Sikka Art Fair: explore a cultural mosaic amid Dubai’s historical past

Retrace the footsteps of the past while enjoying a cultural feast of modern Dubai as the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is filled with the sights and sounds of Sikka Art Fair.

The Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood will come alive during the 11-day Sikka Art Fair, which starts this weekend. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National.
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Al Fahidi neighbourhood, in Deira, is a warren of old Dubai residences where pearl divers and market traders used to bed for the night.

Next week, you’ll find the houses full of paintings, skateboards and unrolled yoga mats: Sikka Art Fair, 11 days of various cultural and lifestyle activities, is setting up shop.

Now in its seventh year, Sikka is dedicated to supporting culture in the UAE and GCC, looking at both high art and popular culture. Meander from Street Art House – with its skateboards, stickers and urban streetwear on display – to exhibitions of installations, sculpture, painting and photography.

The fair is open to artists from across the GCC and has a full live events schedule, which it has become renowned for. “The music stage is where people gather at the end of the night, after they’ve checked out the exhibitions,” says Rosan Reodica from Room-Five, the agency which organises the event on behalf of Dubai Culture and Art Authority.

“This year we’ll have mini-talks in addition to the acts of last year, such as spoken word poetry and music.”

The fair is also bringing the city into Deira, with an array of cultural organisations hosting workshops and screenings in Al Fahidi. The residency agency Tashkeel will host design, illustration and Zine publishing workshops, as well as a printmaking exhibition, while Loco’motion Community Cinema and The Animation Chamber will screen films every night in the courtyards. Alserkal Avenue will also occupy one of the houses, with a series of events in which the public can meet different UAE-based authors.

In addition, Sikka is working with the UAE Ministry of Happiness to explore what it means to be content. Yoga mats spread out in the Fahidi courtyards and a meditation walk winding through the site will perhaps be one answer; others might find their joy in juice bars and letting other people entertain their children for a while – there are kids’ activities too.

The notion of happiness is also explored from an intercultural perspective in a collaboration between the Emirati artist Rashid Al Mulla and the Brazilian collective Connexus. The three artists will explore the city and produce a site-specific commission using the national colours of the two countries, that tries to understand whether happiness differs from culture to culture: does “happy” mean the same thing in Brazil as it does in the UAE?

Dubai will also be the focus of street artist Tarsila Schubert, who was born in Brazil but is now based in the UAE. Schubert is creating a maze for visitors to follow and lose themselves in, with historical images of locals drinking tea, bargaining and smoking shisha.

Members of the public will be able to take Polaroids of themselves on this journey, and towards the end of the maze will be a gradual accumulation of images on the wall – the Sikka visitors literally overtaking the old-timers who used to live in the area. As the UAE grows in age, one of the key preoccupations of artists has been identity, either for those non-Emirati nationals who have grown up in the UAE, or for Arabs who have watched their lives change dramatically over the past 45 years.

This will be the subject of the exhibition The Confused Arab, which aims to look at the "future of nostalgia" or the idea that the rate of change in our lives is so rapid that nostalgia – like everything else in the future – won't be what it used to be. Works will utilise traditional symbols, dialects and music to uncover what identity means now, in House 33.

Sikka’s appeal also lies in its live events: among these is the organisation Rock Camp for Girls, which encourages young women to enter the male-dominated rock music scene; they’ll be playing in the main Al Fahidi courtyard at 7.30pm on Wednesday. The panoply of events shows Dubai’s substantial investment in arts and culture.

Next week is “Art Week” in the Emirates, when most of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah’s institutions and galleries host exhibitions and events. International museum curators and dealers descend upon the UAE for Art Dubai, the modern and contemporary art fair held in Madinat Jumeirah, from Wednesday to Saturday. Known colloquially as “March Madness”, the week is an extraordinary opportunity to find out more about contemporary art forms.

Sikka is unique in that it focuses primarily on GCC artists and has a hands-on attitude to exploring how culture is made and understood within the UAE. Design, for example, has become an extremely important part of the art scene here and is well-represented in the different exhibitions and workshops.

Sikka Art Fair runs from Saturday until March 21 in Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, Dubai, from 5pm to 11pm weekdays and 5pm to midnight weekends. Opening night is 6pm to 11pm. Visit