The newly refurbished Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah, officially opened today, includes two galleries committed to displaying and encouraging contemporary Arab art and a community centre aiming to provide a workspace for the city's culturally-minded residents. Spread across three levels and 1,500 square metres, the space in the city's Al Qasba region cost Dh2 million to renovate. Before the building's closure in 2007, the first and third floors housed art galleries and the second floor was used as office space.
Now, the second floor features the The House of Arab Art, which displays pieces from the personal collection of the local art collector and The National columnist Sultan Sooud al Qassemi. "I was actively searching for a place in the UAE to display some of my artworks and, by coincidence, met some people from Al Qasba who said they had a space opening up," says al Qassemi. The House of Arab Art shows between 30 and 40 pieces from al Qassemi's Barjeel Collection of more than 200 Arab works.
"I wanted there to be a contemporary feel to the exhibition," he says. "The oldest pieces only go back four or five years. I don't want to mix and match too much and it's important to keep it fresh." The first set of works to go on display will include pieces by the Iraqi artists Ayad Alkadhi and Hayv Kahraman, the Saudi photographer Manal al Dowayan, the Emirati conceptualist Mohammed Kazem and the Bahraini painter Abdul Rahim Sharif.
Al Qassemi explains that one of his favourites pieces is King's Harem by Halim al Karim, the photograph that was used on the cover of the Saatchi book New Vision; Arab Contemporary Art in the 21st Century. He previously lent nine of his pieces to the Emirati Expressions exhibition in Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace, but this is the first exhibition sourced exclusively from his collection. "Art is an avenue that we can explore to help people in the Gulf communicate with the rest of the world," al Qassemi explains. "There are so many communities that we haven't spoken to yet."
The third floor Contemporary Art Gallery provides a venue for rotating exhibitions. The first exhibition, overseen by the Italian artist and curator Giuseppe Moscatello, displays the work of the three winners of the 2009 Abraaj Capital Art Prize, the world's most generous art grant. Run by the Dubai-based investment fund Abraaj Capital, the prize's three winning artists each received $200,000 (Dh735,000) to produce the works that they then unveiled at Art Dubai.
The Algerian artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah was one of the winners. The artist's ambitious installation Walk on the Sky. Pisces, is a ceiling-mounted light display that shines the constellation of Pisces onto a polished stainless steel floor. The second winner, the Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman, created the video art piece, Strange Space, which shows the artist crossing a desert landscape with bare feet and blinded eyes. The work was intended as a reference to ancient Mesopotamian folk tales.
The traditional floral motifs of the Persian carpet were transformed into scenes of contemporary life in Iran in Rhyme and Reason by Nazgol Ansarinia, the third winner. Accustomed to working on a small scale, the artist was able to create a carpet of almost nine square metres thanks to the grant. Although the Persian carpet has become something of an Iranian stereotype, Ansarinia takes familiar weaving materials and uses them to probe into issues about society's systems and patterns.
Laura Trelford, the manager of the Abraaj Capital Prize, explains that the international reaction to these three exhibits has been positive. "We showed them in New York in the autumn of 2009 at the Museum of Art and Design and the reaction was very good. Now, it's really nice to welcome back the artworks and show them in the UAE, which is where they were initially unveiled. We're delighted to have found a venue that suits the work."
The exhibition will run until the beginning of May, when an as-yet untitled show by five young Emirati artists is to go on display. "Our main aim is to nurture young artists and showcase their works," says Moscatello. "We are open to new media like installations and performances. We plan to work with universities and other institutions and help grow young artists." The building's first floor holds the Sharjah branch of The Shelter, a community centre for networking, workshops and other creative pursuits aimed at encouraging grass-roots participation in the arts. It offers the same services as its Dubai sister, which opened in February 2009. This includes a cafeteria, curated exhibitions, product launches and film screenings.
The co-owner of The Shelter, Ahmed bin Shabib, explains that the venue will serve as an incubator for creativity and ideas for young people. "There are close to 1,500 students in the area around the Maraya Centre graduating every year, most of whom spend six months experimenting and thinking about what to do with their lives. What we want to do is assist those people and help them get their ideas off the ground. The Shelter is a place to start new ventures and new initiatives, or just work on their travel plans. It's a forum for new ideas."