Beyond Safe

United Arab Emirates

Ask people to describe the cultural panorama of the United Arab Emirates and they are likely to conjure up images of Abu Dhabi’s pharaonic franchises of Western museums emerging amid seas of imported laborers. Dig a bit deeper and some will muster a thought about the Sharjah Biennial, the 22-year-old cavalcade of mostly discreet political art nestled in a staunchly conservative enclave. Art Dubai, the signature art fair of what it calls the “MENASA region,” unfolding yearly in the shadow of Dubai’s poster child hotel—the über-starred, sail-shaped Burj al-Arab—will certainly ring a bell. And the particularly seasoned visitor may convincingly portray Dubai’s gallery scene and its ebullient expansionism. Almost everyone you canvas will evoke censorship, ostentation, dubious labor laws and a soulless money-buys-everything worldview. No one will utter a word about artists. 

The UAE’s will to be taken seriously on the world cultural stage eclipses many of the more organic currents coursing through the country. The cultural landscape may be uniquely lopsided between the major emirates—erudite, demure Sharjah, the commercial dynamo of Dubai, Abu Dhabi with its starchitect-designed institutional behemoths—but invisible threads abound. This series of three essays aims to tease out and probe the forces that escape—for better or worse—the glitz-prone spotlight cultivated for international onlookers, and investors, and to introduce a curious readership to a nascent yet nuanced cultural scene that warrants consideration beyond reductive stereotypes. Welcome to the UAE arts ecosystem—a petri dish of contradictions, aspirations and discoveries.

It goes without saying that artists do not flock to the UAE as they might to Berlin, New York or even Beijing. Not unless they are fleeing excruciating conditions in neighboring homelands gripped by full-throttle strife—Iraq and Syria, most recently—or seeking refuge in a state with nimbler freedom-of-expression laws than more heavy-handed regional locations. Emblematic of the latter are Iranian brothers Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh, who, in 2009, opted for exile in Dubai following a police brouhaha in their native Tehran sparked by the inclusion of Ramin’s polemical “Men of Allah” series (2007–08) in the Saatchi Gallery show “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East” that same year. The presence of such exiled creative spirits on the UAE scene adds depth to a small but surprisingly layered artistic community. 

The historical bedrock lies four-decades deep, with the Emirati artists who first ushered contemporary art into the fledgling nation in the 1980s—most notably, Hassan Sharif, who led the so-called Group of Five (which also included Mohammed Kazem, Abdullah al-Saadi, Hussain Sharif and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim)—as well as the many artists active since then, some of whom Sheikha Hoor bint Sultan al-Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, has rounded up in her role as curator of the UAE Pavilion for this year’s 56th Venice Biennale. 

One layer up from this foundation is a cluster of internationally visible Emirati and regional artists living in the country—the likes of the Haerizadehs and frequent collaborator Hesam Rahmanian, former Hassan Sharif and Mohammed Kazem protégée Ebtisam Abdulaziz and Saudi-born, Dubai-based Manal al-Dowayan—who have benefited from their predecessors’ trailblazing work of sculpting a local audience for contemporary art in the utterabsence of institutional context. “I wasn’t just making art,” Sharif told me in a March 2015 interview, referring to the reception of his Fluxus-inspired “actions” from the early 1980s. “I was making an audience. And my discourse was directed at the youth.” Today’s youth constitutes a new generation of Emirati artists—Chelsea College-trained sculptor Shaikha al-Mazrou, for example, or former Delfina Foundation artist-in-residence Shamma al-Amri—who rub shoulders with a panoply of expatriate artists, whether born in the UAE, or having emigrated to the country for professional reasons. 

These early-career artists offer perhaps the richest vantage point from which to plumb the ecosystem: buoyed by the groundwork of generations past, they have been set adrift into the whirlwind of brisk commercial and institutional development, as the UAE fast-tracks itself to cultural credibility. Yet far from idly hoping for the “big break” of a gallery show, or being lured into a standard art-market endgame, their trails through the UAE cultural landscape reveal a land of creative opportunity—precisely because no framework exists. I sat down with three of these early-career, UAE-based artists against the backdrop of the ongoing Alserkal Avenue gallery district’s expansion project—a fitting environment, it seemed to me, to discuss how ecosystems flourish while infrastructures are still, quite literally, under construction. 

Installation view of ROKNI HAERIZADEH, RAMIN HAERIZADEH and HESAM RAHMANIAN’s (left) Break Free, (back) Madame Tussauds III, (bottom) Untitled (Floor 3) (all works 2015), at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde’s booth during Art Dubai, 2015. Courtesy Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai. 

When we met, Dubai-born Pakistani architect-cum-artist Sharmeen Syed was in the throes of finishing new work for her A.i.R Dubai residency, jointly sponsored by Art Dubai, the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, local nonprofit Tashkeel and London-based Delfina Foundation. A longtime researcher and architect at the Sharjah Art Foundation, Syed revels in 21st-century urbanism and the experiential nature of space. Another of our interlocutors, Beirut-born Indian artist Vikram Divecha, a decadelong Dubai resident, works with informal economies and what he calls “found processes” in his installations. Awardee of the Middle East Emergent Artist Prize in 2014, Divecha had work featured in two local group shows shortly after our conversation—“A Public Privacy,” curated by Mohammed Kazem and Cristiana de Marchi in Dubai, and “Accented” at Sharjah’s Maraya Art Center, curated by Murtaza Vali. Our third partner in conversation was Walid al-Wawi, a Dubai-born-and-bred Palestinian artist, who focuses on performance in which he wrestles with notions of hiding and disappearance. He performed a FIAC-commissioned work, The Grasshopper, at the Paris fair in 2014.

Against the din of bulldozers and the industrious to-and-fro of worksite denizens, our conversation meandered through subjects such as career, audience, inspiration, criticality, education, experimentation and censorship. Reading between the lines of our exchanges, certain advantages seem clear. Support systems, both obvious and unsung, exist. The commercial gallery surfeit in Dubai, relative to other emirates, and Art Dubai’s year-on-year steady growth mean artists can have “day jobs” in the arts and still sustain their practices. The Salama bint Hamdan al-Nahyan Foundation, a low-profile, high-impact Abu Dhabi-based initiative, offers fellowships and mentorship programs to young artists, but also pays for studios, supplies and eventually underwrites further arts education. Both Divecha and al-Wawi have passed through its intensive courses. “The institutions are very generous,” remarks al-Wawi. “They remove the financial pressure. You feel invested, because you are part of something bigger.” The Sharjah Art Foundation offers a studio grant for space in the Foundation’s new facilities, while Campus Art Dubai, an educational offshoot of the commercial fair, provides sustenance of a more intellectual ilk—a vital inter-artist forum for critique and exchange. “Critical debate has become an aspiration,” reveals Syed. “You orchestrate meetings around that; you provoke it. That’s what we are looking for.” For the moment though, such debate tends to be an artists-only affair. “It’s still very closed,” observes Divecha. “If these discussions would seep out beyond the closed doors, everyone would benefit.” 

Oddly, though, what these artists seem to prize most in the lay of the UAE cultural land, many would perceive as game-changing shortcomings. “I did a residency recently in Beirut,” recounts Divecha. “In comparison, the UAE is arid. It is stark. It is utterly frugal in what it gives you. And that’s the interesting challenge. There is a territorial notion to my practice here, and I’m beginning to value that.” All three artists see merit—even excitement—in the scene’s nascent-ness. “You can test and experiment because there isn’t a rigid art policy,” enthuses Syed. “It’s an open space,” al-Wawi agrees. “An artist can easily jump in and have an existence.” 

Ultimately, the artists are not alone in celebrating the thrill of inclusion in a from-the-ground-up movement. Sharjah-born, Brooklyn-based curator and educator Murtaza Vali, a tutor at this year’s Campus Art Dubai, values the contact with artists in the program. “I would never have been able to know their practices so deeply,” he admits. “It was a very organic, real critical space—like being on the inside of something that is just starting.” That such a forum is provided by the premier commercial motor of the UAE arts scene is perhaps testament to Art Dubai fair director Antonia Carver’s sincere commitment to educational outreach and the elastic roles commercial structures can take on in this context. 

But what happens when the scene matures, when the educational investment starts to pay off? Will these young, local artists still bask in the convivial flame of a noncompetitive community, free of hard-line manifestos and divisive schools of artistic thought? “Already, the galleries here ‘import’ their artists, for the most part,” says Divecha, referencing a generally sporadic gallery investment in younger, UAE-based artists. “But within 10 years or less, the UAE can be a place of export, in a cultural sense. That’s what we are working toward.” There are no galleries, for example, that exclusively focus on homegrown artists.

As Dubai keeps its eyes fixed on the 2020 World Expo and the expected financial boon of hosting the event, it is not just the emirate’s businesses that will be bolstered by the spike in international exposure: the entire UAE will be increasingly thrust into the cultural limelight as museums shore up, galleries blossom and fairs and biennials draw increasing visitor numbers. Will this exposure bring an end to the halcyon days of working within a nascent arts ecology? “This is not a happy period,” counters al-Wawi. “It is a safe period. We need that discerning eye from outside to force critical thinkers and new publications to appear. There will be a time when it is not acceptable to be safe anymore. This is something we should all look forward to.” 

In the next issue Galleries, Institutions and Foundations.