DUBAI: It’s a restive time in the MENA region. In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, and the ongoing socio-economic strains that provoked them, the region is experiencing an age of unique anxiety. As ever, there are state actors that see the theater of cultural production and exhibition as instruments of soft power. It’s at this time of ferment that the Jameel Arts Centre opened its doors to the public on Nov. 11.
“It’s not only an unsettled time here,” Antonia Carver mused. “It’s global. You could look at it any number of ways. You could ask, ‘Does art really matter?’ ‘Are we taking one step forward, two steps back?’ or you can think, ‘Now is the ideal time to build a new institution and to really think about how art can [negotiate] with these ideas. It becomes more and more crucial every year, for better or worse, to try to put artists at the center of these debates.”
Carver is a well-known figure on the Emirati scene. An arts journalist and film programmer who became the director of Art Dubai, the emirate’s art fair, she most recently took over the director’s chair at Art Jameel.
With bases in Dubai and Jeddah, Art Jameel describes itself as an independent organization that fosters and promotes contemporary art, cultural heritage protection and creative entrepreneurship across the greater MENA region.
It sprang from Community Jameel, a wider philanthropic project founded in the 1940s by Saudi businessman Abdul Latif Jameel.
“Obviously there are certain conversations going on in the UAE that are quite localized among artists here ‘Where are we living? Where do we come from? Where are we going?’
“When I go to arts events in Europe and America, I think a lot about how often art is within a bubble. ... We all seem to be talking to each other and seeing the same kind of faces. Coming back to this region, with all its nuances and differences, I think that art here has a wholly different role to play.”
Situated in the old shipbuilding region of Jaddaf, Jameel Art Centre is a 10,000-square-meter, three-story space designed by U.K.-based Serie Architects. It boasts being the Gulf’s first nonstate contemporary arts institution of its kind.
A multidisciplinary space, JAC’s facilities include an open-access contemporary arts library and resource center, the UAE’s first apparently, with a bilingual collection of nearly 3,000 titles. Library programs will include talks, research projects, symposiums and reading groups.
The center hosts exhibition venues inside and out.
Five of the interior halls are presently turned over to JAC’s opening exhibition, “Crude,” curated by Murtaza Vali.
Featuring recent and newly commissioned work by 17 artists and collectives from the MENA region and beyond, the show takes up the theme of oil.
“‘Crude’ ... talks a lot about the history and archives but also about contemporary realities,” Carver said. “It’s an exhibition that, hopefully, draws in a public that extends beyond the art world.
“You can be from outside this art bubble ... and find elements of the show interesting, because oil flows through everything.
“[Our work] is about making sure that art is relevant to a situation, that art is part of a wide conversation about where the world is going now and to see the urgency of having that conversation.”
JAC seeks to serve the needs of the Emirati public and artistic community while embracing regional and international art.
Part of the Jameel family’s brief, Carver said, is to make the center an institution for everybody.
“There’s some obvious things you can do. You make sure you have free entrance. You can think about the architecture how open is it. You can pair the institution with a sculpture park ... as a way of drawing in people who may be afraid of stepping into a museum. ...
“We’re independent, and we’re a hybrid. We have a collection but we see ourselves more as a kunsthalle [German gallery] model, using the collection to inspire exhibitions.
“About 40 percent of the works on show here are from our collection, but there’s no permanent museum hang.
“We focus on contemporary art, thinking that the modern is well taken care of in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, and also think we can be the site for international touring shows. ... Being a center for this younger generation in their 20s and 30s ... got us thinking about giving young Gulf artists their first solo shows.”
JAC’s holdings do not include the collection of work commissioned by Dubai’s Abraaj Group, the private equity firm that for some years sponsored the lucrative Abraaj Art Prize. Before Abraaj took a tumble last spring, it was said the collection would pass to Art Jameel.
“I’d been aware these conversations had been going on for some time. Some of the works are in storage and surely it would be better that they be on permanent show in a museum or some other context.
“It was proposed the works could be a long-term loan [to Art Jameel]. That was in February. We announced it. Then, in April-May, it seemed things were radically changing for Abraaj.
“We’d never actually had the chance to transfer the works, though everything had kind of been agreed, so it never happened.”
Complementing “Crude,” JAC has several solo exhibitions.
Each of four Artist’s Rooms focuses on a single artist represented in the Art Jameel collection. The current array shows work by Mounira Al Solh, Maha Malluh, Lala Rukh and Chiharu Shiota. Across the hall from Shiota’s third-floor show, Gallery Nine projects film and video, currently Jumana Manna’s 2017 work “Wild Relatives,” a documentary examining the relocation of Aleppo’s seed bank to the Bekaa Valley via Norway.
JAC’s opening corresponded with that of the Jaddaf Waterfront Sculpture Park, the city’s first, including work by Helaine Blumenfeld, Talin Hazbar and Latifa Saeed, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, David Nash and Slavs and Tatars.
The center’s roof terrace frames “Contrary Life: A Botanical Light Garden Devoted to Trees,” 2018, the winning work of Art Jameel’s first round of commissions. Created by Kuwait-based artists Alia Farid and Aseel AlYaqoub, “Contrary Life” “riffs on our relationship with the natural and nocturnal worlds.” Designed to resemble a community botanical garden, the installation comprises artificial, hybrid trees and flora made of plastic and artificial lights. The plastic used, AlYaqoub told the press, is biodegradable.
“Thinking about arts writing, we have this studio space on the top floor, devoted to writers and researchers,” Carver said of the JAC’s commissions program. “This was a very deliberate stance, thinking, ‘Well, artists are taken care of [through] various UAE programs, but nothing for writers.
“Maybe it’s a little personal,” she smiled, “but really, understanding that the act of art research and writing is essential to the practice. It needs its own space, time and resources to develop.
“Right, newspapers are sacking their arts correspondents or shutting their departments. Maybe it’s a global crisis among writers, having a space to develop their long-term ideas and such, but in this region it feels particularly urgent.”