With a rapidly expanding gallery culture in Dubai, the Louvre and Guggenheim set to open museums in Abu Dhabi, strong annual art fairs in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, more than 18 museums and cultural institutions operating in Sharjah, and government and museum support for bringing in public art from around the world, the contemporary art scene in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is flourishing.

Local Emirati artists planted the first seeds for today’s art ecosystem beginning in the 1980s after Sharjah—one of seven emirates that make up the UAE—provided the Emirates Fine Arts Society with a home. The society nurtured experimental artists whose work moved beyond calligraphy, a traditional Arabic art form, and towards conceptual sculpture and abstract painting.

The first documented performance piece took place soon after, when two founding members, Hassan Sharif and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, famously staged a boundary-pushing performance along Sheikh Zayed Road, the main ventricle that connects Sharjah to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. As part of the event, Sharif lay down on the highway, shocking drivers while also introducing residents to a new artistic medium.

While these first contemporary artists had access to literature on European and North American artistic movements, they came of age in a pre-Internet vacuum that forced them to define their own practices and community without significant outside influence.

As the UAE transformed into a global center for business, logistics, and transport—as well as a jet-setter’s paradise—its interest in art grew in tandem. A big year for growth was 2006, which saw the opening of a handful of bold galleries, the founding of Art Dubai, and the first Christie’s auction of regional art.

Today’s emerging Emirati artists—including Ammar Al Attar, Ebtisam Abdulaziz, Noor Al Suwaidi, and Zeinab Alhashemi—grew up with fine-art educations both inside and beyond the UAE, a ready collector base, gallery residencies, and the cross-pollinating effects of rampant social media.

In the past three years, UAE government, museums, and galleries have begun to recognize the importance of bringing public art to a general audience beyond institutional and commercial walls. The resulting explosion of commissioned murals, graffiti festivals, mobbed art nights, and free performances has paved the way for art to be viewed as a shared treasure that belongs as much to everyday residents as to the more exclusive art community.

On the Trains of Dubai

Dubai—with its open import and export regulations—has emerged as a hotbed for regional artists and galleries alike that have roots in conflict zones or places that are not easily reached by those with a Western passport. It is not uncommon to visit exhibition openings in the UAE with a focus on Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Iranian, or Saudi contemporary art.

The accessibility of art in Dubai is currently expanding. In 2014, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE vice president and prime minister and ruler of Dubai, issued an official decree stating that Dubai’s metro stations would soon be transformed into open-air museums.

The first stage of the transformative initiative—a collaboration between Dubai Culture and the Roads and Transport Authority—involved wrapping selected trains in works by celebrated UAE-based artists of a number of nationalities. Works included a vivid abstract painting by Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais; imagery by Algerian symbolist Rachid Koraïchi; a cityscape image featuring the sun setting over the iconic Burj Khalifa by the crown prince of Dubai, HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, an avid photographer; and a moon-faced portrait from Syrian painter Safwan Dahoul’s monochromatic Dream series.

Dahoul has been working on this series for 20 years, and the train project—in which his work was printed onto a massive vinyl wrap and affixed to train cars—marked his first foray into the realm of public art. “The approach to my work has changed with this project, but the message remains intact,” says Dahoul. “The feeling of the work had more of an impact on a moving train because the detailed measurements of the work had to deliver the same message whether the viewer was close to the train or standing at a distance.”

Plans have been announced to expand upon the project and the Sheikh’s ruling by turning individual stations into unique, permanent museums to be enjoyed by an estimated half million daily commuters. Each of six major stations will have a different theme including Islamic art, ancient coins, illuminations, photography, contemporary art, and even an e-book library.

Into the Streets of Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Cultural District is nestled among mangroves and beaches on the edge of the capital city, and is set to become a landmark hub for arts. Abu Dhabi Art is based here, as are the sites for the Louvre and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museums.

In 2014, in an effort to reach urban residents of the emirate, Abu Dhabi Art launched the Beyond program, which collaborated with international powerhouses including Ai Weiwei, François Morellet, Tadashi Kawamata, and Sudip Gupta to lend large-scale works of art to various indoor and outdoor public spaces for up to six months following the close of the annual art fair in November.

“The community aspect of public art initiatives is a high priority for us,” says Michelle Farrell, Abu Dhabi Art’s program manager at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA). “Integrating art into public spaces is a powerful symbolic act which leading global cities use strategically to build a sense of community, belonging, and meaningfully shared space among their populations.”

This year as part of Abu Dhabi Art’s performing arts program Durub Al Tawaya, the Berlin-based collective Rimini Protokoll has designed Remote Abu Dhabi, a site-specific work that facilitates an urban scavenger hunt, in which a computer-generated voice leads groups through both surprising and familiar parts of the city. Although they have not yet announced their full curatorial programming, it is anticipated that Louvre and Guggenheim will also make an effort to incorporate a public art program into their wider curatorial vision.

Sharjah’s Biennial, Roundabouts, and Programs

Sharjah Art Foundation’s exhibition spaces are set in a maze of coral alleyways in the city’s historic area. Given this location, the exhibition spaces are surprisingly stark and contemporary, and part of the charm is the contrast of studying highly conceptual works that would be equally at home in New York’s New Museum, while the call to prayer from the cerulean blue–tiled Al Zahra Mosque next door washes through the gallery. Recent attractions include the Light Show exhibition visiting from London’s Hayward Gallery, which features a minimalist Dan Flavin sculpture and David Batchelor’s buzzing multimedia installation Magic Hour that emits a rainbow aura.

Under the direction of Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, Sharjah Art Foundation draws neighborhood children on bicycles and the who’s who of the art world alike to the Sharjah Biennial. Local residents feel sufficient ownership of the event to simply refer to it as “our biennial”; entry is free and there are no VIP openings or other exclusive events that can sometimes make contemporary art institutions off-putting to a general public.

One of the main objectives of the Biennial, which was launched in 1993, has consistently been to bring public art to the local community’s doorstep through interactive performances. At the opening of the 2015 Biennial in March, Congolese artist Papy Ebotani staged Fanfare Funérailles (“Funeral Brass”) in the public square outside the Foundation: a troupe of local musicians and a group of African artists staged a traditional funeral procession, which wound its way through the surrounding gritty streets of downtown Sharjah, drawing neighborhood residents to their balconies and eventually to the pavement to join the parade. At intervals the performance stopped weekend traffic for a display of Congolese funereal dance or recitation in crowded intersections. The performance epitomized the unique way Sharjah Art Foundation delivers art to the surrounding community, and the community embraces and influences the flavor of the work.

Sharjah is notorious for gridlock rush hour, and people mark time, direction, and orientation on daily car and bus commutes by circling traffic roundabouts. Each roundabout signifies important moments in the emirate’s history. While ornately executed traffic circles can be spotted throughout the Gulf region, particularly in Muscat, Oman, these kitsch landmarks—from a gigantic Arabic teapot with teacups to a leaping school of dolphins—are typically quite arbitrary in form. In contrast, Sharjah’s roundabouts were first envisioned by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi in response to an architectural desire for place- and identity-making among residents, then designed and executed by Spanish sculptor Carlos Marinas Rubias.

“These very strong statements are an expression of Sharjah’s culture and an expression of urban identity, which is driven by the Ruler, who commissions the roundabouts directly,” says Peter Jackson, architecture advisor to His Highness.

A massive Qur’an is mounted just in front of the Cultural Palace, Ruler’s Office, and public library to represent the spiritual heart of the city, while in Rula Square, a place frequented by families out for walks in the cool of evening, a tree of life sculpture symbolizes the multiplication of history in the shade of spirituality. The sculptures reinforce the vision and values of the city, while the slogan “Smile, you’re in Sharjah,” spelled out along one popular stretch of roadside in frosting-hued fresh flowers, reinforces the city’s playful side.

Maraya Art Centre is a contemporary space that boasts multilevel exhibition facilities with a strong curatorial program focused on emerging UAE-based artists. With the support of Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), Maraya also facilitates an extensive public art program that includes a sculpture park and a street art program. An outdoor play zone is also in the works, in which children will soon be encouraged to climb through and engage with oversized designs.

Last year, Maraya commissioned French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed (who has a cult following among youth in Europe and the Arab world) to revive the face of an abandoned building on Bank Street with calligraffiti, a textual marriage between Arabic calligraphy and graffiti. Fittingly, the mural came alive with a poem by nineteenth-century Sharjah-based poet and calligrapher Ahmed Bu Sneeda, whose unrequited longing is transformed here into a modern-day metaphor for obsession with social media: “I speak to you but you do not reply; I visit you but you do not visit me.”

The mural is the first phase of a wider project titled Jedariya, which translates to “walls” from Arabic. “The project uses public art—mostly graffiti—to beautify older areas of the city. We are trying to change the old perception of street art as an act of vandalism,” says Maraya’s artistic director Giuseppe Moscatello.

Sharjah was named the Capital of Islamic Culture for 2014, and in celebration Maraya created an outdoor Art Park, which is constantly evolving with performances and site-specific exhibitions by local and international artists, along the newly developed Al Majaz Waterfront. Shurooq commissioned Iraqi- American multimedia artist Wafaa Bilal—who surgically implanted a camera into the back of his skull for a previous project and has built a practice focused on the dialogue between technology and tradition—to conceive the first outdoor installation.

Bilal titled his project at the Art Park The Hierarchy of Being, though locals casually refer to it as “The Egg” based on its round, white shape. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the installation references the camera obscura pioneered by the Basra-born scientist Alhazen (AD 965–1039). Visitors stand inside a round room illuminated by 15 pinhole cameras with computer-controlled shutters that open and close at intervals, resulting in intriguing renderings of motorized iris function. The project and its placement in the cityscape perfectly capture Sharjah’s deliberately measured balance between scientific innovation and ancient discovery.

Danna Lorch is a Dubai-based writer focusing on contemporary art and culture from the Middle East. She holds a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard, is a staff writer at ArtSlant, and regularly contributes to regional and international magazines and gallery publications. http://dannawrites.com

From Public Art Review #53.