Changing the art landscape in the UAE
This feature was commissioned and published in Shawati Magazine, Issue 45
It was a truly significant milestone when the Jameel Arts Centre opened its doors in November, 2018. As the crowds of art world professionals gathered at the building’s creek-side location on Dubai’s Jaddaf Waterfront for the official opening, Antonia Carver, Art Jameel’s director made her opening remarks and outlined the centre’s mission: “to present dynamic, thought provoking exhibitions, act as a hub for educational research initiatives and continue to engage in partnerships with local, regional and international artists, curators and organisations.”
Then, attendees began to explore the ten gallery spaces spread across the vast 10,000 square metre premises, not forgetting to take in the artificial botanical garden – actually an art commission – by Kuwaitis Alia Farid and Aseel AlYaqoub, situated on the upper terrace.
Later, a light show by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde’s signalled the end to the evening’s events and effectively sealed the deal on what many people will remember as a pivotal moment in history for the UAE’s art scene. After all, it was really about time that Dubai got its own institution. Although the emirate has long been ahead of the game in terms of commercial galleries, it has lacked an institution and non-profit exhibition space. For the past decade, this void in Dubai has been soaked up by its closest neighbours in Sharjah with the Sharjah Art Foundation producing world class biennials as well as robust year-round programming but since last year, when Louvre Abu Dhabi opened and gave the institutional infrastructure in the capital a massive boost, Dubai really needed to fill its ever-more-obvious gap.
The three-storey, low-rise building designed by UK-based Serie Architects does just that. The new centre will function as a museum space for Art Jameel’s significant collection, as well as, crucially, the collection of works commissioned by the Abraaj Group Art Prize over the past 10 years. It will also offer a respectable, internationally recognised platform for local and regional artists. For the inauguration, the centre’s several Artist’s Rooms featured four solo exhibitions by eminent artists from the Middle East and Asia: Maha Malluh, Lala Rukh, Chiharu Shiota and Mounira Al Solh. These rooms will provide a series of rotating exhibitions that focus on a single artist represented in the Art Jameel Collection. Whilst Malluh’s installation Food For Thought has been shown in several locations around the world prior to its unveiling in the first room of the Jameel Arts Centre’s ground floor, it is a statement to include a Saudi artist in such a prominent position and her work, an assortment of burnt aluminium cooking pots hanging on the wall alongside towers of further culinary pans assembled in rickety towers in the centre space, is certainly arresting for visitors seeing it for the first time.
Lala Rukh’s minimal presentation of sound and imagery depicts her mother’s heartbeat in the last year of her life and is beautifully presented in a darkened and intimate space. However, probably the most popular work, (at least in terms of social media photographs) is the room filled with the blood-red threads of Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s commissioned work Departure. Drawing inspiration from Dubai’s maritime history the installation consists of a wooden abra boat sitting amid a web-like structure of woolen threads representing human connections and movement.
Spread across five galleries on the second floor, the group exhibition, Crude considers the complex theme of oil within both historic and contemporary contexts. Curated by Murtaza Vali, the show includes some photographs from the 1950s and 1960s by Iraqi photographer Latif Al Ani depicting the social, cultural and architectural changes brought on by newfound oil wealth as well as Rayyane Tabet’s Steel Rings (The Shortest Distance Between Two Points), which delves into the history of the trans-Arabian pipeline that ran underground from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon. Vali says the exhibition is an attempt to use oil as a vehicle to talk about Arab modernism as well as to investigate the wider context of the fuel, so often referred to as black gold. “One of the ideas of the exhibition is to approach oil as something that produced history and modernity as well as the social and cultural conditions of the now. I have made great efforts to move outside the narrative of simply geopolitics and economics,” he said.
Therefore, the exhibition covers the petrochemical industry and plastics through Hassan Sharif’s artwork that consists of a pile of rubber slippers as well as colonialism through a video work by Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck. Perhaps one of the most compelling works is a series of hand-blown glass sculptures by Michael John Whelan created from sand collected at historic oil well sites off the coast of Abu Dhabi first discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the early 1950s. “I want there to be moments of cognitive dissonance when the audience are forced to think about how each piece relates to oil,” said Vali by way of explanation for these bubbly, transparent works of art.
Even this comprehensive exhibition is not all the Jameel Arts Centre has to offer. It also houses the UAE’s first open-access contemporary arts library and resource centre, which is filled with a comprehensive, bilingual collection of more than 2,000 books, journals, catalogues and theses and, outside on the waterfront, is the country’s first arts-themed public park where exhibited works reflect on the themes of nature, atmosphere, transformation, immersion, and geometry. They include installations by Emirati land artist Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, British sculptor David Nash, American sculptor Helaine Blumenfeld, and Dubai-based artists Talin Hazbar and Latifa Saeed.
In a country that often prides itself on superlatives and firsts, there are many reasons for Jameel Arts Centre to demand attention but the overall effect on the artistic landscape will be slow and steady as it slots right into Dubai’s multifaceted horizons. As Carver concludes: “It would have seemed inconceivable in the early 2000s, but now Dubai is the ideal site for a contemporary art museum that embraces both the local and the international, and does not see these positions as binary, but intertwined.”
Jameel Arts Centre, Al Jaddaf Waterfront, Dubai. Sat - Thurs 10am-8pm, Fridays 10am-10pm