Where is There?

United Arab Emirates
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

It is eerily fitting that the final exhibition by Dubai’s The Third Line gallery in the space it has called home for the past nine years should be entitled “The Sands of Time.” French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira’s photographic meditation on the worldwide sugar trade spoke metaphorically of uneasy impermanence, of endless shifting and resettling, and of the frail traces left behind by our transient presence. The Third Line, a pioneer when it set up its space in the Al Quoz industrial area nearly a decade ago, is now poised to move to the newly expanded Alserkal Avenue arts “neighborhood” only a stone’s throw away. Memory and mobility, then, were silent invitees as “The Sands of Time” was being installed and my guests for the second United Arab Emirates (UAE) arts ecosystem conversations settled into a space punctuated by bubble-wrapped plinths and unmanned ladders.

The “backstage” feel of the swansong white cube, as Sedira’s show took shape, was an apt frame for our animated exchanges on the work-in-progress nature of the UAE’s cultural ecology. For this second dive into the Emirates’ art ecosystem, I united people working in three distinct sectors—the commercial, the institutional and the nonprofit. On the commercial front, joining The Third Line co-founder Sunny Rahbar was Antonia Carver, director of the nine-year-strong Art Dubai fair. Institutions were represented by Maya Allison, director and chief curator of the recently opened New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery (NYUAD Art Gallery), and Giuseppe Moscatello, artistic director of Sharjah’s Maraya Art Center, a government-funded institution distinguished for its year-round programming of curated shows. Khulood Khaldoon al-Atiyat joined us from Abu Dhabi-based Salama bint Hamdan al-Nahyan Foundation where she leads the Emerging Artist Fellowship initiative, and Sharjah Art Foundation was represented by Sheikha Nawar bint Ahmad bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, public programming and outreach officer. Our sine-curve-like conversation—peaks of brisk debate offset by lulls of mulled-over monologue—followed a surprisingly neat chronology. After evoking the oft-neglected precedents of today’s cultural configuration, the group wrestled with the ongoing process of cultivating audiences and the interrelatedness of their building processes, before concluding with stabs at what our near-future ecosystem might resemble. While distinct echoes of my previous conversation with early-career artists rebounded through the discussion, this perspective was entirely fresh and folded into a story that was evenly told—a long overdue stocktaking of our cultural surrounds by the very thought leaders who sculpt it.

To understand the lay of the cultural land today, you need to step back for a moment to the UAE of the early 2000s. The Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi—a culture and arts center opened in 1981 housing the first national library—was in its programming heyday. Here, a majlis culture reigned: impromptu forums for open, critical discussions were as vital as the books and art. The Emirates Film Competition, founded in 2001 before coming under the auspices of the (recently disbanded) Abu Dhabi Film Festival as it rose to regional prominence, was a platform for burgeoning Emirati and Gulf-based filmmakers. In Dubai, perhaps more organically, the alternative New York-based publication Bidoun not only provided sharp, “on the ground” cultural coverage thanks to local contributors (Antonia Carver among them), it also concocted nights of poetry and art in what felt very much like an underground scene. The Third Line opened in 2003 in a Jumeirah villa, and I distinctly remember a visit the following year to this inchoate yet cozy space where Farhad Moshiri canvases were propped against a living room wall. The Sharjah Biennial, already providing a depth of programming to the wider region since 1993, suddenly hoisted itself to a new level in 2003 under the stewardship of fresh Slade School of Fine Art graduate Sheikha Hoor bint Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi and curator Peter Lewis.

“That biennial changed everything,” recalls Sunny Rahbar, about the 2003 edition. “That was the moment we felt like something was happening.” Seen from Dubai, where no such institutional framework existed, the effects of the increasingly influential Sharjah Biennial were enormous. Regional and international galleries whose artists had been solicited for the Biennial slowly put the Emirates on their radar—a godsend for a fair such as Art Dubai, which launched in 2006, the same year Christie’s set up shop in the emirate. “At that time,” Carver explains, “there was a sense of an ecology developing. We were all giving confidence to each other.”

(Left to right) Sunny Rahbar, Maya Allison, Giuseppe Moscatello, Khulood Khaldoon al-Atiyat, Kevin Jones, Antonia Carver and Sheikha Nawar bint Ahmad bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, in the second of three conversations on the arts infrastructure in the United Arab Emirates, convened at The Third Line, Dubai, 2015. Photo by and courtesy Ekta Saran.

Ingenuity was the watchword in the nascent ecology. The UAE’s educational infrastructure was shoring up in parallel to the creative one. The first classes were graduating from the universities, many of which had only been established in the 1990s, their ranks swelling since study abroad was made difficult in a post-9/11 world of stricter immigration. Alongside this was the “brain gain” as free-zone clusters such as Internet City and Media City attracted young talent. The developing creative structures fed off the energy of this “new blood” ejected into the landscape. “The exciting thing about being involved at that time,” Carver explains, “was to reimagine what a fair or a gallery could be.”

Reimagining the gallery, for Rahbar, meant developing programming beyond the white cube. “We had to function as a business,” she recalls, “but we knew it wasn’t enough. We had to participate as well. We would screen films and people would come. Later, they would stay and discuss the films.” This organic groundswell of public interest fuelled initiatives that now seem oddly institutionalized—Art Dubai’s yearly residencies, artist commissions or the Global Art Forum series of curated talks and debates among them. “It’s something the ICA in London would do,” says Carver.

While the roots of the art “scene” may be some two decades deep, they are still vulnerable to a rewriting of history, victim to what Carver incisively calls the “washing machine mentality” of a high-transience city such as Dubai. “We were running so fast through the 2000s that there was no sense of what came before,” she bemoans. “New people come in and claim, ‘This is the first time this has ever been done.’ It goes around and around without anyone thinking that it is actually part of a lineage.”

Continuity is key to the wider building process that pre-occupies not only Dubai but also Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. If, in institution-less Dubai, the galleries and fair stepped in to fill the gaps, its neighbors, who pale in commercial comparison, tell an entirely different tale of institution building. Opened in late 2014, the NYUAD Art Gallery is a unique format in the UAE. Neither collecting institution nor commercial space, it would most resemble a Kunsthalle were it not for the fact that it will also program historical shows. “I looked at what the ecosystem still needed when I was formulating the NYUAD Art Gallery vision,” explains Maya Allison. “I saw we had the seeds, but where were we not seeding?” The answer was smaller, exploratory, scholarly exhibitions that are not hinged on sales. “These are not necessarily crowd-pleasers,” she admits, “and that’s my mandate. My job is to ask questions and prompt the audience to ask themselves questions.” Looking to riff off Sharjah Art Foundation’s year-round education programming or Art Dubai’s Campus Art Dubai, an informal art school created in 2013, Allison sees her institution as vital to the whole. “These are each different kinds of trees we are growing that feed the intellectual economy around art,” she states. Believing the advent of museums in Abu Dhabi will somehow keep the bar high in terms of exhibition quality, she looks forward to a future of increasingly experimental shows.

Similarly, Khulood Khaldoon al-Atiyat explains how the Emerging Artist Fellowship grew from perceived shortcomings in the ecosystem. Not wanting to replicate anyone else’s efforts, “we led focus groups with artists,” she says. “Their input indicated that a fellowship would be the perfect way to anchor them strongly as artists, post-graduation, in a long-term career approach.” One of the immediate benefits of the Fellowship, a partnership with the Rhode Island School of Design in the United States, is the critical assessment provided by faculty and, increasingly, fellow artists. “Once they are exposed to that,” al-Atiyat enthuses, “there is no retreating from it.”

Yet almost every participant bemoans the dearth of criticism in the UAE. Allison is quick to contextualize this as a function of a simultaneous, interdependent building process that is still incomplete: to have critics you need shows; to have shows, you need artists; to understand museum practices you need to live them. “We all have to keep building at the same time; we can’t build one and then the other.”

Audience-building remains everyone’s most daunting task. Sharjah tackles it with a near-democratic community engagement. “We listen to our audiences,” explains al-Qasimi. “They come and tell us what they need. The Foundation tries to fill the gaps but also to experiment. Our education program started with workshops, and the numbers were crazy.” Giuseppe Moscatello of Maraya Art Center echoes this micro-level interaction. “Engaging with the community was the mandate,” he states. “In Maraya, we not only have community activities, but also public art that engages with people in the street”—a reference to the Maraya Art Park, the cornerstone of which is Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal’s installation The Hierarchy of Being (2013). Demystifying art, making it unintimidating for the layperson, altering the impression that there are always commercial strings attached—such are the steps Sharjah Art Foundation takes through public performances and nonpermanent commissioned works for the Biennial, from Maider Lopez’s Football Field (2009) to Gary Simmons’s cricket pitch for this year’s Sharjah Biennial 12. “It’s about changing the landscape,” says al-Qasimi. “If we had art in the public space, people would just ignore it.”

Eyeing the potential new audiences her gallery’s upcoming Alserkal-bound shift will bring, Rahbar glows with enthusiasm. “We will meet a whole new group of people who have never come before,” she exclaims. “There are a lot of people who don’t even know this is happening.” On the job of educating a new, larger pool of art neophytes that Alserkal hopes to attract, she harks back to the gallery’s early years, its impromptu screenings and organic outreach—oddly returning, in its maturity, to where it started. “It’s an interesting time to reconnect with the community,” she says. “To have the discourse we were trying to have ten years ago in a smaller space.”

So what remains urgent? What is needed for the immediate future of the growing ecosystem? UAE-based collectors, for one. “Local galleries tell me their whole year depends on the fair in March,” reveals Carver. “The commercial sector needs the support of local small-scale institutions, patrons and collectors … collecting seriously.” Rahbar concurs: “We cannot rely on the same ten collectors.”

It is a similar story for artists. Current immigration procedures in the UAE require residents to hold a job, so the country does not, at the moment, act as a home to artists earning a living from their art—acting rather like a site of import and transit. “I hope they come up with an artist’s visa,” Rahbar proclaims, “so artists can live and work here without a job. Once that happens, you can go on proper studio visits. And galleries will start to show fewer and fewer Middle Eastern artists and more international ones.” Carver, however, shared experiences from Campus Art Dubai of young artists from Pakistan and India making deliberate choices to come and settle here: finagling visas, yes; but convinced of the country’s artist-centric opportunities.

“Looking at Sharjah ten years back,” reminds al-Qasimi, “it was where the artists were. Everything that is happening now grew from that.” The future of the UAE’s scene seems to teeter between this deepening sense of history on the one hand—the importance of looking back, of highlighting lineage, of building a collective archive—and of emerging practices and places on the other. “I foresee more synergy between the emirates,” says al-Qasimi. “It won’t just be about Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Emirates like Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah will also create activities for their own communities, not necessarily modeled on what they see here.” Already, the Sharjah Art Foundation is spreading further afield with the establishment of a film school and exhibition spaces on the emirate’s eastern coast, neighboring both Fujairah and Oman.

Speak to most people about cultural evolution in the UAE and you are greeted with a common refrain: “There’s so much to do before we get there.” Repeat this to the people who are actually shaping this ecosystem, and you will ruffle their feathers. Wary of comparing, importing and replicating, they consider themselves active stakeholders in homegrown organizations that are responding directly to the specificity of the UAE. “This is an act of innovation,” reassures Carver. “Art Dubai will never be Art Basel, nor does it care to be.” Reacting to the notions of comparison and model-following latent in the idea of “getting there,” Allison probes further. “Where is there? If you look around, we’re already there. The ghost question is: where do we want to be?” 

GARY SIMMONS, Across the Chalk Line, 2015, site-specific installation, 46 × 38 m, for Sharjah Biennial 12, 2015.
Photo by Alfredo Rubio. Courtesy the artist and Sharjah Art Foundation.