The UAE's arts scene is experiencing a full-throttle return to form

From the Emirates Festival of Literature to the Sharjah Biennial, the vibrancy of the country's cultural community is boosting creativity – and the economy

SHARJAH , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð Mar 5 , 2015 : Alfred Joseph ( left ) student of Delhi Private School Sharjah playing XYZ game with the giant ball at the Al Hamdan Bin Mousa Square in the Sharjah Biennial 12 at Sharjah Art Foundation in Sharjah. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For News.
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Anniversaries are a special time, and with the annual Emirates Festival of Literature concluding another successful run today, marking its 15th edition, it is worth taking stock of how the UAE’s arts scene has rebounded from the tough times of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although many cultural festivals switched back to holding in-person events in 2022, this year is witnessing a full-throttle return of the exhibitions, screenings, seminars and topical discussions that have cemented the Emirates’ reputation as the focal point for the region’s artists and creatives.

Tomorrow is the start of the Sharjah Biennial, which is also celebrating a special anniversary this year – its 30th. It will feature more than 150 participants from over 70 countries with events taking place across 19 venues in five cities and towns throughout the emirate.

Mirroring the UAE’s own story of development, the biennial – the country’s longest-running arts event – has grown over the past three decades into a sprawling phenomenon that attracts cutting-edge contemporary artists to the emirate.

Its theme this year is Thinking Historically in the Present, and the programme has been inspired by the late Nigerian curator, art critic and writer Okwui Enwezor, whose work left a lasting impact on biennial curator and Sharjah Art Foundation director, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi.

Sheikha Hoor has described Enwezor’s ideas as the “conceptual framework for the biennial, which we’ve sought to honour and elaborate on while also reflecting on the foundation’s own past, present and future as the biennial marks its 30-year anniversary".

The fifteenth Sharjah Biennial will feature more than 150 participants from over 70 countries

Elsewhere in the country, the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival – a non-profit community event – will be showcasing local and emerging artists, photographers and filmmakers until the end of February. This week Abu Dhabi independent art platform Warehouse421 will begin its RE/COLLECT winter season, presenting four major exhibitions and more than 20 workshops, talks and special events; after that, leading international art fair Art Dubai will take place from March 1 to 5.

As welcome as they are, these events are not the only side to the UAE’s thriving artistic life. Investment in culture continues apace, from the Dh1 million theatre initiative launched by the Ministry of Culture and Youth last October to Thursday’s news that the Sharjah Art Foundation had finished work on transforming the Kalba Ice Factory, an abandoned 20,000-square metre industrial site on the emirate’s east coast, into art spaces with social amenities.

The UAE has always recognised the importance of the arts and the benefits they bring, not only in terms of enriching our lives but in the way they support the economy. Speaking at a Unesco conference last September, Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth, said the country had “recognised the growing power of the cultural and creative industries within the wider economy, as well as its vulnerability to unpredictable events”.

These creative industries contribute 3.5 per cent to the UAE’s gross domestic product, the minister said – a figure that is projected to grow to 5 per cent by 2031. And although unpredictable events such as pandemics may always be with us, we can take heart from the resilience of the UAE’s artists, curators and patrons. We can expect to see many of the country’s leading cultural events enjoying a few anniversaries more.

Published: February 06, 2023, 3:00 AM
Updated: February 10, 2023, 7:24 AM