Standing in the lobby of the sprawling, three-storey Jameel Arts Centre where a Lara Favaretto installation whirs above my head on opening night, I am acutely aware that this inauguration will indelibly change the landscape of contemporary art in the Middle East, all the while affirming Dubai’s position as the heartbeat of contemporary art in the region.
Located at the Al Jaddaf waterfront on the banks of the Dubai Creek, the Jameel Arts Centre is one of Dubai’s first contemporary arts institution, a space dedicated to the presentation of projects, commissions, and curated exhibitions drawn both from the Art Jameel Collection, and through regional and international collaborations.
It’s difficult to grasp the gigantic leaps that the UAE art scene has taken since the early 1970s, when less than a year after the UAE was formed, a group of school children had to organise themselves to put on a group show in a library. Harder still to imagine that in the early 80s, the late Hassan Sharif, who is now considered the father of Arab conceptual art, had difficulty finding an audience for his work. Last night would have done them proud - in fact, one of Sharif’s seminal works stands at the Jameel Arts Centre as part of its probing inaugural group exhibition, Crude.
A deep exploration of oil as an agent of social, cultural, and economic transformation across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as a driver of geo-political upheaval, Crude’s subject matter weighs heavily - despite the region, and the world’s, efforts to climb out from under its viscous weight. Bringing together 17 artists and collectives from the region and beyond, Crude was developed by Sharjah- and New York-based curator Murtaza Vali.
In much the same way that Daniel Yergin’s The Prize served as a definitive history of the oil industry through the eyes of an economic historian, Crude considers some of the complex histories of oil as a catalyst of modernity across the Middle East, tracing its effects through the archives, infrastructures, and technologies it has produced. The show, which runs until 30 March, 2019, sits on the second floor of the Jameel Arts Centre, the first exhibition in a line up of robust programming - a bellwether for the wide range of presentations that audiences can expect from Jameel Arts Centre in the future.
Elsewhere, there are four solo shows in the Artist’s Rooms, ‘capsule’ presentations by influential, innovative artists, with particular focus on practitioners from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. The Winter 2018-19 line-up features works drawn in part from the Art Jameel Collection by Maha Malluh, Lala Rukh, and Mounira Al Solh, and a dramatic, site-specific commission by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota.
In one of the Centre’s seven gardens designed by landscape architect Anouk Vogel, Emirati artist Shaikha Al Mazrou has installed the delicate Green house: Interior yet Exterior, Manmade yet Natural, the first in an annual series of Artist’s Garden commissions. On the Jameel Arts Centre’s roof terrace, Kuwait-based artists Alia Farid and Aseel Al Yaqoub’s Contrary Life: A Botanical Light Garden Devoted to Trees is an immersive site-specific installation which riffs on our relationship with the natural world, acting as a community botanical garden - one made up of artificial, hybrid flora. The kitschy ‘fake’ garden is the winning work from the first edition of Art Jameel Commissions, an initiative central to the institution’s programming-heavy ethos. The inaugural edition, the first in a three-year cycle, explores sculptural works, while the second and third will focus on research and lecture, and drawing and painting, respectively.
For its opening week, the Jameel Arts Centre has included Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde’s immersive WATERLICHT in the Jaddaf Waterfront Sculpture Park, the UAE’s first arts-themed public park. Other works featured in the sculpture park will be exhibited on longer-term rotation, reflecting on the themes of nature, atmosphere, transformation, immersion, and geometry. They include installations by Emirati land artist Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, British sculptor David Nash, American sculptor Helaine Blumenfeld, and Dubai-based artists Talin Hazbar and Latifa Saeed, among others.
With the opening of Jameel Arts Centre also comes the establishment of an important and impactful public resource, the Jameel Library. For the first time, the public in the region will have access to a contemporary arts research centre dedicated to cultural histories of the Gulf and its neighbouring regions, with the aim to foster broad and imaginative discussions on art, culture and society by bringing together comparative and cross-disciplinary perspectives from around the world.
“The Jameel Arts Centre is a place for everyone,” says Antonia Carver, the Director of Art Jameel. This multi-disciplinary cultural initiative is the latest offspring of Art Jameel, whose role in the thrilling changes affecting Saudi Arabia, UAE and the wider region’s art scene has been monumental. “There has been a seismic shift in interest and understanding of the Middle East and awareness of the great artistic talent that comes out of this region,” adds Carver.
It is an opportunity, she believes, that the region has swiftly grasped. Uniquely poised between East and West, the UAE has emerged as a global centre for the arts. So while places like Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad have thrived as cultural capitals for centuries, new cities are now creating an exciting path to global recognition. Carver explains: “The UAE is a place where the art world at large comes to access art from South Asia, from Iran, and from the wider Arab world.
It is within this backdrop that the Jameel Arts Centre, with its depth and breadth of programming and its promise to nurture and promote contemporary art, and further develop cultural networks across the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and beyond, acts as an important catalyst - one that is set to open doors, forge new connections, and make an invaluable contribution to the contemporary art landscape of the region.