The Dubai skyline at dusk. Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Art Dubai: ‘The energy in the city is palpable’

Dubai’s cultural life is booming: the diversity of its population is reflected in the mix of what’s on show — from paintings to installations to NFTs — and the city’s annual art fair offers works by artists from almost every country under the sun


Dubai is having a moment. ‘The energy in the city is palpable,’ says Michael Jeha, chairman of Christie’s Middle East. ‘There’s been a very noticeable shift in mood over the past 12 months: everyone is going out again, real estate is booming, and we’re seeing new and younger collectors, as well as the emergence of a strong crypto community.’

The influx of people is in part due to recent government initiatives, such as the Golden visa, and in part to Dubai’s relatively lenient pandemic policy. (By September 2021, around 80 per cent of the adult population in the UAE had been fully vaccinated.)

‘Dubai opened up a lot earlier than everyone else,’ says Jeha. ‘A lot of people flew to Dubai to escape restrictions from wherever they were, and many of them have stayed, which has created a revitalised and vibrant community.’

‘If we want to attract the international community, we cannot be a serial copy of a Western fair’ — Pablo del Val, artistic director of Art Dubai

The diversity of Dubai’s population, of which around 85 per cent is expatriate, is reflected in the rich mix of arts and culture showcased across the city. In addition to a strong offering of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art, you’ll see works by artists from nearly every land under the sun.

The opening in 2018 of the Jameel Arts Centre, which shows both Middle Eastern and international contemporary art, did much to bolster the city’s reputation as a thriving cultural hub. As did the development of Alserkal Avenue, now home to a wide range of local and international art galleries, performing arts organisations, design studios, creative enterprises and community spaces.

Concrete, a multi-displinary space in Alserkal Avenue designed by OMA. Artwork While We Wait, 2017, by architects Elias & Yousef Anastas. Photo Musthafa Aboobacker. Courtesy of Alserkal Avenue

Concrete, a multi-displinary space in Alserkal Avenue designed by OMA. Artwork: While We Wait, 2017, by architects Elias & Yousef Anastas. Photo: Musthafa Aboobacker. Courtesy of Alserkal Avenue

It’s also where you'll find the Alserkal Arts Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation founded by the Alserkal family to support public art commissions, residencies, research and educational programmes.

‘These initiatives have really consolidated Dubai’s position as a global centre of the arts,’ says Jeha. ‘The local population is now in the habit of going to exhibitions and engaging with art on both a commercial and community level.’

The Dubai Collection, founded in 2020 by Dubai Culture & Arts Authority in partnership with Art Dubai Group, has also played a significant role in enriching the emirate’s creative economy. The initiative has been developed in collaboration with local patrons, who loan works to the Dubai Collection so that they can go on public display, bringing the community closer to art and artists.

Installation view of When Images Speak at the Etihad Museum. Photo courtesy of the Dubai Collection

Installation view of When Images Speak at the Etihad Museum. Photo: courtesy of the Dubai Collection

In November last year, the Dubai Collection opened its first physical exhibition, When Images Speak, at the Etihad Museum (until 6 May). It presents around 70 modern and contemporary artworks from the region, loaned from the collections of 11 patrons, including His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai.

Alongside the physical exhibition, the Dubai Collection launched the Digital Museum, a virtual educational resource accessible to the public, featuring the artworks and artists represented in the collection alongside editorial content.

Then there’s Al Khayat Avenue, a new development poised to house around 50 arts and creative businesses in Dubai’s expanding Al Quoz arts district. Among the new arrivals is the African art specialist Efie Gallery, which opens on 8 March with a solo exhibition of new work by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui.

El Anatsui (b. 1944), Detsi, 2022. Aluminium and copper. 300 x 800 cm. Image courtesy of Efie Gallery

El Anatsui (b. 1944), Detsi, 2022. Aluminium and copper. 300 x 800 cm. Image courtesy of Efie Gallery

‘The government is investing a huge amount of money, resources and expertise in Al Khayat Avenue,’ says Valentina Mintah, one of the gallery’s three co-founders. ‘As one of the first movers, we hope to capitalise on this investment and create a platform for collaboration and exchange between the two regions.’

Mintah cites the growing interest in West African art among collectors within the Middle East, especially Dubai, as another reason for opening there. ‘This appetite has been cultivated by institutions such as the Sharjah Art Foundation, The Africa Institute and the AKKA Project,’ she says. ‘With our focus on art from West Africa, we’re in a strong position to satiate this demand.’

‘Art Dubai reflects the breadth of communities in the city. You can see works by an Iranian, a Saudi, an Indian, a Pakistani, a Nigerian and a Latin American side by side’ — Pablo del Val

For Pablo del Val, artistic director of Art Dubai, the rich mix is what sets Dubai’s leading art fair apart from its competitors. ‘If we want to attract the international community, we cannot be a serial copy of a Western fair,’ he says, explaining that more than 50 per cent of the fair programme is drawn from the Global South.

‘Art Dubai reflects the breadth of communities living in the city,’ he continues. ‘You can see booths with works by an Iranian, a Saudi, an Indian, a Pakistani, a Nigerian and a Latin American side by side. In the West, you’d probably see one of those nationalities followed by five Westerners. The norm here is what is an exception elsewhere.’

Meem Gallery at Art Dubai, 2021. Photo Courtesy of Art Dubai and chrissified

Meem Gallery at Art Dubai, 2021. Photo: Courtesy of Art Dubai and chrissified

The largest edition to date of Art Dubai (11-13 March) will bring together more than 100 galleries from over 40 countries. Among the 33 newcomers are well-known international names such as Paris-based Galerie Julien Cadet, Keumsan Gallery from Seoul and Volte Art Projects, which opened an 8,000-square-foot space in Alserkal Avenue in September last year.

‘After 14 years in Mumbai, our programme had become very international, and it made sense for us to relocate to a much larger market and audience like Dubai,’ says Volte’s founder Tushar Jiwarajka. ‘Unlike in India, where most collectors tend to collect only Indian art, the market here is more open to international work.’

Dubai’s geography was another draw, he adds: ‘Volte’s presentations tend to be big, bold and iconic, which is made possible by the scale of the space we’ve come to call home at Alserkal Avenue.’

Raghava KK, Guernica IV, 2020. Acrylic on Canvas. 256 x 536cm. Photo courtesy of Volte Art Projects

Raghava KK, Guernica IV, 2020. Acrylic on Canvas. 256 x 536cm. Photo: courtesy of Volte Art Projects

For their Art Dubai debut, Volte will bring work by Wim Delvoye, Anish Kapoor and Studio Drift, among others. The presentation, Jiwarajka explains, will be split across two booths: one will be in the Contemporary section and will show a new work by Nalini Malani alongside her monumental Despoiled Shore; the other, in the Digital section, will feature a new digital iteration of Raghava KK’s The Guernica Project.

Art Dubai Digital and the appetite for NFTs

London’s Institut, Dubai-based Morrow Collective and Anna Laudel, which has outposts in Düsseldorf and Istanbul, are among the other exhibitors taking part in Art Dubai Digital, a new section that will provide a comprehensive introduction to this fast-developing area through curated displays and an extensive talks programme

‘Participating in the Digital section will allow us to better understand the new dynamics in the field,’ explains gallery director Anna Laudel. ‘It will also give us a chance to introduce our artists producing new-media works to a wide range of audiences.’

The gallery will be presenting new NFT works by Flóra Borsi and Sarp Kerem Yavuz, both of which will be exhibited for the first time.

Osinachi (b. 1991), Man in the Window, part of Block Party, a selling exhibition of NFTs held by Christie’s Dubai

Osinachi (b. 1991), Man in the Window, part of Block Party, a selling exhibition of NFTs held by Christie’s Dubai

Sarp Kerem Yavuz, Eller Hands, 2016. Print on Hahnemühle Luster Paper. 70 x 50 cm. Photo courtesy of Anna Laudel Gallery

Sarp Kerem Yavuz, Eller Hands, 2016. Print on Hahnemühle Luster Paper. 70 x 50 cm. Photo: courtesy of Anna Laudel Gallery

For Del Val, the section serves as an important bridge between the global crypto-sphere and the international art market.

‘With Dubai emerging as the capital of blockchain, the appetite for NFTs is only going to increase,’ says Del Val. ‘It’s crucial that all our collectors, digital and traditional, understand the blockchain, the vocabulary around NFTs, and the technology being used to create them. As one of the leading art fairs in the region, we are well positioned to offer this educational programme.’

Christie’s is also taking steps to engage the city’s burgeoning crypto community. Between 7 and 29 March, Christie’s Dubai will present Block Party, the first exhibition of NFTs in the region. Curated by Daria Borisova, it will explore the meteoric rise of NFTs over the past year, while examining the historical context from which they have emerged, alongside cryptocurrency, video art and virtual reality.

Nicole Ruggiero (b.1991), How long will you love me (2021)

Nicole Ruggiero (b.1991), How long will you love me? (2021)

Installed in the Dubai International Financial Centre, it will feature works by a selection of the world’s leading NFT artists, including Olive Allen, Justin Aversano and Rewind Collective. Among the highlights will be Nicole Ruggiero’s How long will you love me? (2021), above, and Man in the Window  by 30-year-old Osinachi, Africa’s foremost crypto artist.

Jewellery and watches

Christie’s is also presenting Rock Party (7-13 March), a selling exhibition of fine jewellery in collaboration with A2Z gallery. Alongside a curated selection of pieces from leading contemporary designers such as JAR, Sabba and Nikos Koulis will be jewels from historic houses including Cartier, Bulgari and Harry Winston.

Fancy vivid yellow diamond, emerald and pearl sautoir by JAR. Offered in Rock Party — A Selling Exhibition of Jewellery Wonders (7-13 March) at Christie’s in Dubai. Price on request
Fancy vivid yellow diamond, emerald and pearl sautoir by JAR. Offered in Rock Party — A Selling Exhibition of Jewellery Wonders (7-13 March) at Christie’s in Dubai. Price on request

Treasures on show include a fancy vivid yellow diamond, emerald and pearl sautoir by JAR (above) and a striking pair of emerald, diamond and black enamel earrings by Nikos Koulis (below).

‘There’s a very strong demand for jewellery in Dubai right now,’ explains Jeha of the curatorial thinking behind Rock Party. ‘Other luxury categories, including design, handbags and watches, are also enjoying an uptick in market interest.’

Emerald, diamond and black enamel earrings, Oui collection by Nikos Koulis. Offered in Rock Party — A Selling Exhibition of Jewellery Wonders (7-13 March) at Christie’s in Dubai. Price on request

Emerald, diamond and black enamel earrings, Oui collection by Nikos Koulis. Offered in Rock Party — A Selling Exhibition of Jewellery Wonders (7-13 March) at Christie’s in Dubai. Price on request

The strong performance of Christie’s Watches department in Dubai last year — achieving a record annual total of $24.5 million — is proof of this development. Watches Online: The Dubai Edit achieved $14.1 million, the highest total for any online watch sale at Christie’s. Among the notable results was a Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon Ref. 5002P-001, which sold for $1,590,000 to become the most expensive watch in the Middle East.

‘Dubai is an increasingly important hub for the watch-collecting community,’ notes Remy Julia, head of Watches at Christie’s in Dubai, ‘which gives sellers the assurance of achieving strong prices for exceptional pieces.’

The Rolex Daytona Rainbow and Richard Mille RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost, both offered in Watches Online The Dubai Edit, 15-29 March 2022

The Rolex Daytona Rainbow and Richard Mille RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost, both offered in Watches Online: The Dubai Edit, 15-29 March 2022

Highlights of the upcoming online sale (15-29 March) include a Richard Mille RM70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost, one of just 30 pieces created in partnership with the four-time Formula One champion; and a highly sought-after Rolex Daytona Rainbow, set with 36 baguette-cut sapphires in a gradation of colours around the bezel.

While digital solutions have proved a robust alternative to live events during the pandemic, Jeha thinks there will always be a place for physical experiences in the art business.

‘They are integral to building relationships, networking and experimentation,’ he says. ‘You just can’t replicate that one-to-one human connection.’

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Then, of course, there’s the increase in art-related transactions in the emirate. ‘Word has spread that people are doing big business in Dubai again,’ says Del Val. ‘Art is being bought and sold here like never before. It’s a thrilling time to be at the artistic helm of such a pivotal player in the region.’