It was the usual 110F in Dubai as I strolled through Alserkal Avenue and slipped into the Ishara Art Foundation’s first, and very new, gallery. My relief at escaping the blistering sun was quickly overtaken by surprise and wonder, as I was immediately faced with Zarina’s massive Home is a Foreign Place — one of my most favourite pieces of art. I was awestruck, and made my way through the Foundation’s inaugural exhibition. When I finally stepped out, I realized that I had discovered a whole new side of Dubai, and committed myself to exploring it fully in my time here.
Initially, I was rather daunted at the prospect of spending eight weeks in Dubai. While I loved my internship experience through Princeton’s International Internship Program, I resigned myself to spending weekends at the mall. “Concrete jungle,” I had been told of Dubai. “Just skyscrapers and malls.” It was so fascinating, then, to begin to see the kind of art that was now being produced and celebrated in the city — an amalgamation of expatriate cultures and histories, belonging and otherness, the merging of the Middle East of the past with the Dubai of the future, and connecting it to the world.
Alserkal Avenue is the city’s foremost arts and culture hub, where art galleries, cafes, and studios are set in old warehouses. Workshops, exhibitions, and talks are easily accessible, and mostly free; I even went back to the Ishara Art Foundation for a curator-led tour and discussion with the Foundation’s Artistic Director, a truly incredible experience. The space boasted of incredible international modern and contemporary art in such an unassuming location, and I was surprised that it didn’t feature on most tourists’ lists of things to do and see in the city. It was here that I even visited the studio of eL Seed, a French-Tunisian street artist who works in calligraffiti.
During my stay, I also visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a museum that excited me both for its celebrated architecture, as well as for the artworks it housed. It was truly an inspiring visit, and moreover, served to emphasise how art and culture has been used to elevate and establish the Emirates’ position in the world, not just culturally, but economically and politically too.
In my time in the UAE, I saw art in two lights. First, I saw art being deployed as a means to grapple with and legitimize the experiences of a burgeoning expatriate population. Art here is being used to communicate, to share, and to express, an experience which resounded with me more than I could imagine. And then, conversely, there were the names of the art historical canon, used to firmly pin the Emirates as an art destination of the world, alongside Paris and New York City. This experience made for a time where contextualizing and geographically locating an artwork so powerfully shaped my interaction with it.