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Art blossoms in the desert

Silvia Radan / 22 November 2012

Guggenheim and the Louvre museums, a Picasso retrospective, copyrights for authors, Bolshoi Ballet, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre or the art of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography were on nobody’s mind in Abu Dhabi 41 years ago.

Four decades have passed since the birth of the United Arab Emirates and the country’s performance on the stage of arts and culture is worthy of a standing ovation.

“Abu Dhabi acknowledges the lack of art infrastructure. It recognises the absence of a thriving and balanced cultural ecosystem, but a strong vision is driving this city to resolve these missing elements. There is a cultural scene that is evolving,” said Rita Aoun-Abdo, executive director of culture at Tourism Development and Investment Company, at the opening of Abu Dhabi Art fair earlier in November.

Khaleej TimesAn artist’s impression of the Guggenheim museum that is coming up in Abu Dhabi

Indeed, much is missing. Modern museums and galleries, an art academy and a conservatory, concert halls, art cinema establishments, literature clubs and, not to mention, an art tradition, coupled with art marketing and education that create that all important appreciation for the arts among all UAE’s citizens and residents.

Sharjah leads the way

That said, much has been achieved too. From the early 1970s, Sharjah built its reputation as the UAE’s arts capital, with 17 museums housed in its Heritage District alone. Fine art exhibitions, concerts, an annual book fair and various festivals aside, Sharjah’s mark on the world of arts and culture is the Art Biennial. Organised every two years since 1993, the now international contemporary art festival has been, for years, the national and international launching platform for Emirati artists.

Dubai too has developed a strong arts and cultural scene, with internationally recognised festivals and events such as Art Dubai or the Dubai International Film Festival, but especially its private art galleries.

Contemporary UAE art

Dubai is also the birthplace of many of today’s greatest Emirati artists, including Hassan Sharif, considered by many to be the founding father of the UAE’s contemporary art scene.

Born in 1951 in Dubai, where he still lives and works, Sharif is not just a prominent artist, but the founder of several art establishments such as the Emirates Fine Art Society and Art Atelier in the Youth Theatre and Arts, Dubai.

From cartoon drawings and caricatures, exhibited back in the 1970s, Sharif’s art has evolved to art installation, for which he uses objects that he buys in the market — blankets, shoes, spoons, car tyres.

In a material world, where art by far has no immunity to commercialism, Sharif’s works remain honest, but that is not to say that the artist has anything against cash for art.

“Commercialism is healthy. An artist must create from his self, from what inspiration dictates him, but he also needs to sell. There are some idiotic works out there on sale for lots of money. You cannot call them art and their makers are not artists. This is not what I’m talking about. Art, real art, must go with life, and in our times we live in a consumer world. Art too has to deal with it,” he once told Khaleej Times.

Khaleej TimesArt scene in Abu Dhabi

At more expensive levels, art investment is a serious matter. Globally, art revenues are as high as oil. That is one reason Abu Dhabi emirate, the latest to develop its art “industry”, planned big, aiming to become not just a national, but a Middle Eastern art hub.

Here too things started slow, with the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation established in 1981, an exhibition space for local artists, a concert hall for classical Arabic music and the occasional theatre performance and a video room for art film screenings.

With the establishment of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage in 2005, soon followed by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and Tourism Development and Investment Company, all government organisations involved in the arts and cultural development of the emirate, an influx of fine arts, music, cinema and literature took over the city — and Al Ain too.

Abu Dhabi Classics, the eight-month-long season of classical music was established; Abu Dhabi International Film Festival, promoting largely Arab movies and emerging filmmakers is another artmark; WOMAD, the World of Music Art and Dance was another great international annual festival; Abu Dhabi Art, which started as a French art fair, became a serious international art market; Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival is a beacon for fine arts, performance arts and art education, founded by Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo; the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is hugely significant not just for this once a year opportunity to buy great and rare titles here, but especially for its winning fight against piracy.

Soon after the financial crises in 2008, the Abu Dhabi government decided to reorganise and all arts and cultural events, festivals and developments are done through one institution — the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

The new organisation had to cut some of these events — Abu Dhabi Classics and WOMAD being the most significant losses on the Capital’s cultural calendar — but reinforced the Abu Dhabi vision 2030 by continuing the diversification of economy though cultural developments as well.

These developments have become the “abc” of the future UAE cultural history, happening not without speed bumps and highly anticipated the world over: the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, as well as the Zayed National Museum and the Performing Arts Hall, all to be built on Saadiyat Island, and all architectural monuments created by the world’s most renown architects.

“Abu Dhabi is a city that has towers, traffic, a central area, just like Western cities. If this culture is so different, then why so similar,” asked Frank Gehry, the future Guggenheim Saadiyat Island museum architect, dismissing the myth of West and East being fundamentally different.

Jean Nouvel, the French architect who will design the Louvre; Norman Foster, the British architect of Zayed National Museum; and Gehry came to Abu Dhabi Art this November, where they met and spoke in public for the first time in three years. Their talk drew hundreds of people, dismissing yet another Abu Dhabi myth that the people of the UAE Capital don’t give a second thought to the matter of arts!

Closely linked with other developments, with education, tourism and cultural heritage, the arts have flourished through communities, different societies and cities.





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