Since the country’s formation in 1971, the United Arab Emirates—a federation of seven emirates—has undertaken significant social and political reforms in order to both demonstrate openness to international intellectual influence, and become an exemplar of cosmopolitanism in the Gulf region. Alongside the rapid modernization of the country, the Emirati leadership has increasingly supported the arts and the cultural sector to the extent that, in 2007, the government announced the construction of three major museums on the Saadiyat Island: a Louvre, a Guggenheim, and a National Museum. The museums are scheduled to open within the next few years, with the Louvre Abu Dhabi making its debut in December 2016.
But the country’s entrance into the world art stage dates back to the early 1990s, when the emirate of Sharjah organized its first biennial exhibition. As the 13th international exhibition grows near, the Sharjah Art Foundation—which has been running the biennial since 2003—has become an influential contemporary platform not only for artist and exhibitions, but for public events, community-based projects, and the recently established annual March Meeting. Along with the forthcoming museums and the foundation’s arts programming in Sharjah, there is also a fast-growing network of art galleries and art fairs in Dubai. I embarked on a journey to discover these less prominent cultural initiatives that have recently arisen in the dynamic Emirati art scene.
The Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahayan Foundation has been nurturing the artistic and cultural development of the local population and actively supporting emerging artists from the region. Through a rigorous fellowship program, the foundation prepares young Emiratis to develop and sustain an artistic career within a society that still has not entirely embraced art as a prudent choice in the professional spectrum. In some cases, due the fact that local universities do not offer advanced degrees in the arts, the fellows are sponsored to travel and study abroad. Last year, the foundation expanded its operations to a newly built cultural space, Warehouse421.
Alongside homegrown exhibitions, Warehouse421 hosts the Lest We Forget project, a community-based national initiative that collects authentic photographs and objects from Emirati families. While Emirati society still remains fairly introversive, Lest We Forget has been successful in conveying the idea of sharing personal memories and reaching audiences at different levels. Apart from exhibition purposes, the curatorial team aspires to generate an archival resource of digital documents and empirical data that will nurture future academic and artistic research. Lest We Forget it is not only capturing the past but is equally interested in archiving living generations’ responses to the past, adding a contemporary value to the project and allowing space for further explorations through artistic means.
The Akkasah Center of Photography at NYU Abu Dhabi has initiated a project aiming to establish a photography collection from the Arab world (with a focus on the UAE) and to build a digital database for academic and general consultation. While the Akkasah Center considers photography globally and is more academically oriented, Lest We Forget gives a local perspective and is community based. Both initiatives share an appreciation for the stories that photography can reveal, and the medium’s power to shape and communicate historical evidence with the public. Their operations are not antagonistic and their educational purpose could certainly be complementary to the work of the planned museums by bringing local people into the world of culture and, consequently, through museum doors. Aiming to introduce international contemporary art to local audiences in the UAE, the Maraya Art Centre organizes domestic exhibitions featuring emerging artists from the region. It also has a sculpture park and a program of classes, workshops, screenings, and events. Maraya is also home to the Barjeel Foundation, a prominent royal collection of contemporary art.
As the museums in Abu Dhabi strive to fuel art production through acquisitions, exhibition planning, and educational programs, this growing network of local initiatives has a key role to play in galvanizing artists, curators, and educators to join in the museums’ endeavors. Given the diversity of the UAE’s population, how the museums will engage with local audiences—rather than merely boosting tourism—remains a big challenge. After my brief encounters with members of the creative community, I remain curious yet optimistic about the current situation in the Gulf, a region that is expected to rise in art-world prominence and as globalization continues to advance.
Read more here:: Beyond Museums: Cultural Endeavors in the United Arab Emirates