Dubai's art scene is on the rise

Art Week and Dubai Design Days showcase the healthy revival of artists in the GCC
By Lubna Hamdan
Sun 12 Mar 2017 10:25 AM

There was a time not too long ago when Middle Eastern and Islamic art thrived in all corners of the world, from Egypt to Iran and even Spain. But like all great things, Islamic art slowly but surely took a backseat amid global changes. Until recently.

The creative world is again turning its attention to the Middle East, specifically, the GCC. The Dubai Design & Fashion Council (DDFC) forecasts UAE’s design industry will be worth $36bn by 2019, up from $27.6bn in 2014.

Galleries have sprung up left and right, while Dubai has created a purpose-built development for all things creative - Dubai Design District (d3) and Christie's auction house says it has sold over $300m worth of art, jewellery and watches in the Middle East in the past 10 years.

But it is not only Islamic art taking centre stage. Modern, contemporary, visual and endless other new forms are being created by local artists craving to share their once forgotten talents. Even street art in the form of graffiti and murals has become common.

There are now numerous art exhibitions, programmes and events acting as platforms for existing and emerging GCC artists. Two of the biggest are Art Dubai and Design Days Dubai.

Art Dubai director Myrna Ayad says the fair encourages artists to push boundaries.

Through showcases, discussions and educational talks, the events allow the artists to present their latest creations while discovering new ideas and taking part in a wider artistic community.

This year will mark the 11th edition of Art Dubai, which will take place from March 15 to 18, featuring more than 500 artists representing more than 60 nationalities. "We ... acknowledge that art permeates the every day and seek to punctuate the city with art," Art Dubai fair director Myrna Ayad says.

Design Days Dubai runs March 14 to 17 at d3. The annual fair’s sixth edition will be dedicated to collectible modern and contemporary design works, where it is expected to see regional talents debut their new collections.

Arabian Business spoke to four Gulf-based artists and designers who are showcasing their collections at the events, to discuss their journey through the revival of the Arab art and the challenges, tasks and controversies they face.


Ayah Al Bitar, 25, Saudi Arabia, Product and furniture designer

What is the concept behind your design piece?

‘The Sanctuary’ is a never-before-seen design created to facilitate day-to-day activities, especially the pre-prayer routine. It creates a personal space, or sanctuary, to meditate or pray.

Is it more difficult for designers to grow in the GCC than it is abroad?

It depends; in some areas, yes. The GCC market is still raw and empty when it comes to art and design, making it much easier for artists and designers to grow rapidly as opposed to the Western market. However, it becomes difficult when the design needs to actually be produced or prototyped. Factories in the GCC are still not equipped to create only a couple of pieces. They produce in mass, something an artist or designer is simply not looking for.

Is there a strong educational system for artists/designers in the GCC region?

There is, but definitely not as strong as it would be abroad, which is why I studied abroad. The topic is still totally foreign, and so is the market for it. It is slowly progressing in very exciting ways; many universities in the Gulf are now offering courses with design schools abroad.

How can design affect primary world issues, such as political conflict?

Art and design are time and place. They are always relevant to current events and world or social issues. In my concept of Wisada - the orthopaedic floor seating - the pieces are made in the shape of a bicycle seat. This was in reference to the social issue of transportation for women in Saudi. It was very interesting to have a functional piece of furniture that is also related to a recurring social topic in the country. It provoked dialogue and brought positivity to such a problem.

Where do you get inspiration for your work?

People. It is really about always observing people and what they do, to see where there is room for a design opportunity that has not yet been tackled.

Has your family supported your design career?

At the beginning they were hesitant as to how such a career would be profitable because they had never experienced it. They eventually saw the strong will power and passion I had towards it that they decided to give me the green light.

How do you value a piece of artwork?

I would value it depending on its quality and the thought process that went behind it.

What is the best part about being a designer in the GCC?

The fact that I am part of a movement that is now beginning to grow.


Aljoud Lootah, 33, UAE, Product designer

What is the concept behind your design piece?

My latest collection is called ‘Tebr’, which translates to ‘raw gold’ in Arabic. It consists of porcelain vases, a table lamp and tableware, which depict intricate patterns that adorned the historic architecture of the UAE. It takes inspiration from motifs carved on an old wooden door found in the palace of the late UAE president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Historically, wooden doors created a wide space for creativity, where the decorative carvings on the doors reflected the status of that household. Just like these doors carried strong character and expression, the modernised motifs instill character into the porcelain collection. The designs are cast in the finest quality porcelain and the tableware is embellished with 14-karat gold to resemble the door’s massive brass nails and locks while reflecting opulence inherent in artistic creation.

How can the UAE design industry develop further?

The design scene in the UAE is evolving. With fairs such as Design Days Dubai, programmes such as Tanween by Tashkeel, and the support of government organisations such as Dubai Culture, more awareness has been raised around design and the importance of having a creative culture and community.

Would you describe yourself as a traditional or modern designer?

I’m a combination of both. The aesthetics in most of my design pieces are very modern, but have a solid traditional concept as a base. They’re mostly inspired by Emirati traditions or elements from our environment and culture.

Where do you get inspiration for your work?

Mostly from the Emirati culture and environment. There are a lot of tangible elements in our culture that are very inspiring in terms of the colors or shapes and patterns they deploy.

Do you need to have business skills to make it in the design industry?

Yes, absolutely. Part of being a great designer is having a good business background, especially if you run your own studio or design firm. You have to be a leader at heart, with a mindset on business, while being a creative soul.

Has your family supported your design career?

My family has always been very supportive. I’ve been working in the creative field for almost 10 years and the support started day one.

Does Dubai have the potential to become a design destination?

I believe Dubai has already marked itself as a design destination. While our design scene is still evolving, there is great interest from international designers to showcase their work at Dubai-based platforms and exhibitions. This by itself is strong evidence that Dubai has already been labelled as an evolving design destination.

What is the hardest part about being an artist/designer in the GCC?

The lack of raw materials and skilled artisans who know how to work with those materials.


Dana Awartani, 29, Saudi Arabia/Palestine, Contemporary Islamic artist

What is the concept behind your art piece?

It’s an exploration of the Abjad, which is part of a great scholarly tradition called the science of letters (ilm al-huruf). The scholars of this science investigate letter shapes and forms as well as their cosmological significance. I have created a visual language inviting the viewer to participate in its coding and meaning-making. Each shape’s angles and repetitions equate to the numerical value or sum of the individual letter. We see that [the Arabic letter] ‘alef’ is not only shaped like the number one but is the number one, in turn allowing the viewer to understand the science of numbers through a new visual language.

Is there a strong educational system for artists in the GCC region?

Unfortunately there isn’t. I think the reason is that art is not very respected in the region and is not seen as a priority within the education system.

Is there enough awareness and understanding of art among people in Jeddah, the city where you are based?

In comparison to an international level, not at all. But the great thing about Jeddah is that it is evolving very fast and the appreciation and awareness towards art has grown tremendously over a few years.

How is the art scene in the GCC different than in the US or Europe?

Firstly, I think the subjects that the artists talk about are very different and what we are inspired by is very different. Secondly, being an artist in the GCC is sometimes a case of you being a big fish in a small pond but in the US or Europe you become a small fish in a massive pond.

How can art affect primary world issues, such as political conflict?

Art provokes human emotions and it’s a very powerful visual language that leaves a lot of people in situations where they are forced to re-evaluate their thoughts, opinions and beliefs.

How difficult is it to earn a living as an artist?

It is hard due to the fact that you do not get a regular dependable income, but monetary gain is not a priority for me. I am lucky enough to be one of the few people who get to do what I love on a daily basis.

Are you born with a talent for art or can you learn it?

I think you are born with it. Creativity cannot be taught. However, technique, skills and critical thinking within the context of being an artist is something that can be learnt and I would like to think that a good artist is constantly learning new things throughout their lifetime.

What is the hardest part about being an artist in the GCC?

Certain stereotypes people have of you, not only as an Arab but as a female Arab. Society generally expects you to behave, look and think a certain way and I find that extremely suffocating.


Monira Al Qadiri, 33, Kuwait, Visual artist

What is the concept behind your art piece?

My work attempts to link the history of the pre-oil world with the post-oil world in the Arabian Gulf using colour and form. The works are mainly sculptures of oil drills painted in iridescent colour, reminiscent of both pearls and petroleum.

Where do you get inspiration for your work?

My interior universe, and how that interacts with the world.

What are three skills that an artist needs to make it?

Persistence, vision and madness.

How developed is the art market in Kuwait, where you are based? How can it be improved?

In Kuwait, we don’t have a ministry of culture, so that partly hinders how the public sees and appreciates art. We need to have a serious public and private intervention to create more substantial art spaces, public projects, theatres, museums and galleries.

There is a lot of work to be done. How hard is it to earn a living as an artist?

It is very difficult. Artists have a precarious existence, since their work doesn’t always entail a stable income, nor is that income always available. If you stop making art for a few years because you need time to think, your career stops and so does your livelihood. We live outside the system, thus we are always vulnerable.

Should  art be affordable or ultra-expensive?

It depends on the artwork. For me, some of my work feels as if it’s part of my body, so if I commit to selling it, it is both a precious object and a painful experience of letting go.

Do you need to have business skills to make it in the world of art today?

Somehow, yes we do. Like other professions in the world today, artists need to take care of administrative tasks like answering emails, writing proposals, planning their schedule and going to events to network. These are very business-like activities, and though it is not the romantic vision of what artists should be doing with their time, it is unfortunately how the art world operates today.

What is the best part about being an artist in the GCC?

There are endless amounts of untapped materials and subjects to think about and tackle, sitting there just waiting for us to uncover them.

What do you hope to achieve through your art?

I want to make something people cannot forget.

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Last Updated: Thu 13 Apr 2017 06:57 PM GST

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