Writing this piece coincides with a timely occasion: the opening of the highly anticipated Louvre Abu Dhabi. The Louvre Abu Dhabi caused a media explosion, with different outlets debating the true motive behind establishing the region’s most ambitious museum project. The Washington Post called it ‘the first overseas expansion of what is perhaps Europe’s most venerable art institution’, yet few publications thoughtfully explore the UAE’s motive towards embracing the art sector. This makes me, a UAE-born Arab with a strong affinity to the arts, feel inclined to study the sector’s interesting rise.
In the Middle East — especially during the ’90s — art was for those who could afford to travel. Rarely was a Middle Eastern country considered a go-to spot for the arts. It is now safe to say that there are a number of Middle Eastern countries invested in the arts, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar, with the UAE at the forefront. The UAE was the first Gulf state to have a permanent pavilion at the International Art Exhibition of La Binnale di Venezia and is gaining global traction for its home-grown arts scene. Projects like the Louvre and the Guggenheim — due to open soon in Abu Dhabi — are a natural progression for an emerging cultural hub like the UAE. Yet few publications investigate these developments thoroughly.
Many attribute the growth of the region’s art scene merely to economic prosperity. An article in The Guardian stated that ‘the burgeoning art scene is still driven more by money’, without understanding the region and its challenges. Surely the growth of an arts and cultural sector is related to something deeper than economics? As Btihaj Ajana, anthropologist at Kings College London, has said, ‘museums are the treasure house of material and spiritual wealth of society’.
Based on the research and observations I have made, the conclusion I have come to is that the growth of the art scene in the UAE is only modestly related to economic growth and more significantly related to the individuals and institutions committed to challenging global narratives on the Middle East.
The last two decades have witnessed a series of challenges for the region. The events of 9/11 and the War on Terror have made cultural misrepresentation more prevalent than ever. It makes sense to assume that the growth of the arts scene would then be a priority in a part of the world that continues to be ‘othered’ despite its economic growth and development. What could be a better way to authentically represent the cultural wealth of a society than through a vibrant arts scene?
Although some reports suggest that the UAE has been a contributor to the global contemporary art scene as early as the 1980s, important projects in the arts have more significantly emerged over the last two decades. A thorough understanding of these projects’ themes is important, however. The following recur frequently: projects showcasing Arab culture, others celebrating Arab artists, some promoting tolerance, and almost all of them narrating the history of the region. These themes are present for a reason, namely to tell a positive story about the Middle East.
Interestingly, it is not only government-funded institutions that are telling our story. The rise of arts and culture hubs such as Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, established by Emirati businessman-turned-arts-patron Abdulmonem Alserkal in 2007, and Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, a gallery dedicated to promoting Arab art founded by Emirati art collector and columnist Sultan Al Qassimi, shows that the push is coming from individuals as well. These individual efforts therefore reflect the growth of a sector that is only partly directed by institutions. The affinity of the people is another important factor, one that numerous publications do not take into account.
The projects mentioned below demonstrate both institutional and individual efforts in the UAE to tell a positive narrative about the region. These projects all carry elements, instalments, and subject matters that celebrate Arab culture and art, promote tolerance, and narrate the region’s history.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is its architecture. The museum was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, to mimic Arab culture. The dome, its most striking feature, is a testament to that, designed to recreate the play on light reminiscent of palm trees ubiquitously found across the Arab region. The dome also incorporates motifs found in Islamic art — such as star patterns — in a modernised form. Additionally, the museum’s outer walls are engraved with historical Arabic scripts. It is no doubt that the building reflects the identity and culture of the region, and it is clear that this is purposeful celebration of Arab culture.
Another notable aspect is the way the museum curates its galleries. According to Jean-Francois Charnier, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s scientific director, ‘the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s artworks are not organised based on the conventional “departmentalization” of traditional museums… the originality of Louvre Abu Dhabi resides in … presenting supposedly divergent civilisations in the same spaces’. Essentially, the museum hopes to make visitors question the supposed differences of civilisations by displaying works in an unconventional way — therefore instilling the value of tolerance in the minds of visitors and art lovers.
In addition to that, one of the galleries within the project is home to 15th -century versions of the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah, all originating from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, retelling the history of the region. The project’s aim to promote a new perspective on the region and Arab identity is clear, especially when considering that it is the first — and currently the only — international museum in the region.
La Biennale di Venezia
While the Louvre is an ambitious cultural project that just opened its doors, the UAE has been involved in cultural exchange for some time. Few know that the UAE is the first Arabian Gulf country with a permanent pavilion at the world’s most prestigious contemporary art event: La Biennale di Venezia. The UAE’s participation in Venice began in 2009, and it showcased the most thorough exhibit of Emirati art ever displayed in 2015. Titled 1980-Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates, it traced the UAE’s art scene from its very beginnings in the 1980s till today.
Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, curator of the exhibition, replicated the experience and aesthetic of art exhibitions from the UAE’s history, including original pamphlets and catalogues borrowed from the country’s national archives. The National Pavilion described the experience, saying that it ‘creates a sense of wandering’, allowing visitors to get an understanding of the context in which art grew in the region. The UAE’s participation in the Venice Biennale marked it not only as an emerging cultural hub but as one that aims to support Arab art and create a global sense of understanding of the history of art in the region.
Sharjah Art Foundation
Biennale participation isn’t surprising for the UAE — Sharjah has its own biennale running since 1993. Despite the success of the Sharjah Biennale, many felt that it did not speak to the local community and was too focused on replicating the international art scene. Sharjah Art Foundation was therefore founded as a response to that in 2009, to create a foundation that spoke to the local community, aiming to engage the local community and support local artists. The foundation develops year-long programs, projects, and collaborations focused on local participation and engagement. Its push to engage the local community came at a time when the Emirate was looking to further invest in the arts and felt that a space for community dialogue was needed.
Currently, the foundation is running an exhibition titled Hassan Sharif: I Am the Single Work Artist, a tribute to the late Emirati artist Hassan Sharif, one of the country’s first internationally renowned contemporary artists. The exhibition is the most holistic display ever exhibited for Sharif, tracing his life from early works in the 1970s till his most sophisticated installations of late. The exhibition does not shy away from openly displaying the artist’s most controversial pieces — some of which are critical of the industrialisation of the Gulf — proving the foundation’s commitment to supporting local artists and creating a space for critical and open dialogue and tolerance.
Barjeel Art Foundation
Just a few streets away from the Sharjah Art Foundation is Barjeel Art Foundation. The foundation’s guiding principle is ‘to contribute to the intellectual development of the art scene in the Arab region’. It is actively involved in collaborating with international institutions, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, to showcase Arab art to the world.
A recent collaboration worth mentioning is that between it and the Google Cultural Institute—an online platform that archives millions of resources around the world with the aim of displaying the cultural heritage of nations. Barjeel’s collaboration with the institute included 430 works of Arab art from around the Middle East as well as 12 archived exhibitions. Such collaborations support Arab art by making contemporary work a mainstream genre simply through displaying it alongside the art and heritage of other cultures.
The growth of the arts in Dubai, although different from that in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, is worth noting. Dubai’s cosmopolitan nature and business-friendly environment helped young art enthusiasts to pioneer its beginnings. Alserkal Avenue’s founder felt the home-grown drive for the art scene and dedicated Alserkal Avenue to support the community on that basis.
Alserkal is now the most well-known cultural hub in the city, supporting over 60 art, design, and creative venues. It is also home to one of the first galleries in Dubai — the Third Line, founded by Iranian Dubai-born Sunny Rubhar, who graduated from a New York university in the early 2000s, as a reaction to the racism she experienced there post-9/11. Speaking in an interview about what motivated her to open the gallery, she shared her experience: ‘This is pure hatred and has to change. What do they know about Muslims and Arabs? I knew that art was a way to change minds’. Rubhar’s gallery is a platform for artists around the Middle East and the diaspora. It is now one of many galleries in Alserkal Avenue with the same mission and is a true testament to the noble drive behind the growth of the arts in the region.
The UAE art scene is a vibrant one and is a manifestation of the need to reconstruct a story and identity for the region. The UAE is one of the first Arab countries to adopt the arts and culture scene so holistically and has gone above and beyond expectations to create an ecosystem that nurtures the arts and that creates bridges between East and West. The future of the arts is in good hands and is now elevated due to projects the like Louvre Abu Dhabi — it will be exciting to see how the arts scene will develop in the coming years.
Darah Ghanem is a journalist based in Dubai.