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Travel to Dubai


It’s spring, and culture is in the air

1 March 2019

From a Creekside ode to the contemporary to monumental sculptures at the Louvre, this is the season of culture in Dubai. Laura Egerton, local cultural commentator and curator, makes a case for why art around the region has never been so vibrant.

“The month of March is a boon for arts and culture-lovers visiting Dubai and the neighbouring emirates,” says Chloe Vaitsou, the recently appointed International Director of Art Dubai. March 2019 sees the thirteenth edition of the art fair and its collateral events and promises to be busier and more diverse than ever. Whether your interest lies in innovative contemporary installations, historical masterpieces or musical performances there are many treats in store.

Maya Allison, Chief Curator of NYU Abu Dhabi and Executive Director of its Galleries, is forming a consortium with leading cultural organisations across the Emirates to align calendars, in an effort to space out events and give some much-needed breathing space between the increasing number of art events. “The scene has blossomed to such an extent, with important organisations such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, Art Jameel, Sharjah Art Foundation and Alserkal Avenue hosting year-round programming, we are part of a larger ecosystem that exists out of moments such as art week,” Allison observes. It is still however, the time of the year when art spaces play their A-game.

Louvre Abu Dhabi’s first-class permanent collection gets a boost this spring with a spectacular temporary exhibition running from 14 February - 18 May: ‘Rembrandt, Vermeer & the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection and the Musée du Louvre’. Presenting nearly 100 artworks from this salient moment in history, the exhibition includes 22 paintings from Rembrandt and his workshop and brings together for the first time in 300 years two paintings by Vermeer cut from the same canvas.

The exhibition Allison is curating at NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery (‘Zimoun’, 26 February - 1 June) is one she has had in mind for ten years. “As a teaching museum it is important for shows to connect to curricula at the university as well as the wider context of Abu Dhabi”. Swiss artist Zimoun’s sensory experiences have been getting increasingly ambitious, taking over bigger venues internationally: “Essentially they are audio compositions that you can walk into,” Allison explains, “but there is a disjuncture between what you see and what you hear, a tension between natural sound effects and technological visuals”. She sees this as being reminiscent of the striking urban landscapes emerging out of the sand across the Gulf.

After ten years of restoration, the historic heart of Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al Hosn and its neighbouring Cultural Foundation has recently reopened. Allison has co-curated an exhibition ‘The Early Years’ at the Cultural Foundation, which charts the key UAE artists working in sculpture and painting since the 1970s. A retrospective of celebrated Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais continues at Manarat Al Saadiyat until 23 March. In the same venue, the exhibition ‘Distant Prospects – European Landscape Paintings from Liechtenstein’ runs from 26 February - 25 March as part of the sixteenth Abu Dhabi Festival. It is a showcase of landscape paintings by Northern Renaissance masters such as Lucas Cranach, Jan Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens, which come from the Princely Collection. Abu Dhabi Festival’s focus is the performing arts, with 100 events in 25 venues running through until April. This year features 543 international artists and 17 participating countries with Korea as the country of honour, highlights include Giselle by the Korean National Ballet (7 March), the Arab World debut of the Korean Symphony Orchestra (8 March) and a concert production of Tosca (15 March). Dubai now has its own prominent performing arts space: Dubai Opera. This March Dubai Opera’s scheduling is as diverse as it could be, ranging from Harry Potter (1 - 2 March) and the Gypsy Kings (6 March) to Choirfest (9 March), The Orpheus and Eurydice Forever Rock Opera (14 - 15 March) and the BBC Proms (19 - 22 March).

The fourteenth Sharjah Biennial ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’ opens on 7 March, featuring nearly 90 artists and over 60 commissions divided into three distinct sections spanning the emirate including the East coast city of Kalba, with international curators Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons taking charge of each exhibition. “The aim of the Biennial is to deepen the context of the trajectory of contemporary art, as well as the condition in which it is made,” said Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation. The curators have also masterminded the themes of this year’s March Meeting, which is a gathering of international artists, curators and scholars, exploring topical issues in contemporary art through talks and performances. Homegrown talent has the chance to shine in ‘Tashweesh: Material Noise’, the annual exhibition presented by the satellite platform UAE Unlimited, which rotates from emirate to emirate each year, for 2019 it returns to Maraya Arts Centre, opening 2 March. The six selected UAE based artists come together for a residency working with an artist mentor, this time Nujoom Alghanem, who will represent the UAE at the Venice Biennale opening in May.

The local contemporary art ecosystem will be present at Art Dubai this year too, in a new segment titled ‘UAE NOW’. Other new areas of the fair include ‘Bawwaba’, meaning gateway in Arabic, displaying 10 solo presentations, all artworks from the global south produced in the past 12 months. Curated by French-Cameroonian curator Élise Atangana, well-known artists such as Hamra Abbas and Shezad Dawood have been selected, alongside an older generation such as Sérgio Sister from Brazil and younger, such as Wanja Kimani from Kenya. ‘Residents’ returns for its second year, bringing artists for a 4-6 week residency in the UAE, all represented by leading galleries from Latin America. This year it is curated by Fernanda Brenner from Brazil and Munira Al Sayegh from the UAE. Al Sayegh also acts as Guest Curator for Campus Art Dubai’s seventh edition, titled ‘Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Contemporary Art and the City’, she will work with the four selected local artists over a six-month seminar and residency programme, culminating in a final group exhibition during Art Week. The roster of contemporary and modern galleries is as top-notch as ever. Vaitsou claims what most attracted her to join Art Dubai was “its commitment to being a place of discovery for art from geographies that are usually omitted from art’s mainstream dialogue, as well as its acclaimed engagement with education and thought leadership beyond the commercial aspect of the fair”. The latter is covered by programmes such as Global Art Forum, which this year tackles the urgent challenges and opportunities facing education today, titled ‘School is a factory?’.

There is often a disconnect between places of study and the marketplace of art: one bridge between has opened this year, the Zayed University Urban Satellite Space (ZUUSS) in Alserkal Avenue. Acting as an off-campus space for university students, alumni and faculty, it hosts exhibitions, workshops, lectures and community events in the commercial heart of the UAE art’s scene.

From 9-23 March, Concrete in Alserkal Avenue will host a group exhibition ‘Fabric(ated) Fractures, presenting work by artists from Bangladesh and the wider South and South East Asia regions. Diana Campbell Betancourt who is the Artistic Director at the Samdani Art Foundation, which presents the Dhaka Art Summit, curates the exhibition. Galleries Night on 18th March will see the launch of an important new permanent space in the avenue, the Ishara Art Foundation, the first non-profit institution in the UAE dedicated to art and artists from South Asia. Established by collector, art patron and entrepreneur Smita Prabhakar, the foundation has as its Artistic Director Nada Raza, formerly of Tate. It opens with the exhibition ‘Altered Inheritances: Home is a Foreign Place” a dual presentation of Shilpa Gupta and Zarina Hashimi. Another regional showcase come in the form of a group exhibition by the Atassi Foundation of artists from Syria. A remarkable range of commercial exhibitions open the same day at galleries across Alserkal Avenue, including solo presentations by key UAE artists Hassan Sharif at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim at Lawrie Shabibi and other leading, well-known artists: Sadik Alfraji at Ayyam Gallery, Kamrooz Aram at Green Art Gallery, Rana Begum at The Third Line, Bernhard Buhmann at Carbon 12 and Stéphanie Saadé at Grey Noise.

There is one other key new venue to add to the ‘mad March’ itinerary, the Jameel Arts Centre in Al Jadaf. Dubai’s new home for contemporary art, exhibitions, commissions and research, the centre is everything the UAE arts ecosystem has been asking for. It opened last November with close to 11,000 visitors in its first week and works tirelessly to reach out to students and new audiences. A series of ‘Artist Rooms’ spotlight leading practitioners, on 7 March three new rooms will open to the public, with work by the artists Seher Shah and Randhir Singh, Hemali Bhuta and Farah Al Qasimi. Its inaugural exhibition ‘Crude’ curated by Murtaza Vali tells stories of the turbid past, present and future of oil through the eyes of 17 leading contemporary artists and collectives from the region and beyond. Closing on 30 March, it’s a must see.

Words:Laura Egerton