Out in the open: street art back on Dubai’s artistic agenda

There's more to landscape than flora and fauna. Street art is becoming an accepted part of the UAE's public and private spaces.
Street art by Ruben Sanchez at Jumeirah Beach Road. Courtesy Ruben Sanchez.
Street art by Ruben Sanchez at Jumeirah Beach Road. Courtesy Ruben Sanchez.

Recent weeks have seen street art firmly back on Dubai’s artistic agenda, with a stunning and massively successful attempt to claim the Guinness World Record for the longest graffiti wall, in celebration of the UAE’s 43rd National Day.

Don’t get thrown off by “graffiti” – this very old word ­refers to the marking of letters (usually) on walls, and is associated by some with illegal vandalism. Yet, the incredible artwork on display at the Rehlatna UAE project bears witness to a process of evolution that goes far beyond graffiti as we know it. Much of the work displayed at the site next to Jumeirah Beach Park truly deserves to be described as fine art, regardless of the fact that aerosol spray cans are the medium of choice – and this art form is as valid and striking an addition to our public spaces as any other form of landscaping.

Commentators the world over describe graffiti as “street art” – born of a distinctly urban ­subculture, mostly appearing on walls facing on to streets or ­alleyways, and often spontaneous, unsanctioned, unpaid and even anonymous. The artists seldom seek fame and fortune; the work stems from a genuine desire to provoke a conversation, or just to add colour and vibrancy to a blank wall, in an urban environment that desperately needs just that.

With so many bare walls in the UAE vying for artistic treatment, and the slowly increasing acceptance of this truly contemporary art form, we speak to the UAE-based artists Gary Yong, Ruben Sanchez and Madeleine Butcher about the potential for street art to become a more visible part of the landscape of our cities.

We start by talking about the differences between public and private spaces. The New Zealander Gary Yong and Ruben Sanchez, from Spain, are quick to point out that street art is inherently urban, and bound to the landscape of the street. Nonetheless, murals in the style of street art are increasingly moving from the public into the private sphere and appearing on walls in private gardens.

“The distinction is blurring because people are inspired by art they have seen on the street and want something similar for their homes, so the artists being commissioned will have a street-art background,” Yong notes. Private spaces can offer an exciting level of freedom, since the client will be the only censor.

All of the artists felt that the Rehlatna UAE project, spearheaded by the office of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, has hugely raised the profile and understanding of street art for residents of Dubai, and private commissions for artists will no doubt increase.

All agree that there is massive potential for street art in the public sphere, yet obviously there are cultural and legal sensitivities. The artists are sympathetic to the issues and eager to work with the authorities to find a compromise, such as establishing a system where artists must submit a proposal and become licensed (inexpensively) before they can proceed. As Butcher, from the United Kingdom, notes: “If there was a way to control contributors, like a simple licensing process … it would create miles of free, beautiful artwork that would draw tourists to the city year-round. If the government wanted to prevent political content, this would be addressable with a licensing process, too.”

Assuming that a licensing system could be established, how could landscape architects and urban planners start to integrate street art into the design fabric of our cities? An Emirati friend raises an excellent point about the new architecture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi: having gained a reputation for shiny, glamorous buildings, residents may worry that street art will detract from that. Therefore it perhaps makes sense to turn to the older or more industrial areas, which is where street art has organically sprung up in other cities. The Al Quoz area of Dubai, already home to several gallery spaces, would seem like a perfect location for street art – the stretches filled with ­nondescript warehouses could be transformed into a vibrant outdoor art gallery. One can imagine the area emulating the Wynwood Walls area of Miami, a once-decrepit warehouse district, transformed into a haven for outdoor art by a visionary property developer. Wynwood Walls is now a booming success story – property ­values have soared; galleries, ­cafes and food-trucks abound; and huge numbers of tourists and artists flock to the area every year.

Street art can act as a connecting mechanism between landscape and architecture – helping to put architecture in context, and signifying its purpose. Yong has noticed this as an international trend, another step in the evolution of street art: “Artists are much more aware of the placement of their work … the art is really working harmoniously with the architecture and its surroundings.” This approach could work nicely for ports, parks, mall exteriors and sections of highway roads bordering remnants of desert.

For the artists themselves, street art is not just about painting on a wall a few metres high. When asked what their dream projects would be, both Yong and Sanchez mention sculpture. Yong describes his ideal work as “painting on a giant 3-D work off the side of a large building”. Sanchez says: “I’d like to see my characters coming off the wall in the shape of large sculptures all around the city.”

Giving the street artists of the UAE a permanent, legal space to create would transform the ­atmosphere and urban landscape of the area, adding an exciting and ever-changing element to Dubai’s raft of tourist attractions. It would also go a long way ­towards quashing the arguments of those who say that Dubai is “soulless”.

What our cities have right now are miles and miles of blank walls. But what could be nicer on your regular commute than to pass a huge, beautiful painting of an Arabian horse; or to gaze out the window into your garden and see a quirky portrait of a beloved family member; or to feel ­energised on your morning jog by the unexpected sight of a colourful and abstract character on a wall?

As Sanchez puts it, “Street art should evolve as a subculture, not a sponsored mainstream movement.” Rehlatna UAE was a fantastic starting point, and we should all be excited to see where the UAE’s street-art movement goes from here.


Published: December 18, 2014 04:00 AM


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