Art Scene Dubai shot by Neven Allgeier & Benedikt Fischer. Part 2: Artists and Institutions. With a text by Kevin Jones
Crits and Glitz
By Kevin Jones
Artists don’t flock to Dubai as they do to Berlin, New York or Beijing – not unless they are fleeing excruciating conditions in neighbouring homelands like Iraq and Syria. To “make it” here is a challenge and artists are better off coming to Dubai when they are already successful. “Artist” is not an officially recognised profession on visa applications (though “craftsman” is), and many artists (even some Emiratis) hold day jobs, mostly in the creative industries, commercial galleries, with the yearly fair Art Dubai, or in institutions like the Sharjah Arts Foundation in the neighbouring emirate.
Rather than an artists’ bar or café, artists seem to haunt educational initiatives. Among them is Campus Art Dubai (CAD), an informal art school established in 2013 under the wings of the eponymous fair. Largely a forum for collective “crits”– which have quickly become manna among a feedback-starved artist class – the programme ropes in high-calibre international educators who either hail from the region or regularly navigate its artistic underbelly. “I have to stop enrolling in CAD,” mockingly complained Dubai-based, Beirut-born Indian artist Vikram Divecha, a CAD veteran who has overdosed on almost every six-month session since its inauguration.
The work produced in this parvenu city, which is more akin to glitzy Las Vegas than artsy Paris, nonetheless holds its own conceptually, often using the material here as food for thought. Divecha, Lantian Xie, Raja’a Khaled, Walid al-Wawi and Hind Mezaina are among the seasoned multimedia artists reacting to a local scene but laddering it up into wider, weightier issues of colonialism, consumption, labour. For a project titled Portrait Sessions, Divecha pays “non-painters" from across different economic and professional strata to paint his portrait in Tashkeel, Dubai’s sole studio-space-rental, workshoppy art school. The duration of each session is calculated by how much time 150 Dirhams can buy based on each “artist’s” professional rate. So a lawyer would paint for only a few minutes, while a bricklayer would likely have a full day to complete his oeuvre. Needless to say, the work made people uncomfortable.
“So … when do you think institutional critique will happen?” I nearly spat out my lemon-mint mocktail.
Kyle Hittmeier, studio manager at the Sheikha Salama Foundation’s Emerging Artist Fellowship (SEAF), probed me at the institution’s shindig to celebrate an exhibition by the latest cohort of its Emerging Artist Fellows. The question is doubly loaded. First, there are very few institutions. Abu Dhabi-based Sheikha Salama and its excellent fellowship-cum-scholarship aside, Sharjah holds the lion’s share, the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) putting on consistently engaging year-round shows. (Who else would bring experimental filmmaker and sculptor Robert Breer to the region?) Along with the Barjeel Foundation, brainchild of ubiquitous Emirati chronicler Sultan Sooud Qassemi, they provide a refreshing historico-intellectual breather to Dubai’s determined commercialism.
Unsurprisingly, private museums seem to be the favoured model in go-getting Dubai, like Iranian collector Ramin Salsali’s Alserkal-based institution, while Abu Dhabi is shoring up for the sea changes to be ushered in by its glittering museum trophy case on Saadiyat (Happiness) Island, featuring the Louvre, the Guggenheim and other starchitect-designed cultural behemoths. The second reason his question jolted me is that critique itself is somewhat alien in this culture of learn-it-by-heart education. (Even if some argue that the age-old Arabic majlis – the comfy, rug-dense seating area where the sheikh hears his people’s grievances – is a critical forum.) So institutional critique seems a bit far-fetched. But maybe one day.
That said, Dubai’s artistic scene is not entirely new. Nor is it necessarily naive.
The historical bedrock lies four-decades deep, with the Emirati artists who first shepherded contemporary art into the fledgling nation in the 1980s – most notably, the late Hassan Sharif, and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, who certainly combatted the reigning cultural apathy of the time. One layer up is a cluster of internationally visible Emirati and regional artists living in the country – the likes of Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh and their frequent collaborator Hesam Rahmanian, or Saudi-born artist Manal al-Dowayan.
While the few institutions that exist are generous – Dubai-born Palestinian artist al-Wawi is currently studying at Central Saint Martin’s thanks to SEAF funding, for example, and SAF hands out what seems like a slew of production grants – working in Dubai is somewhat like being in a void. In the words of Divecha, “Dubai is arid. It is stark. It is utterly frugal in what it gives you. And that’s the interesting challenge.”
KEVIN JONES is an art critic based in Dubai.
NEVEN ALLGEIER & BENEDIKT FISCHER are two photographers based in Frankfurt. www.ruine.biz
See part 1 on Dubai galleries and exhibitions here.