In the past, we would often refer to Baghdad, Tehran, Beirut, Cairo and even Damascus as the region’s major centres of art, film, literature, music and poetry. Sadly, due to economic and political strife, this is no longer the case. With the dispersal of people from across the region to different parts of the world and to the Gulf, the UAE has become home to a multitude of nationalities. It is, in part, the efforts of these diasporic communities that brought about the art scene, whose seeds had been initially planted in the 1970s and which developed more so in the last dozen years. The UAE is now, without a doubt, the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) region’s capital of culture.
I have lived in the UAE for 37 years. I am so proud of what the country has achieved in so little time and so happy to have been a witness to the flourishing of the UAE as an art powerhouse.
Dubai is the marketplace; the galleries, auction houses and Art Dubai are here. Sharjah has its art museum, the Sharjah Art Foundation, the Maraya Art Centre, the Sharjah Biennial and the Barjeel Art Foundation (whose holdings will now go on permanent loan to the Sharjah Art Museum); and Abu Dhabi is home to the museums on Saadiyat Island, and institutions such as NYU Art Gallery and Warehouse421. Each city has its own distinct cultural position, and all work harmoniously and are in close proximity to one other.
In the first decade after unification in 1971, the UAE government funded art scholarships. The late Hassan Sharif, known as the father of conceptual art in the UAE, was sent on a government scholarship to the United Kingdom, and studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art. Dr Najat Makki studied in Cairo, as did Abdul Rahim Salem. When these artists came back, they founded the Emirates Fine Arts Society in 1980. A year later, the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation was founded. Sharjah Ruler, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, has been a dedicated patron of the arts for years and the emirate has long been committed to the arts, with the first Sharjah Biennial taking place in 1993.
In 1995, Syrian-born Mayla Atassi and her partner, Amna Al Dabbagh, established Dubai’s first art gallery, Green Art Gallery, in a villa in Jumeirah near the Dubai Zoo. The space staged exhibitions for modern Arab masters, among them Fateh Moudarres (who came to Dubai and created some paintings in Green Art’s garden), Ismail Fatah, Dia Al Azzawi and Hussein Madi. Mayla passed away in 2003 and her daughter, Yasmin, now runs the gallery and has infused it with a contemporary and international programme in Alserkal Avenue. It was 20 years ago this month that Dariush Zandi, an Iranian architect, built The Courtyard in Al Quoz, then an entirely industrial area. I remember Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, opened an exhibition that featured paintings by Renoir and Rembrandt, among other masters.
In 2004, the Dubai-based magazine I used to edit, Canvas, which focuses solely on art from the Middle East, published its first issue. In 2006, the first Christie's Dubai auction took place. In March 2007 came the first edition of the Gulf Art Fair, now Art Dubai. The Third Line and B21 Progressive Arts Gallery, now Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, were then located in Al Quoz, but it was Ayyam Gallery that first moved into Alserkal Avenue, then filled with warehouses, mechanics and car dealers. Ayyam Gallery was brave enough to see the potential there and other galleries followed. Alserkal Avenue as we know it today was born. That was a decade ago.
The roots of our art ecosystem run quite deep for a country so young. But in the last decade or so, since the launch of Art Dubai, the art scene has taken off. Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan has long been a supporter and patron of the arts. She established her namesake foundation that is now commissioner of the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In 2009, the UAE became the first Gulf nation to participate in what is known as the Olympics of the art world and it is also the first Gulf nation to have a permanent pavilion at the art and architecture pavilions at La Biennale. The Foundation also operates Warehouse421, whose programming focuses on local and regional exhibitions, as well as initiating the Sheikha Salama Emerging Artists Fellowship. Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi is at the helm of the Sharjah Art Foundation that stages seminal shows year-round and Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi opened the Barjeel Art Foundation with his own collection of modern and contemporary Arab art.
Art Dubai itself has grown exponentially. This year we host 105 galleries from 48 countries, making this our most global edition ever with new participation from Iceland, Kazakhstan, Ghana and Ethiopia and robust programming alongside the gallery halls. We initiated Residents, a new gallery hall that features the work of 11 artists we invited to the UAE to complete four to eight-week residencies. The main aim of Art Dubai is to educate, inform and inspire and engage with the community and remain the preeminent platform for audiences to engage with art from the MENASA regions.
We’ve never thought of ourselves as just an art fair. With events such as the Art Dubai Modern Symposium, Global Art Forum and the Sheikha Manal Little Artists Program, catered to children between the ages of five and 17, we aim to fulfill our role as educator.
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Even as audiences in this region become more knowledgeable, we will continue to place education at the heart of our agenda. I’ve been working in the art scene for 17 years and Art Dubai remains an educational platform for me. I continue to learn from events such as the Global Art Forum that takes on a different theme each year and for 2018 tackles the theme of automation; and Art Dubai Modern, which is the only platform in the world for people to discover and engage with art from the 20th century from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
I am very, very optimistic and excited about the direction of the UAE art scene, both the current moment and the future. I’m delighted with the growth and diversity of the collector base, the increase of government interest and support for the arts and with the new additions to the arts infrastructure such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, which will be complemented by another institution in November, the Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai’s first contemporary arts institution.
There is more to be done. I would like to see more support for the arts from the private and public sectors. I would like to see the UAE become a home for artists. I would like to see Middle Eastern art feature more prominently in educational curricula. It’s fundamentally important to learn about our region first. I would like to see a lot more public art dot our cities. I would also like to see greater discussion, cooperation and partnerships, more institutions, more literature on the arts, more journalism, more criticism. I would love to welcome an arts academy and I hope that that is only a matter of time. I see Art Dubai as a key pillar in all this.
But for now, and as the UAE does every March around Art Dubai: let’s celebrate art and think of the country’s cultural future.
Myrna Ayad is Fair Director of Art Dubai