With the city currently in a grip of motoring fever, it seems only fitting that the first intrepid visitors to Saadiyat Island were greeted with an exhibition of classic cars. More precisely, considering the island's cultural plans, these were Art Cars - a fleet of vehicles dating from the 1920s to today, customised by a group of local and international artists in pop-art designs, and displayed at the island's newest venue, Manarat al Saadiyat.
Programmed to coincide with the start of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend, Art Cars provides visitors with their first opportunity to access the island from the new 10-lane highway which officially opened, along with the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge, 12 days ago, and passes through Saadiyat Island en route to Yas and Shahama. For Art Cars, the Manarat's surrounding paths have been dotted with a fan of gleaming classic styles from Europe and America, including a 1931 Chevrolet Independence and a 2009 Aston Martin DBS. Organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), the exhibition features 13 customised cars which have been sourced from all over the UAE, as well as 15 on loan from the collection of Sheikh Tahnoon bin Mohammed, Abu Dhabi's Ruler's Representative in the Eastern Region, which have been left unadorned.
Though the interior of the Manarat (meaning "lighthouse") is not due to open until November 18, when it will host an exhibition of work by Middle Eastern artists during Abu Dhabi Art (November 19-22), its intricate latticework exterior is already visible, stretched over a 15,400 sq m industrial warehouse-like frame. Featuring four exhibition spaces and a theatre, it will host The Saadiyat Story, an interactive narrative explaining the cultural vision behind Saadiyat; Arts Abu Dhabi Gallery, a permanent space for exhibitions and programmes organised by the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC); and two spaces dedicated to the future Guggenheim and Louvre Abu Dhabi museums.
In the meantime, though, the action is outside, where tables have been strewn with books on pop art, as well as on the artists Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. A coffee shop is due to open any day. "The idea is that you will be able to come and sip a coffee here," says Ahmed Hussein, the ADTA's deputy director general of tourism operations. "The creators of pop art can be brought to life. So there is also an educational element." Among the Emirati artists participating are Abdul Qader al Rais, Jalal Luqman, Maisoon al Saleh, Wasel Safwan, Noora al Suwaidi, Faiza Mubarak, Khouk Mubarak and Mohammed al Mubarak. The cars, according to Hussein, were -allocated according to style. "It was just about feeling," he says. "The shape of the car would inspire us. For instance, this Rolls-Royce has more space, so we decided to give it to al Rais because he has never done small pieces." The 1970s model has been given a soft spray of colour, graduating from red through to a darker purple. "It has my sense of style," says al Rais, "I wanted to do something that wasn't flamboyant." Others have not been so reticent. The 1959 Chevrolet Impala, adorned by Wasel Safwan with a technicolour arrangement of garish shapes, has significantly more pizzazz. "I call it UAE-ism," he says. What does it say about him? "Maybe it means I need to go and see a psychiatrist," he laughs, before adding, "I studied architecture, which may explain the geometric patterns." The choice of car, he says, was perfect for him. "If I could have chosen any car, I would have chosen this one. Its sharp wings remind me of me." Likewise, Faiza Mubarak's makeover for the 1931 Chevrolet Independence in a mosaic of bright squares is in stark contrast to its original form. "The themes are traditional, old style," she says of the hieroglyphic patterns that line its flanks. "It's like a mosaic of language." The task took her four days to complete. She has even signed the roof. "I saw it and knew immediately what I wanted to do." Following a recent solo exhibition in Paris, Art Cars provided her with the perfect next career step. "I didn't know how to follow up from Paris and then this came along." Like the pop art of the 1950s and 1960s, the artists' message is not always as celebratory as its sunny colours would have us believe. Maisoon al Saleh's 1968 Mercedes 250 SL is decorated with a repeated skull pattern, their heads wrapped in ghutras. "It's about the three stages of life," she says. "You are born, then you're a teenager, then you get older. There are lots of Emirati teenagers dying in car crashes. I have some close friends who were killed in an accident and others who were injured." The way the ghutra is wrapped around the head is, she says, representative of how young Emirati teenagers wear them. "I thought it was important to make a point." The work of several international figures is also on show, including that of Vincent Leow, a Singaporean artist who teaches at the College of Fine Art at the University of Sharjah; the contemporary French artist -Fabien Verschaere; and the Singaporean artist Ben Puah. Noticeably simpler, their works range from Verschaere's black graffiti on a pearly white 2009 Aston Martin DBS ("I like to work in black and white because it's closer to writing") to Leow's delicate floral pattern lacing round the black bodywork of a 1939 Cadillac LaSalle. "I think the car is really beautiful," says Leow, "so I didn't want to change it completely. It was like giving it a dress. I was quite nervous about wrecking so many years of history, so I just wanted to put layers on it to improve it." Leow wasn't the only one who had doubts about altering these well-loved classic styles. "Somebody actually offered me Dh100,00 not to do it," says al Rais, "but now I think it is worth more." "At first I thought, 'I can't, I'll destroy it," says Khouk Mubarak, whose 1973 Mercedes 450 SL now has an enormous falcon spread across its bonnet. "The cars are works of art in themselves, but I'm happy to be able to add new value to old value." Art Cars is open daily from 10am until 8pm at Manarat al Saadiyat, Saadiyat Island, until November 30, when a selection of the cars will be auctioned off for charity. For more information call the Abu Dhabi T-ourism hotline on 800 555. Entrance is free.