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Art at its hottest

14/02/2014
An artwork from Quoz Happens, Dubai's annual arts and culture festival. © Bon Micu An artwork from Quoz Happens, Dubai's annual arts and culture festival.

Dubai's creative spirit thrives in an unexpected place, writes Julietta Jameson.

Finding Alserkal Avenue is proving interesting. Neither my driver nor guide know where it is. They have a vague idea, but we're driving in circles. "Dubai changes so much so quickly," the guide says. "It's hard for us to keep up. The GPS doesn't even keep up."

After making two stops to ask directions, we find it. I understand the difficulty.

Alserkal Avenue, also known as Arts District Dubai, does not stand out from the places that surround it. But it does look a lot different from the Dubai I have come to know during previous visits.

The more conventional hub of Dubai art is the Dubai International Financial Centre, a predictably modern, glamorous and corporate enclave in the city centre whose occupants include Christie's sale room.

Alserkal Avenue, hosting 20 edgy galleries, studios and a private museum, is on the outskirts of the Emirate, hidden in a mess of 1970s warehouses and factories where bricks, concrete and other dusty products are made, and where traditionally dressed men on bicycles carrying huge bundles dart between buildings along quiet, narrow roads.

A 20-minute drive west (longer if you circle), but a far shot from the glitz and endless construction of the central business district, this is Dubai's Al Quoz district, where in 2007, angry workers rioted for better conditions.

That was the year Alserkal Avenue was founded. It has since become emblematic of a side of Dubai that is more discriminating and thoughtful. While it is an aspect that is not new, it is emerging from the shadows of excess as Dubai evolves, riding the curve of a bounce back from the crash of 2008; albeit a gentler ride than pre-crash.

The arts district also epitomises a dichotomy of Dubai. Although workers toil anonymously around it, the avenue is sophisticated and high-end, with a profile growing in stature in the world art scene.

Unassuming and utilitarian from the outside, Alserkal Avenue is a series of warehouse spaces, purpose built for exhibitions and performance. The young and hip of this fast-moving city, as well as the rich and not-so-young, come to engage with regional creativity (and to see and be seen at VIP opening nights.)

But it's not just a superficial dabble in the shallow end of art, as might be expected in a country hell bent on building its own Taj Mahal - only bigger than the original. Recently, for example, Salisali, the only private museum on the avenue, was exhibiting a provocative installation by Deutsche Bank's Artist of the Year 2013, the renowned Pakistani painter Imran Qureshi. Another recent exhibition featured the work of internationally lauded Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour. Both Sansour and Qureshi are contemporary artists with eastern (and political) inspirations and western aesthetics; a mix that is common throughout the galleries and their highly sought-after collections.

For those with even a passing interest, it's a fantastic opportunity to see spectacular, cutting-edge art and it's usually free to enter the galleries. It's also a unique chance to see a different side to Dubai.

The not-for-profit district is bankrolled by local philanthropists and art lovers: the Alserkal family have just broken ground on an adjacent space with a plan to double the Arts District Dubai by the middle of this year. At the pace Dubai evolves, there is little doubt they will achieve that goal.

The writer was a guest of Emirates and the Oberoi Dubai.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Emirates has a fare to Dubai for about $1870 low season return from Melbourne (13hr 5min) and Sydney (13hr 20min) including tax. It is possible to travel via another Asian city en route to Dubai and back from another European city (fare and taxes will vary). See emirates.com.

STAYING THERE

The new Oberoi Dubai on Sheikh Zayed Road has a contemporary aesthetic and pared back elegance. Rooms from AED900 (about $276). See oberoihotels.com/oberoi_dubai.

WHILE THERE

Alserkal Avenue is in Al Quoz, Dubai. Take a taxi from your hotel and use exit 43 off Sheikh Zayed Street 8. See alserkalavenue.ae.

MORE INFORMATION

dubaitourism.ae

Wealth begets art

The growth of Dubai's art scene is market driven - with huge wealth comes the desire to collect and invest.

That has led to the development of Art Week, a burgeoning program of exhibitions, performances and events designed to inspire more of that investment and create a strong cultural life.

Art Week includes Design Days Dubai, "the only fair in Asia dedicated to product and furniture design"; Sikka, a fair dedicated solely to new work by UAE-based artists; and Galleries Nights, featuring 40 new exhibitions across Al Quoz and the Dubai International Financial Centre.

The emirate's art fair, Art Dubai is on during Art Week and will feature work from more than 80 galleries across 36 countries.

This year it will include a new sub-program, Art Dubai Modern. Art Week is on March 14-24. See artweek.ae. Art Dubai is on March 19-22. See artdubai.ae.

An artwork from Quoz Happens, Dubai's annual arts and culture festival. © Bon Micu An artwork from Quoz Happens, Dubai's annual arts and culture festival. An artwork from Quoz Happens, Dubai's annual arts and culture festival. © Bon Micu An artwork from Quoz Happens, Dubai's annual arts and culture festival.
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