How the UAE became a cultural crossroads

Events such as Art Dubai and Culture Summit Abu Dhabi reflect the country's embrace of dialogue

The diverse nature of the Emirates’ society makes a coming together of art and ideas an organic process. Victor Besa / The National
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More often than not, summits are gatherings defined by formality, rings of security, tightly worded agendas and a firm determination to reach a particular outcome. It is true that such events, complete with their intense diplomacy, 11th-hour agreements and final communiques, play a vital role, and the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial conference that has been taking place in Abu Dhabi this week is a good example. But at the same time, the UAE is also hosting some very different gatherings.

Culture Summit Abu Dhabi and Art Dubai are two in-depth explorations that embed art and culture in the kind of contemporary issues often thrashed out at international summits. For example, Art Dubai, which will open to the public on Friday, is not only displaying works from more than 120 galleries across the world; it is using its well-established place on the international art scene to provide a space for a diverse range of voices from the Global South.

Among them are artists – established and emerging alike – from nations where conflict, climate change or inequality present acute challenges. Art Dubai’s Bawwaba section – “gateway” in Arabic – will have 10 solo presentations that feature artworks created in Brazil, Guatemala and Mozambique, among other countries, over the past year. Themes of ideology, polarisation and artistic independence will be explored in Art Dubai’s Modern section where regional artists’ relationship in the Cold War rivalry between East and West will be examined. The lessons drawn from that time of division are relevant for today’s fragmented world.

Elsewhere in the UAE, Culture Summit Abu Dhabi – which will run in the capital’s Manarat Al Saadiyat arts venue from Sunday to Tuesday – is a unique convening of practitioners and cultural leaders. This year’s collection of discussions and performances carry the theme of A Matter of Time, which organisers say will embrace a "new cultural time, one that is realigned with the rhythm of human awareness and nature".

This is not as esoteric as it may seem at first glance. Our sense of time has indeed been radically altered by the Covid-19 pandemic, a shared experience, arising from nature, that effectively put much of human society into a two-year hiatus. The rapid and continuing development of our digital age is also redefining our conception of communication, deadlines, working hours and commerce. Exploring the relationship of art and culture to these critical phenomena gives the Abu Dhabi summit a particular urgency.

Thought leaders from the arts, heritage, film, music and public policy will use Culture Summit Abu Dhabi to also connect and discuss more unconventional subjects, such as the big screen evolution of Batman, linking popular culture to more highbrow ideas and scrutiny. As with Art Dubai, the range of voices at the summit will be diverse, and will include such figures as Syrian poet Adonis, British choreographer Wayne McGregor, Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka and American visual artist Sarah Morris.

Events like Art Dubai and Culture Summit Abu Dhabi thrive in a location such as the UAE, which has emerged as an important international crossroads not only for business, diplomacy and innovation but as a meeting place for creativity and culture. The diverse nature of the Emirates’ society makes this coming together of art and ideas an organic process that will continue long after this week’s cultural summits are over.

Published: March 01, 2024, 3:00 AM