‘Who doesn’t play games?’

Created by one of the country’s first visual artists, the UAE’s latest art gallery hopes to create a stir by exhibiting pieces that have been inspired by traditional board games and modern video games.

Emirati pioneer and visual artist Jalal Luqman. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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The UAE’s latest art gallery, founded by Emirati pioneer Jalal Luqman, hopes to stir up a creative storm with its inaugural exhibition, inspired by game artwork.

Citizen E is part of the new Dubai Design District (d3) and aims to deliver a unique mix of work by established and emerging artists.

The new gallery's Game Art Show mirrors exactly that, with pieces inspired by traditional board games and modern video games.

Luqman, one of the country’s first visual artists, previously co-founded Ghaf Gallery, the capital’s first, with Mohammed Khanoo, before moving on in 2006. However, he says he never felt he achieved his objective.

“There were lot of programmes that I started in Ghaf gallery, which a lot of people didn’t want me to stop just for the fact that I stopped at Ghaf. So, the ideas have always been there, but I was just waiting for the right time and the right place to open the gallery.”

When the chance came to open a space in d3, nearly a decade later, he realised he had found the right place, at just the right time. While Abu Dhabi will soon have an abundance of spaces for classic artwork, with the forthcoming Louvre, Guggenheim and Sheikh Zayed museums, Luqman says Dubai is moving at a pace that is “closer to the tempo” that he wants to move at, as far as contemporary young art is concerned.

“The space and the neighbours and the location itself are great – I mean, Citizen E is going to be in the middle of some of the top names in art, design and fashion – so how can you not decide to have a gallery there?”

This location, he adds, is “just a prelude”, however, to moving to the Creative Community, part of the next phase of d3, set to complete in 2018.

Citizen E is among the first outlets to open at d3 – a purpose-built design district announced in 2013 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice-President and Ruler of Dubai. The district aims to become a regional hub for creative thinkers, creating a permanent space for fashion designers, artists and other creatives.

Later this month, it will host the city’s inaugural Design Week, which hopes to celebrate Dubai as a regional “capital for design and as a global meeting point for the international design community”.

“Some people thing it’s E as in European, other people say it’s E as in Emirati. I’m not going to correct anybody, or say that anybody is wrong, but the more track record Citizen E has, the more people will know what E stands for. I think let’s make it fun that way; it’ll be good to hear other people’s interpretations of what they think it is,” he says with a smile.

The choice of game artwork for the inaugural exhibition is no coincidence. It encompasses the gallery as a meeting of minds from across different generations and backgrounds.

“Normally, when you think of an art gallery, you automatically have this image of uptight people of a certain age. What I wanted to do is, first of all, to let young creative people know that they can have their art exhibited in a proper gallery under international gallery standards, and they don’t have to be old, or renowned, or from an exotic faraway land.

“Then, after that, I have Najat Makki, and some other older, prominent Emirati artists, so I can balance the kind of people that we can attract, and the kind of art and artists that we will have in Citizen E.”

The Game Art Show fills the entire gallery, complete with a corner where Fahad's Couch will set up a collection of classic video game consoles, such as Nintendos and Ataris, to "add to the noise and action". It is a statement, he says, that "we are a cool, hip contemporary art gallery".

“Another thing is I don’t want people to sell their souls to me for the next few years.” Instead, the gallery will issue contracts for the duration of the exhbiiton – after that, whether the artist wants to stay or move on is up to them.

“We’re trying to make people feel comfortable to come and show us their work and if we can sell their work for them, then it’s a win-win situation for both of us.”

This also works both ways – there will be high-end pieces available for serious collectors, including some of Luqman’s own pieces, but young collectors “can come and find something reasonable to buy, without having to dish out hundreds of thousands of dollars”.

The gallery will also be providing services that Luqman and his peers never had when they were younger, and Emirati art was still in its ‘teething phase’.

“Art suddenly became good; it became popular, and everybody jumped on the bandwagon – so we got a lot of these bunny rabbits: the ones who jump from place to place. Some were good – maybe half of one per cent – and the rest were just copycats.

“That needed time to get filtered out, but we had to go through that phase, because real buyers don’t buy from people like that – they will buy from an artist that has longevity, that has a track record.”

Today, he says the art scene needs not just good artists, but curators, collectors, buyers, galleries and agents. In established art markets, such as in Japan, Europe, China or North America, there is a structure to the art business, he adds – people go to art school and are taught about agents. However, that is lacking here. “I am going to hire and train people to be agents.”

“There is a validity to the message that you put into your art, and there is also an identity that has to be in your artwork.”

It is especially challenging, he feels, for people to understand and communicate what lies at the core of their culture in a country as diverse as the UAE. “And I’m not saying young Emiratis have to paint a falcon, and a horse, and a dallah and a palm tree. But the messaging inside your artwork should be authentic.”

One of the young artists involved in the exhibition is 32-year-old Haakon Rist: marketing and brand strategist by day, graffiti artist and rapper by night. He has contributed a pair of illustrations based on the once-controversial video game Mortal Kombat – which pits fighters in semi-supernatural battles to the death.

"The first one is a piece called Scientific Wins," he begins. "It's set in the world of Mortal Kombat and it's essentially my rapper alias Scientific, – who I portray as a sort of urban-arts superhero, and the values he stands for, which are tolerance, education and creative expression – winning over ignorance."

Scientific is stood victorious over ignorance, similar to the way in which Mortal Kombat fighters pose after winning a bout.

The second piece, Hero, also features Scientific, but is based more on Guitar Hero and Def Jam's Rap Star, games that draw more on rhythm and musical talent. Rist says although graffiti has a criminal past, springing out of inner city gang activity, it has since changed — with urban art often reflecting positive values.

“You have artists, such as Rescue from New York, who has a lot of online videos where, first of all, he provides how-to guides on graffiti for young people, and he speaks about his background. He was sort of rebellious and he reached a point in his life where he had to make a decision about what to focus on.

“That resonated with me, not in terms of my past, because I have a very spotless past – I never did any illegal graffiti, I was always commissioned or,” he laughs.

“But I believe that when we create art, we put such energy into it, which comes across, and in my opinion it’s really important to infuse it with positivity.”

Another, slightly younger featured artist is 28-year-old Emirati, Amna Alblooshi. Among her many interests, which include watching sci-fi or comic-based movies, she enjoys playing board games – notably Cluedo. She is exhibiting a set of three immersive pieces inspired by the game, which pits players in a mansion where a crime has occurred; one which they have to solve through elimination of suspects.

“I chose three characters: Mrs White, Mrs Peacock and Miss Scarlett – I illustrated them in three artworks, and these have a very dark serial killer twist; each artwork is inspired by a real-life serial killer.

“I want the viewer to imagine themselves in that mansion, with these real serial killers, and from they should figure out who is that one killer who did the crime. So it will make the viewer think – they are all already serial killers, but one of them did the crime.”

Luqman concludes: “I want the opportunity to work with young people and to guide them, because a lot of them in this time are really misguided and need to be taken care of and to be set in the right direction.

“And who doesn’t play games?”