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Art thrives: the underground arts scene of Dubai

Exterior. Night. Electronic music resonates through the dimly lit streets of Al Quoz industrial area in Dubai. The heat of the UAE hangs heavy in the ...

Photo via Instagram
Exterior. Night. Electronic music resonates through the dimly lit streets of Al Quoz industrial area in Dubai. The heat of the UAE hangs heavy in the air while people from all walks of life spill in and out of the warehouses that line the area, with wine glasses in hand. Some gather in a corner watching an improvised performance of hip-hop dance break out, while others chat in small groups as they explore the place. It’s a scene taken right out of New York. Maybe even Berlin, except a tad hotter. Graffiti decorates the walls of the industrial-spaces-turned art galleries of Alserkal Avenue, where men and women mingle and enjoy the opening of over 17 exhibitions of artists from all over the Middle East.
This is roughly the ambience that surrounded the gallery openings in Alserkal Avenue on Sept. 15.
Freshman Angela Orozco said of her experience: “The Alserkal Avenue was an escape of what I knew until now … An industrial area, a useless warehouse … The Burj Khalifa forgotten and ignored in all its splendor. In this corner of Dubai, the culture changes. You walk along the streets and the air is thin. The avenue lends itself for spontaneous dances of social encounters and critical conversations.”
Alserkal Avenue is a hub of arts in the UAE, hidden between industrial workshops in a warehouse. It has grown organically and is in step with the Middle East's expanding art culture.
Contemporary art is blossoming throughout the Middle East, with significant amounts of government money being invested in cultural development. Doha’s Mathaf Museum of Modern Art, Sharjah’s Art Foundation, which already features a biennial and complexes such as Alserkal and XVA Gallery in Dubai are all examples of the region’s interest in matching the art spheres of other world capitals.
Dubai aspires to be one of the main hubs for exchanging, displaying and experiencing contemporary artworks. Considering the large disposable income and mixed demographics that characterize the city, there seems to be a solid foundation for the increased growth of this market.
However, contemporary art in Dubai seems to be growing at a slow pace. Revenues in galleries and auctions houses such as Christie’s and Bonhams have not seen significant increases in the last few years. Orozco’s view of the Alserkal event as an escape from the usual UAE experience, rather than as a part of it, speaks to the limited stage the arts scene Dubai still finds itself on.
"There is a network of people around you in places like London or New York — museums, galleries, dealers. This is what helps you weather a downturn. All that is very much in its infancy in Dubai,” said Bonhams’ Matthew Girling to Reuters.
There is no denying that there is an audience in Dubai for the types of contemporary regional talent that is being showcased in places like Alserkal Avenue and even though the market’s growth is not yet booming, spaces such as The Young Collectors Auction Viewing within Alserkal, which features local works at relatively affordable prices, continue to push the art scene forward in the evolving hub that is Dubai.
As put by senior Cleo Smits, “It is always very exciting to see a public for this type of event and realize that there is interest in the contemporary arts in the country — the outlets for this interest are increasing in number and hopefully will continue to advance in quality as well.”
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