Designed to be different: a look at Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse 421

Nick Leech visits Warehouse 421, a new cultural space in Abu Dhabi that opens next week, featuring exhibitions, live music, workshops, a market, and more.

The exterior of Warehouse 421, which opens next week in Mina Zayed, Abu Dhabi. The buildings are clad in corrosion-­resistant CorTen steel. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
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Waiting for a cultural festival in Abu Dhabi is a bit like hanging around for a silver taxi these days: you wait for ages for one to come along, then a whole cluster arrive at once.

Next week sees the opening of Abu Dhabi Art on Saadiyat Island and the Sheikh Zayed ­Heritage ­Festival in Al Wathba; and on Thursday, Warehouse 421, the latest arts-and-culture initiative from the Salama bint Hamdan Al ­Nahyan Foundation (SHF) also opens with a three-day festival in Mina Zayed.

Warehouse 421 is designed to support local creative talent while providing a gentle, community-­focused introduction to the arts in all their variety. The guiding principle behind the opening festival would definitely seem to be less is a bore and more is more.

“One of the aims is to try to drive new audiences to the arts, and one of the ways we hope to do this is by persuading people to come, have a good time, listen to a performance or to have some food – and then, while they are here, they can also enjoy the arts,” explains Khulood Al Atiyat, SHF’s manager for arts, culture and heritage.

The "arts" on offer include two photographic exhibitions: Lest We Forget: Emirati Family ­Photographs 1950-1999 and Mina Zayed: Through the Lens of Jack Burlot, both housed in Warehouse 421, and running until next year.

These are accompanied by two architectural exhibitions, the temporary 1:100 The Warehouse ­Reimagined, which exhibits proposals for the warehouse's transformation as envisaged by local artists and designers, and a permanent exhibit, housed in the minimalist black cabin that sits on one side of Warehouse 421's new plaza, which charts the process behind the venue's ­development.

In another nearby warehouse, 411, visitors will be able to see Art: Process & Practice, a temporary exhibition of work produced by fellows from the Salama bint ­Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship programme, an annual, year-long course of study taught by visiting members of the faculty from the illustrious Rhode Island School of Design in the ­United States.

If Warehouse 421’s exhibitions are designed to provide audiences with a longer-term, slower fix, it’s the weekend’s temporary opening events that burn brightest.

Thanks to the temporary pedestrianisation of the road outside the warehouse, visitors will be able to wander through the precincts of Mina’s old dhow yard, explore an international designers’ market housed in temporary shops made from recycled shipping containers, eat street food, watch impromptu street performances and attend evening musical performances by international acts such as the ­Grammy Award-­winning Saharan band Tinariwen, the Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke and the Arab-Swedish crossover folk musicians Tarabband.

Once the three-day festival is over, Warehouse 421, 411 and the associated precincts will remain, as the foundation’s response to what it sees as the demand for a community-­focused cultural organisation that has been missing in the capital since the closure of the old Abu Dhabi Cultural ­Foundation.

Clad in a mesh of corrosion-­resistant CorTen steel, Warehouse 421 and its new public plaza have been designed by the Danish studio Bjarke Ingels Group, Google’s choice as the designer for its vast new ­Mountain View headquarters campus in Silicon Valley.

Bjarke Ingels Group’s partner on the Google scheme is the British designer Thomas Heatherwick, who was appointed by SHF in 2014 as the designer for one of Abu ­Dhabi’s newest public open spaces, the yet-to-be-built, 125,000-square-metre Al Fayah Park on Airport Road.

The trick with Warehouse 421, as Al Atiyat admits, will be to keep people coming to Mina Zayed long after the opening weekend is ­complete.

“Soon, we’ll announce another six-month programme that will also combine performing arts, talks, exhibitions and workshops – the kind of experiences that people can take part in during the launch event – that will be brought back as part of a rolling programme,” she says. “We want people to continue to come to Warehouse 421 after the launch event, and for them to have a platform where they can experience art and culture in Abu Dhabi and we hope that will continue to happen on a year-round basis.”

A weekend of free workshops for creatives of all ages

Mix & Match Abu Dhabi

Studio 3

November 19, 6.30pm to 9pm; November 20 and 21, 3.30pm to 9pm

Providing a family-friendly exercise in DIY urban planning and printmaking, this workshop allows creatives of all ages to make their own urban landscapes by decorating tote bags with unique combinations of modular stamps.

Led by the founders of Studio Kawakeb in Beirut, these rolling workshops last anything from 15 minutes to half an hour, and are free. No prior art skills or registration for the workshops are ­required.

Draw & Stitch

Studio 2

November 19, 6.30pm to 8.30pm; November 20 and 21, 3.30pm to 5.30pm and 6.30pm to 8.30pm

Led by Ola Dajani, the founder and designer of the Dubai-based Vinny Dolls, these two-hour-long workshops are open to ages 13 and above. Participants learn about the art of doll-making while creating figures based on celebrities from the worlds of art and design. This workshop is free, while no prior skills are necessary, but preregistration is required.

A Vernacular Story

Warehouse 411, Studio 1, November 20 and 21, 11am to 6pm

Prior booking is essential for this intensive, hands-on, two-day workshop led the by the product designers Mia and Younes Duret from Morocco.

Aimed at artists, designers and students, the workshop explores ideas of reinterpretation, and is inspired by found objects and visual narratives from the Mina Zayed area. This workshops are free, but spaces are limited and applicants will be shortlisted.


Studio 4

November 19, 6.30pm to 8pm and 8.30pm to 10pm; November 20 and 21, 3.30pm to 5pm, 5.30pm to 7pm and 7.30pm to 9pm

This hour-and-a-half-long workshop offers participants the chance to practise zellij, from the Arabic word al zulaycha, which means “little polished stone”, which is the art of decorative tilework that developed in Morocco in imitation of Roman mosaics. Led by expert instructors from the London-based studio Art of Islamic Pattern, participants of all ages will be able to explore geometric Islamic pattern-making using traditional techniques. The workshops are free, no prior art skills are necessary and all materials are supplied. Registration is required.

Little Artists

Little Artists’ Studio

November 20 and 21, 3.30pm to 8pm

Run by the Dubai-based community arts initiative thejamjar, Little Artists is a series of studio-­based workshops for children ages 3 to 9. The workshops invite junior creatives to explore various arts and crafts activities, such as clay modelling, basket and paper weaving, paper-lantern-making and zooming cars. You can register on the door for this workshop.

Register via email at


Lest We Forget: Emirati Family Photographs 1950-1999

Warehouse 421, November 19 to June 18

A visual archive of everyday Emirati life and society as it was experienced by the UAE's first generation, Lest We Forget started life as a Zayed University student project in 2011, when Michele Bambling, an American art historian, asked her students at the Abu Dhabi university to explore their family photos.

Over the next two-and-half years, about 50 students were involved, and the result is a collection of personal portraits and family heirlooms that manage to be intensely private and historically fascinating at the same time.

Charting social changes in family life, the role of women, fashion and urban change, Lest We Forget acts as an antidote to the images, often taken by non-locals, corporations, the Government and the media, that are normally used to illustrate life in the early years of the emirates. The show is accompanied by a book.

Mina Zayed: Through the Lens of Jack Burlot

Warehouse 421, November 19 to March 19

Jack Burlot first came to Abu Dhabi in 1974 to report for the French photo agency Gamma on the effect of the oil crisis.

While staying at the Hilton Hotel, Abu Dhabi’s only luxury accommodation at the time, the then-20-year-old met Cathy, a French model who was in Abu Dhabi as part of a travelling art and fashion show that had been sponsored by Air France.

Together, they conducted their own impromptu fashion shoot, using dresses from Cacharel’s spring/summer 1975 collection, set against the backdrop of a booming oil town that was rushing headlong from the Arabia of tradition to modernity.

Thirty-nine years later, ­Burlot’s remarkable images of Abu ­Dhabi earned him a return invitation to the city as a guest of the ­Salama bint ­Hamdan Al Nahyan ­Foundation (SHF), which commissioned him to take the pictures of Mina Zayed that can be seen in this exhibition.

1:100 The Warehouse Re-imagined

Warehouse 421, November 19 to March 19

As a part of Warehouse 421’s redevelopment, SHF invited local artists and designers to submit their own plans for a warehouse-­based arts venue, and the results are on display here as a series of 1:100 scale models.

Art: Process & Practice

Warehouse 411, November 19 to January 23

Just a short distance from ­Warehouse 421, Warehouse 411 houses Art: ­Process & Practice, an exhibition of works made by the students from the first two cohorts of the year-long Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship (SEAF).

A technical and practical course for Emiratis who are keen to pursue a career in art and design, the SEAF is a partnership between the foundation and the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, whose faculty visit Abu Dhabi to conduct intensive classes as part of each SEAF ­programme.

On completion of the programme, the most talented SEAF students are able to gain funding and admission to the Rhode Island School of Design, where they can pursue a master’s in fine arts.

After the exhibition closes, Warehouse 411 will be converted into the future home of the SEAF initiative, complete with workshops, galleries and ­studios.

The sweet sounds of the launch weekend


Thursday, November 19, 8.30pm

The Grammy Award-winning ­Saharan group Tinariwen are a collective of Tuareg musicians from the deserts of Northern Mali. Formed in 1979, the band has won a following beyond North Africa with performances at festivals globally, playing their Berber and North African rhythms and instruments, including the lute and one-string fiddle.

Mulatu Astatke

Friday, November 20, 8.30pm

Born in 1943, the Ethiopian musician, composer and bandleader Mulatu Astatke is credited as the man who created Ethio-jazz, a blend of music that mixes his own vibraphone, Ethiopian tuning, American jazz, Latin rhythms and generous use of the wah-wah pedal. Trained in London, New York and Boston, Astatke performed with Duke Ellington when the American bandleader toured Ethiopia and Zambia in the early 1970s, and has released more than 20 albums to date. Astatke’s early recordings started to attract a cult following 15 years ago, when they were unearthed and reissued by a Frances Falceto, a French record producer.


Saturday, November 21, 8.30pm

Formed in 2008, Tarabband are a group of Swedish folk musicians all of whom originate from somewhere in the Arab world. The band’s music speaks of survival, exile, life and rebirth. Tarabband’s music is influenced by the group’s diverse backgrounds and by folk, gypsy flamenco and jazz.

All performances are free.

For more information, visit