre Mitu’s Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet) and more.
In terms of classical performance, things have never been brighter, with 2015 signalling the arrival of Dubai Classics as a legitimate contender (2014’s Sarah Brightman concerts, we’ll overlook).
In the capital, last year’s return of Abu Dhabi Classics, after a three-year hiatus is now in full bloom, with 2015 boasting the first full calendar year of events (from the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons). And let’s not forget the continued contribution of Abu Dhabi Festival.
For alternative sounds, indie fans no longer need to reminisce about the time Black Lips played in 2012. The launch of The Other Side brought some of the region’s best underground acts (The Wanton Bishops, Zeid Hamdan) to town every fortnight, while Bad House Party reached out over the oceans to Iceland and the United States for debut gigs (from Astronautalis and Berndsen).
Oh, and of course, the range of A-listers coming to town – Ed Sheeran, Drake, John Legend, Blur, Iggy Azalea, et al – remains as strong as ever.
As for the world of film, 2015 was the first year since 2006 without the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
But in terms of local film production, things have never been better. A record-breaking six Emirati films had premieres at last month’s Dubai International Film Festival – including the smash hit Zinzana.
But aside from those wonderful eight days – as special as they were – it left us with a painfully dry 51 weeks a year, with little but multiplex blockbusters to scratch at the cinematic itch.
Not anymore. Cinema Akil has teamed up with Alserkal Avenue to host thrice-weekly free art-house screenings (check the ongoing 20-week Where We Dwell season, running until March 4, at www.cinemaakil.com).
Elsewhere, the growing trend for pop-ups and mini-festivals continues thanks to the likes of Loco’Motion and Alliance Française, while The Scene Club has proved so successful it has switched from a free concept to charging Dh850 a year.
I could go on, but I’ve clearly convinced myself that, whatever the haters say, there is more culture – high, low and everywhere in between – in my life than ever before. There is only a small list of places on the globe which can boast a busier, more diverse cultural calendar than the UAE – and in such places the opportunities and access for mere mortals like me wouldn’t be half what they are here.
So moan no longer, creative types – 2015 has been a truly thrilling time to be living in the UAE. Here’s to an even bigger and better 2016.