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Sun 4 Mar 2007 12:00 AM

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The art industry: A regional perspective

As Dubai’s art scene continues to expand, new galleries are opening on an almost weekly basis.

As Dubai’s art scene continues to expand, new galleries are opening on an almost weekly basis.
Arabian Business

spoke to a number of local artists and gallery owners from Dubai and the region. Some hold a very optimistic view on the explosion of art locally, while others remain slightly cynical.

“Galleries are popping up left and right, and that doesn’t mean that the art scene is getting better. Some are trying and they do what they can, but it will take a while to mature,” says Jaafar Khaldi, an artist and owner of B21 Progressive Art Gallery in Dubai’s Al Quoz Industrial Area.

Khaldi points to a real lack of cultural events which Dubai is now racing to meet. This, he believes, has more to do with commercial reasons than culture, as many have realised that it is important to cater to the increasingly cosmopolitan market.

Saleh Barakat, owner of Agial Art Gallery in Beirut draws a similar conclusion, saying that Dubai aspires to be a “major world capital” and would naturally want to develop its art market alongside its growing economy.

“Dubai and the entire Gulf are doing very well and eventually with all those prosperous corporations and buildings and skyscrapers, culture should develop on the side, and one of the aspects of culture is fine art or contemporary art,” he says.

Khaldi on the other hand is convinced there’s a real lack of knowledge about art, its roots and development in Dubai, which tends to lower the standard of art shown in galleries. In order to improve the art scene in Dubai Khaldi sees a need to educate the public more about art, and to have more government and institutional support with sponsor and grants to give the opportunity for bigger and more prestigious shows. It is also essential to have an art institute with reputable art teachers, believes Khaldi, which will allow students to come from across the region to Dubai to study art.

Sunny Rahbar, director of another Dubai gallery, The Third Line, holds a similar opinion saying it will take a while for Dubai to become a “real cultural capital,” wherby it could compete with other leading cultural centres in the world, but that it is definitely heading in the right direction. Rahbar also believes Dubai’s art scene is not solely driven by commercial factors, but that it is going through a natural process that occurs in any developing society. Rahbar is moreover convinced the quality of artworks shown in local galleries across Dubai is improving.

“The bar has been definitely raised and the consumer is better informed with the influx of art events, auctions and galleries. So in turn the quality of work exhibited is much better,” she says.

Patricia Millns, a Dubai-based artist who was nominated this year for the European Art Prize and who is participating in the Gulf Art Fair, believes that local galleries have a wide range of art that cater for a wide range of the viewing public.

“In some galleries you’ll see installations; with others you’ll see the contemporary orientalist movement or Vietnamese art,” she says.

Millns believes Dubai has a “good gallery scene” that is seeing more innovative art, and there’s an incomparable buzz about it which is unique even when put side by side with cities like New York and Los Angeles. What’s more, the future looks even brighter.

“We have the Culture Village coming, which is going to be bigger than anything in the world so far with art. I don’t even think we’re ready for Culture Village, it’s going to be so big,” she insists.

Khaldi, who is also planning to show artworks in GAF and whose work was sold at Christie’s last auction, says he looks for certain qualities in the art his gallery displays: “The work must be original, passionate, intellectual, and above all beautiful.”

Khaldi sees a lot of potential in emerging artists from across the Middle East and is eager to see what will come out of Iraq after matters stabilise, especially as Iraqi artists have always had a strong position in the regional art scene. What the Dubai art scene is lacking at the moment is installation art. The Townhouse Art Gallery in Cairo makes a habit of displaying installation art and focusing on producing works, which William Wells, director of the gallery, describes as challenging the accepted forms of representation existing in the media and also through official channels.

“The gallery is primarily interested in exhibiting and supporting artists that deal with issues that are relevant to the world we live in," he says.

Rahbar looks for young and emerging artists, and restricts participation in the gallery to Middle Eastern artists. She strives to establish the gallery as a platform for art and culture in the region.

On plans to build the Guggenheim and Louvre museums in Abu Dhabi, opinions seem to vary, with the general consensus in support of the project. Khaldi sees it as the “best idea they ever came up with”, and Rahbar believes it will help educate the young market as museums serve as a great source of information and education. On the other hand Wells believes that although the project is a “fascinating idea”, it will only be relevant if it has a positive impact on the production of work in the region.

It hasn’t been long since the auction of Arab art started in the region. In the last Christie’s auction held in Dubai, a great deal of art by Arab artists broke records and reaped very high prices. Khaldi, although pleased to see such great enthusiasm, says it is only something that occurs in Dubai. “I believe it is better, in the long run, that the art goes up at a slower pace. It’s better for the artist and the investor,” he concludes.

Looking forward — The region’s new cultural hotspots

Islamic and Arab art specialist at Christie’s in Dubai, William Lawrie, predicts a blossoming regional art scene for many years to come. He believes that while Dubai is heading towards becoming the leader in terms of commercial art in the region, Qatar is attracting unprecedented levels of interest for its Arab and Islamic art museums.

“I went to see the museum of modern Arab art in Qatar and my jaw dropped. It has by far the best collection of modern Arab Art in terms of being incredibly comprehensive. They have so many different important artists from different periods,” he says.

Lawrie adds that while the museum owns a considerable deal of artworks hidden from the public eye due to the limited display room in its current premises, plans to move to a bigger space are underway. The time frame in which this is likely to happen, however, remains unclear.

Lawrie adds that people should also look out for the opening of Qatar’s Islamic art museum. “It will definitely be one of the top two or three museums for collections of Islamic Art anywhere in the world, incredible stuff,” he adds. An emerging museum rival to Qatar will be Kuwait’s Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiya (DAI) when it reopens in 2008. DAI is a cultural entity containing a private collection of Islamic art that was founded by Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah along with his wife Sheikha Hussah Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah in the mid-1970s. The collection now holds over 30,000 historically valuable artworks.

“Dubai and the Gulf are doing very well... culture should develop on the side, and one aspect of culture is the fine art or contemporary art scene.”

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