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The Institutions Putting Arabia’s Art Scene on the Map

Thanks to increased investment and development, the Gulf’s exciting art scene is fast becoming one not to miss.

Les derviches tourneurs by Mahmoud Saïd

At the turn of the century, hardly anyone looked to the oil-rich nations of the Gulf for art and culture. The states, with their vast, barren desert landscapes, were better known for their Bedouin tribes and oases. While, for decades, there have been independent art scenes in each of the Gulf countries, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that a period of intense artistic and cultural development started – particularly in the UAE and backed by the government following the development of economic free zones. Prior to this, Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, and Tehran were considered the cultural destinations of the Middle East. While steeped in history and still encompassing rich milieus for the development of contemporary art, these cities have faded off the map due to conflict and complicated geopolitics. Today, following oil-fueled economic booms, government investments, and open immigration policies, the art world has turned its eyes to the Gulf as a place to discover art, new museums, and collectors.

Secret garden by Farhad Moshiri

Some of the first protagonists who have powered Arabia’s art scene include Art Jameel. Established by the Jameel family in Saudi Arabia in 2004, its initial projects were in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UK, the latter through the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Jameel Gallery and Jameel Prize for Islamic Art. In 2006, Christie’s opened in Dubai and hosted the first auction of modern and contemporary art in the Middle East. “When we opened our permanent office in Dubai as a hub for the overarching region, we felt the appetite, excitement for the arts, and the potential this market would allow us and followers to build an everlasting international platform for Middle Eastern art and artists,” says Michael Jeha, chairman of Christie’s Middle East. “The first art auction in the region, conducted by Christie’s in May 2006, helped bring cohesion and regionalized an art market that was previously more localized and then subsequently internationalized it, with increasing interest and participation by collectors and institutions around the world.”

Metropolis by Lubna Chowdhary

As the UAE’s migrant population continued to grow, a range of players in the form of galleries, cultural institutions, and collectors came on the scene, opening the country up to new experiences and viewpoints. The Third Line, a gallery founded by Claudia Cellini and Sunny Rahbar, opened in 2005 in Dubai’s industrial Al Quoz district. “There were no art fairs or any art institutions in Dubai,” says Rahbar. “There were two or three galleries only and not a very large collector base. There were also no art schools at the time. All of these things now exist and much more.” In 2008, Alserkal Avenue, a formerly sandy area of factories and warehouses in Al Quoz, was founded by Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal as a blossoming cultural district. It is where most galleries, The Third Line included, are located today. “When we embarked on our journey more than 10 years ago, the Dubai art scene was only starting to take root,” explains Alserkal director Vilma Jurkute. “Over the last decade, we’ve grown into an influential cultural organization, one that places cultural production and multidisciplinary practices at its heart.” Art Dubai was also inaugurated in 2008. A game-changer, the fair has driven an international crowd of leading art world professionals, collectors, and galleries to the emirate and continues to be one of the foremost fairs for contemporary art in the region.

S Eating Watermelon (2016) by Farah Al Qasimi

Then there’s the emirate of Sharjah, which has managed to establish itself as one of the liveliest contemporary art scenes in the region. The first Sharjah Biennial took place in 1993, organized by the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information. In 2003, it was reoriented by Sheikha Hoor bint Sultan Al Qasimi. In addition to her work at the Sharjah Art Foundation, of which she is president, she has put the emirate on the map through groundbreaking exhibitions that foster dialogue between artists from the region and abroad. Today, Sharjah is home to 16 museums. “It takes 10 years to get to a point of maturity in the art scene,” says Manal Ataya, director general of the Sharjah Museums Department. “We have built institutions that are becoming part of the fabric of our cities. We have had for our mission, like Alserkal, to become embedded with our communities.”

Al-Mulatham A (2011) by Ayman Baalbaki

As the art scene developed further, so did its activities outside the region. In 2009, the UAE became the first country in the Gulf to have a permanent pavilion at the Venice Biennial (Saudi Arabia inaugurated its permanent pavilion in 2019). Around the same time, Abu Dhabi began work on Saadiyat Cultural District, home now to the Norman Foster-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened at the end of 2017, and Manarat Al Saadiyat, the location of the annual Abu Dhabi Art fair, which recently hosted its 11th edition. The district soon awaits the completion of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum.

Kopf (1995) by Marwan Kassab Bachi

“With the rise of new institutions and foundations, enticing cultural events and educational activities in Gulf countries, notably the UAE and Saudi, we have witnessed the general public take an increased interest in the arts – be this literary, performing, or visual,” says Roxane Zand, deputy chairman of the Middle East for Sotheby’s. The auction house established its presence in the Gulf in 2006 and opened its showroom in Dubai in 2017.

Break of the atom and vegetal life (1962) by Fahrelnissa Zeid

The big question being asked is, are collectors buying Middle Eastern contemporary art? “Major foreign museums are acquiring more Middle Eastern art and appointing curators with a dedicated focus on this region,” says Zand. The Tate Modern, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art all have acquisitions committees dedicated to Middle Eastern art. And while Christie’s Dubai has moved its sales to London, its work over the last decade has led the scene to become “borderless,” explains Zand. The Gulf’s enterprising work in the field of art and culture is leading new visitors to the region, all the while setting the stage for enhanced intercultural dialogue and one that unites East and West.

An installation view of ‘Forever is a current event’ by Anuar Khalifi at The Third Line in Dubai (until March 2020)

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Vogue Man Arabia 

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