How Dubai is embracing its artistic side in 2022
Painters, sculptors and muralists are being commissioned to fill a new generation of galleries, deck the walls of skyscraper hotels and line the streets with surprisingly edgy public art.
During her 18-year stint as a curator and gallery owner in Dubai, Mona Hauser has experienced some surprising encounters. One notable incident involved an exhibition by an Iranian artist, which featured abstract female forms.
“We were wary of hanging nudes on the wall,” explains the elegantly dressed American, as we sip coffee in the courtyard of XVA, her boutique hotel, shop and exhibition space. “So, I decided to install them in a separate area with a caution sign.”
Despite Mona’s best intentions, however, an early visitor arrived before any warnings had been put in place. After taking a swift look at the explicit artwork, the woman, “who was very much covered up” demanded to speak to the artist.
“She walked straight up to her and didn’t say hello or anything,” recalls Mona. “But just demanded: ‘Will you paint my portrait?’”
Freedom of expression isn’t a principle you’d expect to find easily exercised in a country associated with strict Sharia laws. But attitudes in the UAE’s most progressive Emirate are rapidly changing, allowing a dynamic creative arts scene to take shape. At the end of 2020, political reforms declared drinking without a licence and cohabiting outside of marriage were no longer illegal. And recently, it was announced censorship of risqué films would be dropped and replaced with a 21+ certification.
When Mona moved to Dubai from Florida in 1993, there were few galleries and no university art courses. But she sensed an energy in the self-made, showy city and wanted to tap into an arty underground she knew must exist. “There’s an underground everywhere, right?” she laughs.
By showcasing art made in Dubai — “not just by Emiratis, but anyone working here” — XVA has become one of the leading forces in a flourishing art scene “that’s gone through the ceiling” in the last few years.
“Dubai has really put itself on the map,” Mona tells me, while running her manicured fingers through a rail of vintage abayas, sold alongside Egyptian alabaster pots and rugs made from recycled bedspreads in the gallery’s store. “It’s such a hub. A lot of people are refugees here; we’re all learning from each other every day,” she says.
XVA is an inviting warren of hidden rooms, labyrinthine corridors and shady terraces; a former residence built in the late 1880s by a prominent family of retailers. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s current prime minister, allegedly used to tie his horse to a sprawling banyan tree in the courtyard. Today, artists come to paint the tree’s leafy tendrils, wafting like angel hair in the breeze.
One of Dubai’s few heritage neighbourhoods, the 18th-century stone walls of Al Fahidi exude a worn-out, weathered charm. A muddle of shops screaming with colourful silk saris and garish 22-carat gold jewellery lines the 15-minute walk from the metro station, but inside the mini medina, narrow alleys decorated with modern murals form a tasteful artists’ enclave.
Behnoosh Feiz, an Iranian-born interior designer/artist has a residency a few doors down at Tashkeel — a private institution supporting emerging artists. I find her in a blinding white courtyard sketching at an easel. Fascinated with geometric shapes and overlapping circles, she says her work focuses on the mystery of creation. What looks like a Venn diagram, she tells me enthusiastically, could be an eye or even a vagina.
Her days seem enviously free-flowing but she admits it’s not easy to be a fledgling artist in Dubai. “It’s not a very cost-effective place to live,” she sighs, frowning. “You need support here; it’s not a Berlin or a Barcelona.”
Of course, there are numerous private galleries funded by wealthy individuals, but the biggest artistic patrons in the UAE are brands. Irrespective of their motivations, corporates have tapped into the value of statement-making pieces by commissioning sculptures, paintings and murals for bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies and office blocks.
Read more: A taste of Dubai, from organic farms to meat boutiques
At the 25hours Hotel One Central, close to the World Trade Centre, dozens of international and regional artists have been given an opportunity to flex their creative muscle. In the lifts, dioramas by Hamburg-based Sandra Havemeister feature miniature figurines in a playful Arabian Nights wonder world, while large tapestry-wrapped cocoon chairs by Chilean artist Muriel Gallardo Weinstein are as functional as they are fun.
Encouraged to interact with the displays, I listen to 1980s classics on a Walkman, compose a letter with a retro Olivetti typewriter and record a podcast in a mobile booth which — on request — is delivered to my room. The hotel plans to offer pottery and wine evenings in a dedicated studio — a bid to attract a cool, creative crowd.
As a stranger in the city, I find it hard to imagine any form of bohemia could flourish in a polished world of stifling high-rises. Marwan Shakarchi, a street artist who goes by the moniker Myneandyours, disagrees. He grew up in London and moved to Dubai eight years ago, believing “there was an opportunity over here to become part of a culture that hadn’t actually started yet”. His signature fluffy clouds now float across walls, rooftops and — most recently — a spinning globe in the lobby of 25hours.
“When I came out here, it was tough,” he admits during our visit to one of his best-known works in the Dubai Design District (known as D3). “But it was really about me educating myself and others to the importance of public art; creating a dialogue, stimulating curiosity.”
The mural The Greatest of Mysteries was — like the majority of murals in highly regulated Dubai — commissioned by a corporate company. Taking up 18 walls of the entrance to a multi-storey car park, it depicted a psychedelic solar system, an immersive, 360-degree piece featuring 50,000 stars and 560 clouds on pipes, pillars and ceilings. Unlike anything people had seen before, it attracted thousands of spectators every day and led to a second commission with an even more powerful theme 12 months later.
“On one side of the car park was man’s destruction of the ocean,” says Marwan, describing We Breathe The Sea, also located in D3. “The other side was the response of marine life. The message was: destroy the ocean and the ocean will destroy you.”
Although most major works are governed by big business investment, Marwan insists there’s still freedom for subtle subversion — surely the tenet underpinning authentic street art.
“These pieces are still shocking to see, which is important,” he says.
A community of creative spirits
Encouraging experimentation and boundary-busting ideas, Alserkal Avenue in the Al Quoz neighbourhood has become Dubai’s nerve centre for creative thought. A former marble factory converted into galleries, cafes, designer boutiques and an arts cinema, it’s also the place to meet local artists and tap into Dubai’s alternative social scene. Founded in 2008 by businessman and patron Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, it’s the Emirati equivalent of London’s Shoreditch — without the grit and grime.
I wander through a courtyard, beneath neon signs asking, ‘When did you arrive’, ‘When will you return’ — two of the most common questions in city where outsiders come and go. In clothes store CHI-KA, I browse rails of robes fusing the flowing designs of Arabic abayas and Japanese kimonos; I sneak a peak into the open-door gallery of calligraphic artist eL Seed; and I refuel with an umami-rich Hojicha latte and matcha Danish pastry at new tea and bread bar, Pekoe.
From purchasing paintings to sampling unusual brews, every venue invites visitors to try something new. At Cinema Akil, Butheina Kazim programmes a mixture of art house movies, documentaries and blockbusters to “broaden horizons through moving images”.
Despite meeting a growing demand from the community, the eloquent Bahraini-born writer and filmmaker believes there’s still a lot of work to be done in developing an industry for Indigenous storytelling and confronting difficult topics — a point illustrated by the reaction to her most controversial screening, Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me.
“We were trolled from the UK,” she says, when I join her in the 133-person backroom auditorium filled with flock velvet sofas and vintage flip-up seats. “But we kept going with three sittings.”
Despite the challenges posed by cultural and religious sensitivities, more and more artists are gravitating to the city, lured — ironically — by a liberating sense of possibility that isn’t always found elsewhere.
Mukesh Shah praises a lack of cynicism and elitism. Born in Yemen, Mukesh was based in the UK for many years but is now living in Dubai. His latest project, created in his studio at the back of a paper factory close to Alserkal, features a series of simple 12-15 character slogans printed on sunshine yellow backdrops — all on sale at XVA.
“‘I Woke Up Black’,” has been popular, he muses. “Along with ‘I’m Like So Rich’ — but that’s for all the wrong reasons.”
Relishing a less sophisticated, naive environment where there’s “no pressure to be too clever”, Mukesh fondly describes Dubai as a very liveable city. As we walk past the pop-up Lebanese fast-food bars and mobile bookstores that line Alserkal Avenue, he raves about warmer temperatures, a hyper-social community and a very different rhythm of life. Yes, there are still strict rules and regulations to consider. But attitudes are changing. Energised and enthused by a feeling of opportunity that’s rapidly disappearing from so many of the world’s major urban centres, the creative talents taking root in the city are helping to paint a very different picture of Dubai.
Spin vinyl on decks in an interactive music corner, and snack on Modern Persian treats at Cassette, a creative hub and café founded by a team of interior designers, in The Courtyard at Al Quoz.
Some of Dubai’s best murals can be found along 2nd December Street. Giant depictions of falcons and Emirati figures enliven drab facades along a historical road famed for its affordable street food.
Learning to paint has become a social event in the city. Paint & Grape workshops teach students how to apply the right brushstrokes to pre-sketched masterpieces — aided by a few glasses of wine to let creativity flow.
Getting there & around
British Airways and Emirates fly nonstop from the UK to Dubai.
Average flight time: 7h.
A swift, cheap, two-line metro system connects 47 stops across the city, otherwise public transport is generally limited and slow. Heat and road conditions make walking and cycling long distances very tricky, so taxis are the best option. Uber or local equivalent Careem have the lowest fares.
When to go
December to March is the best time to visit, with average temperatures of up to 29C. Most outdoor events are held during this period; Dubai Art Week takes place in March. Avoid the searing heat of summer, at its peak in July and August, when the mercury regularly soars above 40C.
Where to stay
The 25hours Hotel One Central, Trade Centre. Doubles from £170 per night, B&B.
The Rove City Walk, Al Wasl. Doubles from £87 per night, B&B.
Lonely Planet Dubai & Abu Dhabi. RRP: £14.99
How to do it
Love Holidays offers six nights in Dubai at The Canvas Dubai from £566 per person on a B&B basis including flights.
Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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