Grassroots Collaborations and International Projects Spur Abu Dhabi’s Art Scene

For a survey of what lies ahead as the art world looks forward to the future, ARTnews devoted part of the June-July 2021 issue of the magazine to 10 cities to watch: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Vancouver, Guadalajara, Bogotá, Oslo, Tallinn, Casablanca, Abu Dhabi, and Taipei. Stay tuned as each city joins related reports from Seoul and Paris online in the weeks to come.

The wealthiest of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi undertook some 15 years ago the immense project of building itself from the ground up into an international art hub at the level of nearby Dubai and other destinations across the globe. Much of the action has transpired on Saadiyat Island (“Happiness Island,” in Arabic), which plays home to a cultural district defined by ambitious projects, and across the city, a host of international players works in a local art scene that has emerged over years of grassroots collaborations among figures from around the region.

The Big Museums

A praying female figure from Iraq, ca. 2800–2550 B.C., in the collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi rises above a sprawl of sand once accessible only by boat. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the museum is a stainless-steel structure topped by a lattice evoking Islamic moucharabies—a marriage of modernity and tradition that captures the young Gulf nation’s ambitions. After five years of construction delays, the $650 million structure opened to the public in 2017 and has generated increasing international interest in the years since.

The museum continues to build its permanent collection with works by notable Western artists like Marc Chagall, and accepts the long-term loan of pieces by Henri Matisse and Francis Bacon. It also endeavors to prove its dedication to the study of Islamic art: in April the Louvre Abu Dhabi acquired a collection of more than 2,800 coins dating to the medieval Islamic empire. Dubbed “The Hoard of Jazira,” after the area in upper Mesopotamia where they originated, the treasures will require a long, delicate restoration drawing on a wealth of resources that open possibilities for deeper dives into the history of the region’s art.

Vincent van Gogh’s Caravans, Gypsy Camp Near Arles (1888) is on loan to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile, questions continue to surround a long-delayed opening for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, for which construction began in 2011 before hitting periods of postponement and controversy over working conditions for laborers at the site. The museum’s collection includes more than 200 works from across the Western and Eastern canons, with contemporary juggernauts like Richard Prince, Frank Stella, and Donald Judd to be displayed alongside artists such as Ghada Amer, Adel El-Siwi, and Zhang Hongtu.

Guggenheim curators have promised to tell a less geographically isolated and more interconnected story than usual, but starting when is still anybody’s guess. Various reports have suggested that construction on the Frank Gehry–designed building could be complete by 2022, but the museum itself stopped issuing prospective opening dates—and did not respond to repeated inquiries about when visitors might start to enter its doors.

A Condensed History

Only 50 years ago, Abu Dhabi was hardly more than arid land home to nomadic Bedouins and fishermen, date farms, and Arabian oryx. The United Arab Emirates—a union of seven small kingdoms, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital—formed out of necessity when, overshadowed by their neighbors in terms of size and military might, the kingdoms banded together in the 1970s to protect shared interests that include vast reserves of oil and natural gas. Those resources have allowed the absolute monarchy a wealth of influence politically, as well as immense funds to funnel into development of all kinds.

In 2005 the Emirati government began efforts to diversify its economy by developing tourism, leading to a $27 billion cultural and tourism initiative. The following year, the Guggenheim Foundation was hired to develop a master plan for what would become Saadiyat Island. At the time, Thomas Krens, the foundation’s director, said, “My driving concept was to create a critical mass that by definition would be—rather aggressively—the greatest concentration of contemporary cultural resources in the world.”

But the world soon underwent drastic change, with the beginning of a global economic downturn in 2008 and the Arab Spring starting in late 2010, whose effects were such that, by 2012, construction on the project was largely frozen. Around 2013 leadership changed within Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company, and work recommenced on an expansive project that remains ongoing.

Fairgoers viewing a painting by Lu Chao at the 2019 edition of Abu Dhabi Art.

Fair on the Rise

Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (T.D.I.C.) launched Abu Dhabi Art in 2005 with two driving missions: to create a new generation of local collectors and draw blue-chip art to the city from around the world. “Abu Dhabi Art is part of a greater vision to build transnational cultural institutions to ensure that the Arab world is not isolated,” Rita Aoun Abdo, director of the T.D.I.C. cultural department, told the New York Times upon the start of the fair.

The annual event at Manarat Al Saadiyat, a culture center on Saadiyat Island, has been a mainstay on the city’s cultural calendar since Dyala Nusseibeh—the daughter of Zaki Nusseibeh, the UAE minister of state and a prominent art collector—took the helm in 2016. And the fair, the next edition of which is scheduled for November, has expanded into a series of curated shows, programming, and initiatives including commissions for established artists to create site-specific works in heritage sites throughout the Emirates. Under Nusseibeh, the fair also launched the Pavilion Prize and Art + Tech Artist Residency in collaboration with local universities.

“Abu Dhabi thinks long and hard about how it wants to develop, what kind of place it wants to be, and how to preserve its fascinating cultural heritage whilst enabling diversity and tolerance in the population,” said Nusseibeh, who noted the presence of a small but serious community of local collectors bolstered by more than 200 nationalities living and working in the Emirates and a dedicated collector base from Southeast Asia.

Though not at the level of the more expansive Art Dubai, Abu Dhabi Art has attracted global galleries and big buyers, and Nusseibeh predicted that the continuing development of Abu Dhabi will bring about more change for the better. “It’s a virtuous circle for us as a fair,” she said. “The more people visit the museums and increase their passion for and education in art, the more people are likely to want to have art at home, the more children are able to discuss art with their parents after a school trip, and the younger people will want to become artists or arts professionals to bring creativity into other industries.”

Fairgoers viewing a wall sculpture by Khalid Al Banna at the 2019 edition of Abu Dhabi Art.

Arab Art Studies

New York University has established a significant presence in Abu Dhabi since starting out small in 2008, commencing an academic program officially in 2010, and opening a permanent campus on Saadiyat Island in 2014. The Arts Center, a self-described “laboratory for performance” with multiple venues, is home to the university’s Theater, Music, Film & New Media, Visual Arts, and Interactive Media departments, and includes a 700-seat theater that has become an important stage for local and regional artists working in experimental mediums. The theme for the Center’s sixth season was “A Bridge,” with works centered on bridging communities during the pandemic; As Far As Isolation Goes, a “micro-theatre experience” created by Tania El Khoury and Basel Zaraa, explored refugee trauma through touch and sound.

The NYUAD Arab Center for the Study of Art shares a similar mission: launched in January, it’s dedicated to the research and preservation of art and photography across the Arab-speaking world. One of the first centers of its kind, it will host symposiums, artist residencies, and an archive of precious materials under the leadership of Salwa Mikdadi, a professor of art history at NYUAD. “It’s our responsibility to correct the historical narrative of art from this region,” Mikdadi said. “We’ve actually had the idea for the center for decades, since the 1980s, but I don’t think the world was ready for a serious study of Arab art history, isolated from Western influences.” Mikdadi said it is important to study Arab art in the context of Arab history and culture, as opposed to past practices that drew inherently flawed parallels with Western art movements. “Arab modernism, for example, has an entirely different context than the history often taught,” she said. The Center is also developing archives related to the region’s art history, including photography and oral history, in an effort to correct for political unrest and administrative negligence that have led to the loss or destruction of countless records.

Another significant area newcomer is the NYU Art Gallery, which occupies a unique position in Abu Dhabi’s art ecosystem. “We’re the venue where the emerging artists community can connect with international players who pass through,” Maya Allison, the Art Gallery’s chief curator, said. “Biennials, fairs, and now the Louvre and Guggenheim have created a spotlight on Abu Dhabi—so the art that was already here is surfacing in a very visible way.”

Allison and her team have worked with emerging artists from the region to develop their voices, free from institutional pressure. “The work I see being created in the Emirates is about charting new directions, new ways to read Emirati art without the tendency to interpret it through a generic lens of the region or through a Western canon, which is not a helpful dialogue.”

A version of this article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Middle Eastern Sanctuary: Abu Dhabi.”

The Louvre Abu Dhabi and NYU’s campus on Saadiyat Island are among the most important institutions in the city.Read MoreARTnews, News, Abu Dhabi Art, Cities to Watch 2021, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi, NYU Art GalleryARTnews.comRead More

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