There’s no shortage of art galleries in Dubai, but whether the artwork will be to your tastes is another matter entirely. Being a young nation, Dubai is searching to find an aesthetic vision that reflects the massive changes of the past forty years.
It’s unreasonable to expect that a nation so young will have the artistic tradition and heritage of European, Asian and even North American cultures. Dubai itself is part of the great Middle Eastern artistic world, and a lot of what you will see and possibly buy will come from beyond Dubai.
Walk into any shop in Dubai that sells paintings and there’s no shortage of familiar icons of Dubai and the UAE, rendered in oils, acrylics and watercolors.
You’ll find the Burj Al Arab and the skyscraper canyons of Sheikh Zayed Road alongside gazelles, falcons, sailboats, date palms, tough desert endurance horses and their equally tough riders, and of course, portraits of the rulers of Dubai, along with the founding father of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed.
The technical quality of the work varies – some are excellent, though often constricted by the solidly representational nature of the subjects. Others are undoubtedly patriotic, but best regarded as works charting the progress of the artist’s personal journey.
I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.
As newcomers to the UAE, its culture and traditions, we’re all a bit ignorant about what’s regarded as good and what’s not by the locals.
Remember that Islam has a long tradition of not depicting human forms, so the elaborate patterning of Islamic ceramics and calligraphy absorbed a lot of the creative energy that might otherwise have gone into creating the Mona Lisa or any number of representations of the Pietà in paint or stone. This is perhaps as good a place to start as any.
Galleries Specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic Art
The Meem Gallery in Umm Suqiem Road is highly regarded for its exhibitions of Islamic art. Not just the old stuff either – Meem features some of the best and most creative work by new talents in this very traditional field. One Tripadvisor reviewer enthusiastically recommends that if you only have time for one art gallery in Dubai, this is the one to visit.
The Miraj Islamic Art Centre in Jumeirah Beach Road is also well worth a visit, as it is conveniently close to the Dubai beach hotel strip. Its collections are drawn from all parts of the Islamic world. While it’s a very good place to look and learn, you may have to steel yourself against some very strong pressure to buy, buy, buy. If you don’t really know the relative values of what you are looking at, resist politely but firmly.
Everyone knows a good photograph, don’t they? After all, we now have better cameras on our phones than those used by most of the highly regarded photographers of the last 150 years.
Try the Empty Quarter Fine Art Photography Gallery for a look at what photographers from the region and beyond are bringing to us.
In the gallery’s collection, you’ll find names like Helmut Newton and Steve McCurry (the man who gave us the Afghan girl with the arresting and faraway green eyes) alongside many others whose names you might not know, but whose work with the camera is every bit as artistically valid as anything done with a brush or a chisel. Here’s a sample of a McCurry exhibition held in 2015.
To get to the Wilfred Thesiger Collection (reprints of famous images of the UAE in the 1940s and 1950s), you have to fight your way past collections of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. You may find yourself thinking “very nice, but is it art?” Persevere – there’s good stuff there.
The Cutting Edge
So where can we see the boldest, brightest, newest and most daring art in Dubai? Since the mid 2000s, many very sharp little galleries have been opening in smart locations. By and large, they feature the works of the youngest and the best from the region.
Don’t expect to see too much by Emirati nationals in these galleries at this stage – it may well happen soon, but for the moment, they’re a bit more reticent and conservative about making loud artistic statements.
Artspace Dubai in the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), always has a good stock of original work on display, as well as events and exhibitions where you can attend, view and meet with the artists.
Also in DIFC, Cuadro Fine Art Gallery may have even “edgier” work on display. Both Middle Eastern and Western art are featured in the signature exhibitions, taking place on a nearly monthly basis. What’s currently being shown and what’s coming up are listed on Cuadro’s website calendar.
Getting away from DIFC and out into a large exhibition space in Dubai’s Al Quoz area is Lawrie Shabibi. The gallery presents the works of young, mostly Middle Eastern artists all working in a variety of media and disciplines. It’s also not afraid to challenge the visitors with extravagant use of space provided to showcase larger works.
Since the middle of the 2000s, Dubai has become a regular venue for an annual international art fair. It may have gone through a few lean years following the 2008 “slowdown”, but there are indications that it’s on the rise again.
I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural event at the Madinat Jumeirah complex in 2007. There was an amazing diversity of material from all over the globe on display, and for sale. There were quite a few “names” to tempt the buyers as well. I recall a small Rembrandt, some Picasso and Matisse drawings and Warhol and Lichtenstein numbered prints.
If you’re in Dubai in March of 2016, Art Dubai Modern 2016 is on from March 14 to 19. Once again, the Madinat Jumeirah is the venue, and I wonder if the Basqiat that tempted me so much back in 2007 is still up for grabs!