Jameel Arts Centre: here's what to expect from Dubai Creek's new cultural space
Jameel Arts Centre, the contemporary-art institution opening at Dubai Creek on November 11, will begin with a major exhibition about a substance near and dear to the UAE: oil.
Regional artists will explore how oil ushered in modernity across the Middle East, as four solo presentations focus on more established artists.
New commissions and a film programme will present a range of artworks, from a film to a grove of plastic trees in the centre's outdoor garden.
With Crude, which traces the history of oil, “we were trying to think of an exhibition that would set a discursive tone for the centre and would show how art encompasses history and exchange and society,” says Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel. “The idea came from a conversation with [writer] Murtaza [Vali]. One of the – if not the – driving factors in the way the Gulf has interacted with the rest of the world has been through this slippery substance of oil.”
Crude also points to the Gulf's inclusion in histories of Middle Eastern modernity which were previously kept separate. Rather than the Gulf being seen as “Middle East Lite”, the focus on oil underlines the continuities in the region's history, as well as the links among the younger Khaleeji art scenes and those in Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere.
The exhibition showcases work from across the region. This includes Iraqi artist Latif Al Ani, whose 1960s photographs tracked the country’s first flush of oil wealth, Khaleeji artists such as the GCC art collective which explores oil wealth and luxury consumerism and contemporary artists working in Jordan and Beirut.
Carver and Vali are veterans of the UAE art scene, and their selections give the opening a home-team feel as they include artists such as Vikram Divecha, Lantian Xie, Raja'a Khalid, and Shaikha Al Mazrou. And at a time when Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are developing their own art identities, Jameel Arts Centre displays one that is uniquely of Dubai and its mix of nationalities who are based here.
Carver, who was appointed head of Saudi-based Art Jameel in 2016, says the mix of local-but-international artists was a specific reaction to the city. The foundation also has initiatives in Jeddah and Cairo, and in each they have sought to respond to the local scene's needs and character.
“We asked ourselves: how can we be relevant in a microgeography – we’re next to the Jadaf boatyard, we’re on the water of the Creek – and how do you square that with a more macro approach where the UAE is this point of exchange?” asks Carver. “The UAE looks out towards the rest of the world via the Middle East, East Africa and South Asia. Those two vantage points don’t counter each other, they’re two sides of the same coin. As a port city, Dubai has always balanced local and global.”
As a nonprofit art space in a city dominated by commercial galleries, the centre will offer artists the opportunity to develop ideas with curators on a more international platform, and, with its library, provide tools for a historicisation of the burgeoning scene.
Smaller solo shows will give what Carver calls "capsule" presentations of artists, starting with four women: Maha Malluh, Lala Rukh, Mounira Al Solh, and Chiharu Shiota. (Shiota, a Japanese artist, is taking the centre's proximity to the Al-Jadaf boatyard as more than a metaphor; she'll use one of the dhows made there within her installation.)
The centre will also feature educational spaces, a writer’s room – up at the top of the building, like a glossy modern-day garret – a shop and restaurant. One of the galleries will be devoted to artists’ film, traditionally an under-represented area in contemporary art in the UAE. It will host a Crude-linked programme of films made by oil companies as well as artists’ films about oil which will run in November and March.
Overall, the model is that of a kunsthalle. Art Jameel will not show its collection in permanent hang but instead as a resource for curators to draw on for temporary shows. About one-third of Crude, for example, is from the Art Jameel collection. The make-up of the centre's programming will constantly change, with the rooms now given over to solo presentations being used later for large-scale group shows.
“The beauty of the space is that it’s really flexible,” says Carver. “We’ll be introducing new ideas and new shows in a staggered way, as well as symposia and film screenings pretty much every two weeks.” She pauses for a moment. “I’ll have no social life!”