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In Dubai, a New Type of Arts Center

The opening this month of the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai represents a major addition to the growing prominence of the United Arab Emirates as a cultural destination and the arrival of a new type of art institution for the country: One that’s not supported or run by the government.

The museum is funded by Art Jameel, a private foundation headed by members of the Saudi Arabian-based Jameel family that supports and promotes the arts, education and heritage in the Middle East and beyond. One of Art Jameel’s global partnerships is with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, with which it awards the prestigious Jameel Prize for contemporary artists and designers. (See a related article, “Contemporary Art Inspired by Islamic Tradition.”)

Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel, stressed the new center’s private backing in her opening remarks during a preview tour. “We are in effect the first of our kind in the Gulf,” she said, “a non-commercial and non-governmental private institution with a civic mandate.”

Over the past decade, the United Arab Emirates has become one of the Middle East’s most important countries for regional art. (See a related article, “What Art Can Teach Us About the Arab World.”)

Dubai, the most populous emirate, has emerged as a popular location for galleries, developing an international reputation for introducing regional artists to collectors and museums in Europe and North America. It is also the site of Art Dubai, a well-attended yearly art fair whose 13th edition is set for this coming March. Drawing visitors from as far as Australia, Azerbaijan and New York, the festival serves not only as a place for displaying works by regional artists to international collectors, but also as a gathering point where cultural practitioners, curators and writers can meet and exchange ideas.

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates,  has impressed the art world by becoming a patron and sponsor of big-name museums. In November 2017, in conjunction with the French government and the Louvre Museum in Paris, it opened an outpost of the famous French museum in the emirate, to much fanfare.  The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection combines items on loan from museums in France with acquisitions made by local curators.

In Sharjah, the third-most populous emirate, the Sharjah Biennial has developed into one of the world’s most inclusive recurring art exhibitions. For each iteration of the biennial, the Sharjah Art Foundation appoints a curator who selects the participants, choosing a wide variety of regional and international artists who can engage with one another, if not directly at least visually and thematically.

Emphasis on the Contemporary

The Jameel Arts Centre is not the only newcomer to the Dubai art scene. A crop of institutions and foundations have established a presence in the emirate recently. Where the Jameel center stands apart is in its attention to displaying contemporary art.

With the freedom to draw on works from the extensive collection of Art Jameel, and by borrowing works from abroad, the Jameel Arts Centre will be able to produce shows with themes that are more critical and deeply conceptual than the historical overviews that dominate many art exhibitions in the region.

These “thematic threads” will enable ideas and artworks to flow into each other, Carver explains, like goods into Dubai Creek, the waterway at the heart of the city’s commercial history and the museum’s location.

Methods of art production, curation and artist collaboration make up another central theme of the museum, says Carver. As well as a space for international contemporary art, the museum is rooted in the regional context of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the practice and daily life of their native artists.

The Jameel Arts Centre’s physical space, designed by the international firm Serie Architects, emulates the style of “sha’bi houses,” prominent in the emirates since the 1970s, that feature enclosed courtyards and were built in closely clustered groups.

A shaded colonnade wraps the entire museum, with internal courtyards planted with succulents and plants indigenous to the Emirates and other desert biomes, creating green breaks in the white cube-shaped gallery spaces. A continuous connection is maintained between the viewer, the artwork and the building, whose 10 galleries are spread over 10,000 square meters of space.

Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (Photo: Courtesy Art Jameel).

A sculpture park at the museum’s entrance, designed by a locally-based architecture studio called Ibda Design, is showing commissioned, site-specific works by both regional and international artists for its inaugural exhibition.

In the galleries, the museum’s inaugural exhibition includes a group show called Crude focusing on the oil industry and its history in the Middle East. Curated by Murtaza Vali, an art writer and curator who grew up in Sharjah and is now based in New York, the expansive exhibition explores oil as a source of upheaval and transformation in the region.

Solo exhibitions throughout the museum include concurrent shows of works by the Pakistani artist Lala Rukh and the Saudi-Arabian artist Maha Malluh, as well as a large installation piece by the Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota and tapestries and fabric pieces by the Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh.

A gallery dedicated to film and video work is currently showing a video work by the U.S.-born artist Jumana Manna.

A library on the ground floor anchors the museum as a place of learning. Containing over 3,000 books and periodicals, the library has been designed for individual research and intellectual gatherings.

Outdoor spaces such as the Roof Terrace will also serve as locations for commissioned works.

Kuwaiti-based artists Alia Farid and Aseel AlYaqoub won the museum’s first Art Jameel Commission for their work Contrary Life: A Botanical Light Garden Devoted to Trees. Their winning submission serves as an artificial community garden of sorts which, when lit up at night, exudes cheerful artifice.

The Jameel Arts Centre is set on becoming a center of patronage with a program that will commission works and collaborate with artists from the region and beyond. It is only with this sort of ambition that the ecosystem of artistic production in the Middle East can continue to evolve and grow.

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