The Gulf art scene: change in the air?
HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum at Art Dubai 2013. © Art Dubai
The Gulf art scene: change in the air?
Last updated: October 17, 2013

The Gulf art scene: change in the air?

Banner Icon There are some things that money cannot buy; art is not one of them, at least not in the Gulf. Despite the fact that there is no historical tradition in the arts, and no infrastructure for contemporary culture, the Gulf region has been making waves in the art world for some years now.

In February 2012, gas-rich Qatar set a world record, paying $250 million for Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players”. And by 2017 – if things go according to plan – two of the world’s most famous museums, the Louvre and the Guggenheim, will open up their branches in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi.

A decade ago, such plans would have seemed pie in the sky. But the Gulf region, with UAE and Qatar leading the way, is witnessing a shift in its artistic and cultural landscape, with new museums and galleries being built across the region. The UAE, which a decade ago had a handful of art galleries, has more than 85.

Dubai is now home to headline events such as Art Dubai, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, SIKKA Art Fair, Art Dubai, Design Days Dubai, and Dubai and the Gulf Film Festivals. More recently, the Dubai government has renewed its plans to build an opera house and a modern art museum – which will be built near Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower.

This surge of art interest prompted the global auction house Christie’s to open an office in Dubai in 2005. Christie’s began with a conservative projection estimating sales of $30 million between 2006 and 2009. Since then, they sold art, jewellery and watches amounting to more than $220 million, and established over 350 new artist records at auctions for Middle Eastern artists.

While art experts argue that Art Dubai has helped put a global spotlight on Dubai’s cultural context, censorship is still common at art fairs. In 2012, at least three pieces inspired by the Arab Spring events were removed from display at Art Dubai in advance of a visit by the ruling family on the orders of security fearing they could be deemed offensive.

One of those works, named “After Washing” by the Palestinian artist Shadi Alzaqzouq, shows a masked female protester holding up a pair of underpants with the word “Erhal” or "leave" written on them –in reference to Egypt’s 25 January revolution chants which demanded the removal of then-president Hosni Mubarak.

Abu Dhabi catching up

Although Dubai has had a head start over Abu Dhabi when it comes to arts, Abu Dhabi is quickly catching up. With year-round exhibitions, the oil-rich capital is determined to make itself “a world-class cultural centre”.

Six years ago, the emirate unveiled its plans to build a $27 billion museums complex on Saadiyat Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi with the intention of becoming nothing less than an international hotspot for arts and culture. 

The huge cultural complex will host branches of the Guggenheim, the Louvre and Zayed National Museum. At 24,000 square meters, Abu Dhabi’s Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre will be 40% the size of the Paris original, while the 30,000-square-meter Guggenheim will be the largest of the institution’s international network of museums (New York, Venice, Berlin, Bilbao and Las Vegas). Moreover, Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid will be designing the island's Performing Arts Centre, a 62-meter high structure that will house a music hall, opera house and drama theatre.

While the museums’ architectural designs have been finalised, the actual work on site seems to be moving slowly. In January 2012, the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), the master developer of the Saadiyat project, pushed back the opening of the Louvre and the Guggenheim. 

"For the UAE and Qatar, investing in art means investing in the future, but whether that investment will be felt by the society is yet to be seen."

The Louvre Abu Dhabi will now open in 2015, while the Abu Dhabi branch of the Guggenheim will open its doors in 2017 and the Zayed National Museum in 2016. All three museums were originally scheduled to open between 2013 and 2014.

Despite the delays, Abu Dhabi hopes that once finished the museum projects will give an important boost to its name. The project, however, has so far received criticism with reports of mistreatment of migrant workers on the complex and worries about art censorship by the authorities. Some fear that the museums project might be affected by conservative interpretations of Islam – which believe that any art involving animal, human or prophetic figures is “Haram” (prohibited).

In an interview with The Media Line in February 2012, Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, likened the UAE’s eagerness to build big name museums to “the alleged efforts by King Saud and King Abdulaziz Universities in Saudi Arabia to offer cash to well-known Western academics if they cited the Saudi institutions as a second affiliation in their research papers.”

“The Saudis sought to acquire scientific prestige just as the Emiratis are trying to buy cultural prestige — quickly and easily without investing the time in developing human talent,” he told the website.

Qatar, the newcomer

Not far away from the UAE, Qatar is building a first-class collection of art. As it sets the stage for its controversial hosting of World Cup in 2022, Doha is a newcomer to the international art scene. The tiny state has hurtled onto the global arts stage with the 2008 opening of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), home to one of the world’s most encyclopaedic collections of Islamic art.

Since 2008, Qatar has continued to make strides in the global art scene, the world record for the Cézanne was just the icing on the cake. Over the last seven years, the Qatari royal family has spent an estimated $2 billion on Western art, making it the world’s biggest buyer in the art market in 2011 in terms of value, according to the Art Newspaper. Among the purchases Qatar is believed to have made are the “Merkin Rothkos” for $310 million, and Andy Warhol’s “The Men in Her Life”, 1962, sold for $63.4 million.

Much of Qatar’s cultural ambitions can be traced back to the 30-old-year Sheikha al Mayassa, the daughter of the Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and the sister of Qatar's new Emir, who is known to be an avid art collector. She was ranked number one by Art & Auction magazine in the list of the art world’s most influential people, with reports that she spends $1 billion on works of art a year.

Sheika Al Mayassa heads the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), the governing authority of most art projects in the country including the Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf), and the National Museum of Qatar. Asked by Richard Quest of the CNN the about her response to critics who say you can’t import culture, Sheikha Al Mayassa defended the country’s investments in the arts: “I think this is a misconception - we’re not importing culture. If anything, we’re exporting culture.”

Some might find it hard not to disagree. One Doha-based artist, who wished to stay anonymous, said that “despite the big investments in Doha’s art scene, we have to remember that Qatari society is very conservative and many in the community still look at art and artists in suspicion.”

“In the last couple of years, Doha started to have a vibrant cultural scene, especially with the launching of Doha Film Festival. But the problem is many of the artistic initiatives go unnoticed by Qataris,” she added.

Although the cultural landscape of the Gulf region is changing, with more people investing in art, whether by way of buying, studying or promoting it, the actual impact on the society seems to going vertically rather than horizontally. For the UAE and Qatar, investing in art means investing in the future, but whether that investment will be felt by the society is yet to be seen.

Badar Salem
Badar Salem is a Palestinian freelance journalist.
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