Dubai: The renaissance of art?

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Updated 19 December 2012

Dubai: The renaissance of art?

There is no denying Dubai is the Middle East most glamorous city. But does this go beyond glitzy shopping malls, luxurious apartments, and state-of-the-art technology and into the creative art realm?
I remember when I first moved to the city. A gallery or an exhibition opening was an event not to be missed; there were not a lot of them anyway. Today, there is a new opening or an art fair every other day; I became picky about which to attend.
One of the events I plan my calendar around is Art Dubai. The annual art festival that takes place round late March and attracts art lovers by the thousands, from the UAE as well as further afield. In its 2012 edition, Art Dubai opened its doors to 22,500 visitors; a staggering number that tells you a lot about the city’s art scene.
Art Dubai took off in 2006 and grew exponentially. Six years down the road it hosted 75 galleries coming from 32 different countries exhibiting all sorts of art from paintings and sculpting to huge jewelry made pieces and out-of-the-box installations. There is definitely something for every taste here, so book your calendar from now. March 20th to 23rd, 2013 are the dates for Art Dubai seventh edition.
Dubai art scene is not a one-event scene, even if it is as big as Art Dubai; there are on going events throughout most of the year.
Just like most cities, galleries congregate and grow in pockets. Al Serkal Avenue is one of those galleries hotspots. Built originally as a warehouse complex, Al Serkal Avenue was turned into an arts complex hosting some of the city’s most reputed and artistically daring art galleries; from The Mojo and Salsali Private Museum to Isabelle van den Eynde and FN Designs. Wonder the alleyways, which will do remind you of Al Serkal Avenue original warehouse nature, and step into some of the various galleries it hosts. Art here comes in many forms and shapes; it is not by any chance limited to drawing and painting. Pay Gulf Photo Plus a visit if you are into photography or check out The Fridge if you are keen on music.
Another arts hotspot is the DIFC. The Dubai International Financial Centre doesn’t only host a wide array of financial service providers, as one might rightly guess, but a number of galleries as well. Heads the DIFC list of galleries is the unique The Empty Quarter. Named after the Arabian Peninsula’s most famous desert, this gallery experiences the artistic dimension of photography. With the rise of digital technology and the accessibility of cameras, all of us can and do take pictures, but what The Empty Quarter displays on its gallery walls is la crème de la crème of the Middle East photography scene. The gallery gears its efforts toward promoting talents from the UAE and the broader Middle East. One of the most successful photography exhibitions it had organized earlier this year is “Women on the Verge”. Fourteen female photographers from eight Arab countries as well as Iran showcased their take on women’s life in today’s Middle East. The exhibition was such a huge success that it resonated beyond the UAE and the wider region.
But is that all what Dubai’s art scene has got to offer?
Most recently, the city’s first art-themed hotel opened its doors, though still as soft-opening. Jumeirah Creekside Hotel is a one of a kind hotel that revolves around art. It features over 480 pieces of art, the work of 52 artists from 12 Middle Eastern countries. Everywhere you will turn your head, you are bound to come across a piece of art; from artistic installations on the walls and ceilings to quirky interior designs. Can you guess where the pool is? It is on the rooftop, and it comes with a glass bottom visual from the lobby! “The idea was to create something different, something new. Art can be very culturally connecting and it’s always a brilliant linkage to travelers and the destination they travel to” commented Klaus Assmann, Jumeirah Creekside Hotel General Manager
An art-themed hotelier establishment like the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel wouldn’t have seen the light if there wasn’t an arts base already in place. But it doesn’t only stop at that. The fact that an art-themed hotel is now up and running hints on more art oriented projects yet to come, or as Klaus Assmann best puts it “We believe that the art scene will drive the city to new heights as more and more residence and visitors are looking for the cultural element.”

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‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”