The handful of squat and humble warehouses that make up Dubai's unofficial creative district bear little resemblance to the emirate's legendary multibillion-dollar skyline. But in just three years, around 30 galleries and cultural institutions have set up shop in this dusty neighborhood. In the process, they have helped inspire private and governmental initiatives designed to alter the perception that Dubai is nothing but a characterless, globalized marketplace of vulgar shopping malls and exploited workers.
The swell of creativity in both fine art and commercial design has been generated mostly by returning Dubai natives keen to reproduce cultural scenes they experienced while working or studying abroad. "When I came back to the city, I noticed no one was doing anything with the talent that existed here," says Sunny Rahbar, co-director of the Third Line gallery, one of the first spaces to exhibit local and regional artists. Within months of the gallery's September 2005 inaugural show, Christie's held its first auction in Dubai bringing in $8.5 million and the Art Dubai fair was established.
Despite the boom in construction that took place before the global recession, there are few towers in Dubai that offer space or facilities for artists. It was precisely for this reason Sheika Lateefa al-Maktoum, daughter of the late ruler of Dubai, Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, founded Tashkeel an unassuming arts center comprising exhibition spaces, painting and film studios, a darkroom and a digital-printing lab.
Maktoum's decision to establish Tashkeel was made while curating a graduate exhibit of up-and-coming Emirati artists. She quickly discovered that nearly all those featured were working in isolation. "I felt a space that brought them together and created a community was needed in the U.A.E.," she says. The success of the Third Line gallery's growing roster of local artists served to underscore the need for Maktoum's initiative. "All of a sudden, there was a shift. People started looking at art as a commodity."
Similar endeavors to groom local talent have met with some success in the retail fashion sector one of Dubai's chief tourist attractions. Brand-conscious punters have traditionally been the main market, but in these less extravagant times, there is greater appreciation for the local designers behind the merchandise at S*uce Boutique (pronounced Sauce). The growing number of loyal consumers has emboldened the owners to launch the S*uce Incubator, a project that recruits, manages and nurtures regional designers.
A similar initiative is taking place at Traffic, the Middle East's only contemporary-design gallery and store, and the brainchild of Dubai native Rami Farook. Here too, a growing group of regional unknowns is struggling to gain attention. Annual design competitions have confirmed Farook's earliest suspicions that the expertise not only exists in Dubai, but can also hold its own against the imported competition. Farook put his faith to the test earlier this year, when he initiated Traffic's manufacturing division producers of the city's first range of locally designed furniture.
The brand-new Dubai Culture and Arts Authority (DCAA), meanwhile, is overseeing the implementation of new museums and the development of the city's art and design talent. At the forefront of its agenda is building affordable housing and creating part-time employment for artists, as well as devising a feasible grant system. The authority is also a driver of the U.A.E.'s participation at the Venice Biennale. In a bid to create a fresh image for the seven-member federation, DCAA director Dr. Lamees Hamdan gave Berlin-based curator Tirdad Zolghadr carte blanche to fashion an 800-sq-m pavilion into a space that expresses artistic passion. Hamdan realizes the pavilion's title It's Not You, It's Me may come across as brash, but "It's about us, the U.A.E., and it's unapologetic," she says. "Like it or love it, this is who we are." Many cities that began life as mercantile enclaves Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai have gone on to develop thriving cultural scenes. There's no reason Dubai can't flaunt its newfound creative talent too.