- The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture – Open Calls as of ...
- Some of the first favourites at Art Dubai....
- Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi to be the curator of the UAE Venice B...
- First edition of the Gulf Music Festival at the Archive, Dub...
- And an interesting question mark from Isabelle van den Eynde...
Dubai is the second most important Emirate of the UAE, and its largest city. As an Emirate without much oil or other natural resources, its wealth is based on its intelligent positioning in regional and global networks of trade, finance, industry and services. The population of Dubai stood at little less than 1.8 million in 2009, almost all of them within the city of Dubai (there are no other sizeable towns in the Emirate, with the exception of the port city Jebel Ali).
Of the 1.8 million residents only 17% are UAE nationals, i.e. 300.000. The rest are from India (750.000 at least), Pakistan (about 280.000) and other South and East Asian countries (about 250.000: mainly Bangladeshi and Filipino); the remaining 220.000 inhabitants are mostly from Iran, other Arab countries and the West. The city has the Arabian peninsula’s largest Western expatriate population. With a birth rate of 13 % and such large numbers of migrant workers, the average age in Dubai is 27. There is almost no unemployment. Dubai’s main trade partner is India.
Dubai ranked 8th among global destinations in 2010 (UNWTO), making it the Middle East’s most visited city, just behind Hong Kong but before Bangkok. Indeed, since at least the 19th century Dubai has done its best to attract the Gulf’s merchant community; now it is successfully doing this at a global level. The city’s ability to attract tourists (5% of GDP) is quite astonishing, given that it originally had little to offer (a hot featureless desert, brackish waters of the Gulf and no cultural history – at least in comparison to other tourist destinations). In fact, besides the luxury resorts for tourists and (apparently) great shopping opportunities the expansion of the city itself has become a touristic attraction.
The architect of this success story is the Al Maktoum ruling family; like the Al Nahyan from neighboring Abu Dhabi they belong to the Bani Yas tribal confederation. They have ruled the Emirate since 1833. The current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum has been in power since 2005, although as crown prince he has been influential since 1995.
The wealth of Dubai’s citizens, including the royal family, is mostly derived from investments in real estate and business ventures. This sets them apart from oil-rich Gulf Emirates: Dubai’s wealth is built on relations, not on natural resources. The laissez-faire attitude which exists generally among Gulf Arabs has become the basis of the Emirate’s impressive development since the 1970s.
Contemporary Art Scene
Dubai’s art scene is almost entirely privately funded, with little government support. Plans have been announced for a publicly funded ‘modern art’ museum and an opera house in the (new) downtown Dubai, close to the Burj al Khalifa skyscraper. It seems likely that these venues, announced by the ruler Sheikh Mohammed himself, will be built – unlike previously announced projects for opera houses and museums. So far the local art community, however, does not know much about what kind of art the museum will focus on, how the collection will be established etc. The Dubai government does realize the importance of the arts sector – in the new city to be built outside Business Bay, Mohammed Bin Rashid (MBR City), one of the four announced developments is ‘Cultural Crossing’, “the largest area for art galleries in the Middle East and North Africa – “but it has apparently decided to leave its development, like that of the rest of the city, to private initiative.
The Dubai art scene is therefore gallery-based. Galleries are concentrated in the Al Quoz industrial area and in the Dubai International Finance Center’s ‘Gate Village’. Other galleries and some cultural institutions are to be found in the Al Fahidi heritage village (previously known as Bastakiyya) along Dubai’s creek, and there are some scattered throughout the town, in malls and shopping areas.
The great catalyzing event for the local art scene is the Dubai Art Week, centered on the fair Art Dubai, which takes place every year around the 21st of March (the Persian New Year). Initiated in 2007, the art fair is accompanied every year by Design Days Dubai, the Global Art Forum, Sikka in Al Fahidi for younger artists and other non-commercial events.
Interestingly the commercial art scene is spawning a non-commercial art sector. Collectors like Farhad Farjam, Ramin Salsali and Rami Farook have turned into patrons, supporting artists and creating private museums/showings of their work. Galleries engage their public with art education and offer residencies or experimental platforms for artists, from the Emirates and abroad.
The Dubai art scene has been initiated and is managed mostly by non-Emiratis. The large expat Iranian population may form the core group, but Lebanese, Palestinians and other Arabs, as well as English and other Europeans, all participate in it. Galleries from Mumbai and Lahore have joined the fray. But Emirati artists, collectors and cultural managers are increasingly present in the local art world, thanks to improved education, the growing awareness of art and the sense of opportunity.
Artistic Exchange Opportunities
For artists, especially those who have reached a certain professional maturity but are not content with the Western art world, there’s much to gain from visiting Dubai’s art scene. A different, more youthful kind of energy flows through the city. Many of the galleries have artists and mount exhibitions which agree with the highest international standards, without becoming stale as a result. To the contrary, innovation and experiment – and speculation – are more lucrative in this city than following set patterns. This is true for the art world as it is true for the rest of the city.
There are some residency opportunities and some possibilities to teach at one of the local art schools (Campus Art Dubai is a new development), but the most fruitful exchange opportunities come through personal contacts with the movers and shakers of the art world. Documenting, analyzing and intellectually structuring the rapidly evolving Dubai/Gulf art world is one area in which there may be a need for exchange. But these intellectual endeavors have to be oriented towards practical objectives. Since there is no government funding for artistic opportunities, and most foreign funds would not subsidize projects in rich Dubai, artistic exchange must be accompanied by some kind of notion of mutual benefit (not necessarily in monetary terms).
The Dubai art world is increasingly self-confident, and there’s no point coming to the city to teach the inhabitants a lesson. There is polite patience with Western artists coming to exploit the theme of the Asian migrant worker, or with Western art critics bemoaning the lack of culture and taste, but not much interest in exchange with them. For Dubai is too buoyant to engage in self-chastising activities. The city has much to offer the visitor, notably interesting perspectives on what the future may hold in store for us. Exchange should thus go both ways. Most of the Western art world could well do with a shot of Dubai energy.
The best time to go to Dubai is in March, during the art week. The time to avoid is the summer, because it is exceedingly hot and the art world here, as its counterpart elsewhere, is on vacation. September can also be a good option, for the cultural season kicks off then, or November, during Art Abu Dhabi.
Taxis are easy to find and reliable, but many taxi drivers don’t know the venues or galleries; so make sure you have the directions (useful directions are given on the page of each venue listed here) and preferably also the phone number of the place you’re visiting to guide the taxi drivers.
The Dubai metro is efficient, and at most metro stations one will easily find a taxi to get to the final destination. The metro reflects the true cosmopolitan nature of the city, without the griminess associated with most Western underground transportation systems. The announcements are in English as well as Arabic.
Do not attempt walking between the artistic hotspots, or even between the metro station and one’s final destination, for with the exception of the pedestrian areas and the older city areas of Deira and Bur Dubai, the city is notably pedestrian-unfriendly.
You must carefully select the location of your hotel in relation to the places you’ll be visiting, as distances can be daunting and rush-hour traffic slow. My personal preference is to stay in Bur Dubai, as it is well-connected and offers amenities within walking distance like cheap computer shops, grocers and Indian restaurants, as well as the occasional late-night bar. But if your main purpose is to visit the art fair and Al Quoz, a hotel in Barsha might be a better option. For the well-off a room in Madinat Jumeirah, the complex where Art Dubai takes place, is advisable. It may seem tacky but it is very comfortable and the sprawling complex has many amenities, including the beach, scores of restaurants, an interesting souq and all the leisure facilities one may expect.
Alcohol is easily found in bars, but don’t expect it at most openings, for alcohol consumption remains a culturally sensitive issue. Public drunkenness must be avoided at all costs – you don’t want to be associated with the white trash that flocks to Dubai for their holidays.
As the rest of the Gulf, Dubai is perfectly safe. You don’t have to worry about your personal safety, and not too much about your personal belongings.
Written by: RobertK