How Dubai’s ‘arts ghetto’ came of age
Andrew Graham-Dixon goes in search of Dubai’s low-slung soul amid the industrial warehouses, galleries, cafés, design workshops and photographic studios of Alserkal Avenue, and meets the man behind this burgeoning art hub
Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of approaching Dubai by air. After mile on mile of blank desert, suddenly there it is below you: a giant cluster of skyscrapers grouped around the zigzag spire of Burj Khalifa, the tallest human construction in the world, a building that looks like a hypodermic needle painted by Picasso in his Cubist phase, shimmering in the heat. There are new roads, new office blocks, cranes and construction sites everywhere.
But while Dubai is a vibrant city, it is not widely regarded as a great cultural destination. True, it has its own art fair, Art Dubai, to which many of the major international commercial galleries bring their wares, selling mostly Western contemporary art to a growing Middle Eastern clientele. The auction houses also have a growing presence in the city, with Christie’s holding regular sales of 20th-century and contemporary Middle Eastern art, in which there is increasing interest among collectors, curators and art historians.
Yet the fact remains that Dubai is not really thought of as a place where home-grown talent has been fostered, or can thrive. Many in the outside world still think of it as a city that has done precious little to nurture the living creative spirit: a place famous, in short, for having a great deal of money but not much soul.
Is that actually true? I went to Dubai recently to witness at first hand what might be described as a mini-renaissance in the visual culture of the Middle East. I was not disappointed, but I was genuinely surprised — not least by where this resurgence is actually taking place.
The range of work, much of it by contemporary Middle Eastern artists, was impressive. I sensed a buzz of genuine discovery, and occasional bewilderment, among visitors
I had timed my visit to coincide with Art Week at Alserkal Avenue, which takes place in the spring, when the 20 or more galleries in the district put on some of their most adventurous shows, accompanied by assorted commissions and pop-up exhibitions in other spaces commandeered for the occasion.
The range of work, much of it by contemporary Middle Eastern artists, was impressive; so too the response of the audience. I sensed a buzz of genuine discovery, and occasional bewilderment, among visitors, many of whom were local — a world away from the air of jaded sophistication that pervades an event like Frieze, in London.
The galleries in Alserkal Avenue are something of a mix. There are established players such as Leila Heller Gallery, which was showing videos by Bill Viola and a series of photo-collaged mosaics inspired by the Old Masters, created by Rashid Rana, a leading artist from Pakistan; likewise Custot Gallery Dubai, which had a group show including British artists Marc Quinn and Ian Davenport. But there are also a number of enterprising smaller galleries — destined perhaps to be big names in the Middle East in the not too distant future — showing work by artists who remain as yet little known.
Grey Noise, whose director Umer Butt has an eye for both emerging talent and underrated older artists, was showing a hauntingly beautiful display of photographs of the sea — poised between abstraction and figuration — created by Lala Rukh, an artist who has been active in Lahore for more than 30 years. Lawrie Shabibi was showing an installation by Mounir Fatmi, a Moroccan artist based in Paris, exploring the life and times of John Howard Griffin, a prominent equal rights activist in America in the 1960s and 1970s: definitely not the kind of work I was expecting to see in a Middle Eastern gallery.
Just around the corner, The Third Line had an installation by Qatari-American artist Sophia Al Maria, entitled Everything Must Go. This was a flotilla of supermarket trolleys overflowing with sweet packets, to a soundtrack of relentless mall muzak: a cloying cornucopia presumably intended to satirise Dubai’s own sometimes shameless culture of consumerism.
In the West such work might be received with a slightly weary cynicism — and Sophia Al Maria’s installation was, it must be said, somewhat derivative of Michael Landy’s counter-consumerist installations of the 1980s and early 1990s, some of which were accompanied by the slogan ‘Everything must go’, and one of which consisted of a trolley stuffed with junk. But in Dubai, art that might dare to present itself as a critique of contemporary society and its mores is so unfamiliar — there being little tradition of satire in the Islamic world — that its effect, even if slightly second-hand, seems genuinely refreshing and invigorating.
Quite a lot of the art that I saw on Alserkal Avenue could be described as either critique or satire. Ammar Al Attar, a photographer from Dubai, was showing a series of photographs and other archival records — old ticket stubs and posters — charting the sad decline of the city’s movie houses; Raja’a Khalid, a female artist originally from Saudi Arabia but now resident in Dubai, contributed a performance piece enacted by gym instructors which cunningly satirised the cult of the body beautiful, presenting the workout as a mad modern rite of endless repetition; Farah Al Qasimi, an artist of Arab origin based in America, showed photographs gently poking fun at the modern Middle Eastern woman’s fixation on cosmetics.
As well as all this, the founders of Alserkal Avenue had chosen Art Week as the occasion to unveil a not-for-profit temporary exhibition space named Concrete, which opened with a large exhibition of 20th-century art from that most troubled of Middle Eastern countries, Syria. The art struck me as being of uneven quality, but the new gallery, by Rem Koolhaas and his associates at OMA, is an extraordinary building: it is a light-filled space roughly in the proportions of a double cube, and its every wall has been designed to roll and slide to allow for almost infinite possibilities of interior division.
How did Alserkal Avenue come into being? Partly in an organic way, and partly with the support of philanthropy. More than a decade ago, various groups of artists and designers began to settle in Al Quoz to escape the high rents of the city centre. Their position was precarious, because of the stringency of city zoning rules. It was also difficult to find enough warehouse space, because real estate in Dubai remains concentrated in relatively small pockets of ownership. For a new arts quarter truly to flourish, it needed to find the right supporter: a man with both the political clout and the property holdings to make expansion possible.
Alserkal Avenue, named after its founder, is the brainchild of Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, a distinctly unconventional Emirati businessman with an infectiously mischievous smile, whose hobbies include collecting contemporary art. Despairing of central Dubai’s lack of a genuinely vibrant cultural centre, Abdelmonem gave his considerable support to the idea of creating an arts ghetto out in the sun-struck hinterland of the city’s warehouse district. It helped that he owned several square miles of warehouses in the area himself.
It was his idea, back in 2007, to reserve a chunk of Al Quoz sprawl and to redesignate it as an area for theatres, cafés, libraries and, above all, art galleries. He arranged to have the buildings re-zoned and re-rated, so that the kind of tenants he wanted to invite could afford to rent them. He vetted the applicants to create the mix he was looking for. And he set about creating a new city experience for Dubai, an antidote to the narcoleptic world of shopping malls and five-star hotels.
Ten years on, his dream has become reality, and there are ambitions to expand and develop. Abdelmonem and the overall director of Alserkal Avenue, Vilma Jurkute, have already doubled the gallery presence in the area, and artists have begun to make their studios there.
‘It's the natural progress that comes with the development of a city. It takes time to develop a middle class who want to enrich their lives with art’ — Adbdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal
When I met him for a coffee to discuss his grand project and where he thinks it might be going, Abdelmonem struck me as a thoroughly charming and unusually self-deprecating kind of philanthropist. In some respects, his family history and his place in that history are part of a familiar pattern. The Alserkal dynasty has played a vital part in the development of Dubai over the past 50 and more years. One member of the family brought the first car to Dubai, another the first electrical generator, while yet another founded the city’s telecommunications network. And now, after the industrial and technological pioneers, comes the cultural innovator.
It all reminds me a little of the Tate family, who built a sugar empire in London before going on to found the city’s first ever gallery for British art. The comparison seems to strike a chord with Abdelmonem when I put it to him.
‘Well, I think it’s the natural progress that comes with the development of a city. London boomed economically before it boomed culturally. It takes time to develop a middle class, if you like, who want to go out and enrich their lives by looking at art,’ he explains.
‘Dubai has been progressing: it was a trade destination, a financial hub in the region, and now it’s coming to be one of the great art centres of the Middle East. This is the natural progression, and I think the public is growing with it,’ he continues.
‘It’s changing at all levels of society. For example, I had no formal education in art history. But now things are different, we have art history in universities, and that will cascade down to the schools in due course, I am sure.’
The point of Alserkal Avenue, Abdelmon points out, is to make art and all the activities around art seem actually real to people. ‘So, for example, when an art student or a graphic design student or a photography student from Dubai brings their mother or father or brother here, they can see what a design student can be, or what an artist can do, and have it right before their eyes. This makes a real change, a social change.’
I’ll certainly be going back to Alserkal Avenue. It is a place alive with energy, activity and a boundlessly optimistic sense of future possibilities. In short, it is Dubai, but definitely not as most people imagine it to be.