I started to write about the art scene in Dubai from as early as 2006. It was vastly different than now. Here is a preview of those early days for Time Magazine.
The handful of squat and humble warehouses that comprises Dubai's unofficial creative district bears little resemblance to the emirate's legendary multi-billion dollar skyline. But in just three years, around 30 galleries and cultural institutions have set up in this dusty neighborhood. In the process, they have helped inspire private and governmental initiatives designed to alter the perception that Dubai is nothing but a characterless, globalized marketplace of vulgar shopping malls and exploited workers.
The swell of creativity - in both fine art and commercial design - has been generated mostly by returning Dubai natives keen to reproduce cultural scenes they'd experienced while working or studying abroad. "When I came back to the city, I noticed no one was doing anything with the talent that existed here," says Sunny Rahbar, co-director of The Third Line gallery, one of the first spaces to exhibit local and regional artists. Within months of the gallery's September 2005 inaugural show, Christie's held its first auction here - garnering $8.5 million - and the Art Dubai fair was established.
Despite the boom in construction that took place before the global recession, there are few Dubai towers that offer space or facilities for artists. It was precisely for this reason Sheikha Lateefa Al Maktoum, daughter of the late ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, founded Tashkeel - an unassuming arts center comprised of exhibition spaces, painting and film studios, a darkroom and digital printing lab.
Maktoum's decision to establish Tashkeel was made while curating a graduate exhibit of up-and-coming Emirati artists. She quickly discovered nearly all those featured were working in isolation. "I felt a space that brought them together and created a community was needed in the U.A.E.," she says. The success of The Third Line gallery's growing roster of local artists served to underscore the need for Maktoum's own initiative. "All of a sudden there was a shift. People started looking at art as a commodity.
Similar endeavors to groom local talent have met with some success in the retail fashion sector - one of Dubaï's chief tourist attractions. Brand conscious punters traditionally comprised the main market, but in these less extravagant times there is greater appreciation for the local designers behind the merchandize at S*uce Boutique (pronounced Sauce). The growing number of loyal consumers has emboldened the owners to launch the S*uce Incubator, a project that recruits, manages and nurtures regional designers.
A similar initiative is taking place at Traffic, the Middle East's only contemporary design gallery and store, and the brainchild of Dubai-native Rami Farook. Here too, a growing group of regional unknowns is struggling to gain attention. Annual design competitions have confirmed Farook's earliest suspicions that the expertise not only exists in Dubai, but that it can also hold its own among the imported competition.
Farook put his faith to the test earlier this year, when he initiated Traffic's manufacturing division - producers of the city's first range of locally designed furniture. The brand new Dubai Culture and Arts Authority (DCAA) is meanwhile overseeing the implementation of new museums, and the development of the city's art and design talent. At the forefront of its agenda is the building of affordable housing and creating part-time employment for artists, as well as devising a feasible grant system.
The authority is also a driver of the UAE's participation at the Venice Biennale. In a bid to create a fresh image for the seven-member federation, DCAA director Dr. Lames Hamdan gave Berlin-based curator Tirdad Zolghadr carte blanche to fashion an 800 square-meter pavilion into a space that expresses artistic passion. Hamdan realizes the pavilion's title, It's Not You, It's Me, may come across as brash, but "It's about us, the U.A.E., and it's unapologetic," she says. "Like it or love it, this is who we are." Many cities that began life as mercantile enclaves - Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai - have gone on to develop thriving cultural scenes. There's no reason why Dubai can't flaunt its newfound creative talent either.