Antonia Carver: 'travel teaches us a sense of the extreme enormity of the world beyond our own four walls'

The director of Art Jameel on her favourite places, tips and lessons learnt on the road


Antonia Carver, Director of Art Jameel.

The Jameel Arts Center is set to open on November 11, Located at the Jaddaf Waterfront,  the multidisciplinary space is dedicated to exhibiting contemporary art and engaging communities through learning, research and commissions. It houses several gallery spaces, an open access library and research centre, project and commissions spaces, a writer’s studio, indoor and outdoor event spaces, a roof terrace for film screenings and other events, a bookstore dedicated to arts and culture related publications, a café and a full-service restaurant.

The centre is one of the first independent not-for-profit contemporary arts institutions in the city. It is founded and supported by Art Jameel, an independent organisation that fosters contemporary art practice, cultural heritage protection, and creative entrepreneurship across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

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Antonia Carver is the director of Art Jameel, which has now opened its flagship Dubai headquarters, the Jameel Arts Centre on Dubai Creek. Originally from the UK, Carver has lived in Dubai since 2001, when she worked in art journalism and film festivals. Now, alongside the Jameel Art Centre, Carver also  oversees the Saudi organisation’s other efforts, such as the Jameel House of Traditional Crafts in Jeddah and in Cairo, its partnerships with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among others, and the building of Art Jameel’s second public contemporary art centre, Hayy, in Jeddah. She was previously the director of Art Dubai, and is credited with helping to cement the fair as an important event, commercially and discursively, in the region.

She lives in Dubai with her husband, who is a journalist, and their three children.

Where did you travel to most recently?

To London, for a 48-hour art blast during Frieze Art Fair.

What was your favourite recent destination?

Armenia in the spring – we went tripping around Yerevan and then spent a few days hiking on the monastery trail in the north. We used that to justify all the manti and khachapuri we’d had. I’d failed to register the height of the country and that there would be snow – so we oblivious, time-poor people from Dubai arrived in flip-flops and had to do an emergency shop in a beleaguered town in the mountains. We spent the holiday in 1980s-era, Russian-style furry boots, tracksuits and puffa jackets.

Is there one city or destination you have returned to again and again?

Sri Lanka. We’re very boring and always follow the surf down to the coastline east of Galle. It’s just magical, and the abundance of green nature and unknown creatures sauntering by, on land and in the sea, is intense after Dubai’s urban jungle.

When you travel, is it for work or holiday, or do you combine the two?

I’m always trying to cut down on work travel, but, first-world problem alert, seeing art and people in person is hard to beat. Combining family and work can be stressful, but there are some biennials in some cities that just click. We’ve done all Kochi Biennials to date as a family, and the kids tend to get attached to certain works – last time it was Rachel Maclean and Lantian Xie – and want to visit them over and over again. It’s quite a good reminder of why we go to look at exhibitions in the first place, rather than racing around and ticking as many works off as possible.

Which destination most surprised you?

Moscow, when I went for the opening of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. It wasn’t a surprise to meet and spend time with incredible young artists – including Taus Makhacheva and Aslan Gaisumov – and nor that the museum itself had some brilliant research programmes. A favourite by Rasha Salti and Koyo Kouoh was called Saving Bruce Lee and looked at the deep influence of Soviet film directors on African and Arab cinema. Nor was it a surprise that the dress code observed by the local art-fashion crowd at the opening was so high-octane that it even surpassed that of the Gulf. I guess it was more the exuberance and colour of the public spaces in June, especially Gorky Park, where Garage is situated.

What do you love most about travelling?

The UAE is perhaps the best-connected and situated country in the world, with so many fascinating places a stone’s throw away. Many are a welcome, evocative assault on all the senses. I love hearing the destinations being announced in Dubai Terminal 2 – some unknown, others known internationally for all the wrong reasons. Behind the newsflashes are the real worlds, real people, real travellers, real emotions.

What do you hate most?

Snorers. And that bit when you land, exhausted, and find that the walkway is actually an ambulant, standing-room-only bus, air-conditioned to minus 10°C.

What is your preferred mode of travel?

Walking. It’s scary – in pedestrian-friendly cities, you can clock up 15,000 steps a day no problem, and see everything at human level, while back home in the office, steps revert to the mere hundreds.

What kind of travel do you prefer: simplicity or luxury? Beach holidays or backpacking?

All of the above. Favourite hotels are simple ones where no one bugs you and the space can become your own, but there’s potential for great room service breakfast, fast Wi-Fi and proper espresso coffee. I’m not sure this combination actually exists.

You have to travel a lot between Jeddah and Dubai because of the site Art Jameel is building in Saudi Arabia. Is it easy to travel between the two countries?

It’s certainly becoming easier, especially for women. Careem is a good friend to have there, and to be striking out, driverless, doesn’t turn a hair any more. I recently went to Dhahran, to see Ithra, which had just experienced one of its busiest days to date, with thousands streaming through the doors. The city itself was buzzing. Outside of the cities, it’s harder to travel, I’m sure, but when archaeological sites such as Al-Ula open up over time, these will no doubt become easy-hop must-sees for those based in the UAE.

What do you think travel teaches us?

A sense of the extreme enormity and diversity of the world beyond our own four walls.

Do you have any advice for travelling with kids?

Check their passports. Somehow we’ve managed to twice get to the airport to find that one of them has expired. The passports, not the actual kids.

Have you ever been tempted to stash your children in economy and sit in business?

I wish.

Where do you call home in Dubai?

Umm Suqeim 3.

You have been in Dubai for many years now. Does going back home to the UK now feel like visiting a new country? What do you miss from Dubai when you are there? And vice versa?

I’m a rabid “remoaner” and the way the UK, or at least England, seems to be cutting itself off from Europe, feels depressingly new, or at least cyclical. My family are mainly based in Scotland, so for holidays, we tend to fly into Glasgow and spend most time in the Highlands, which is always a breath of fresh air – an ultra-fresh, lung-chilling punch of fresh air. I go to London mainly for work now, and it’s always exhilarating as a city, with such a wealth of museums, arts organisations, galleries, studios, and a certain attitude, or stance, that staunchly defies the “little Englander” tendency elsewhere. When I’m there, I miss Dubai’s can-do mentality, and that sense that anything is possible, and it might happen tomorrow, and at speed.


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