x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Art and soul

Feature Dubai's industrial Al Quoz neighbourhood, with its large open spaces and lower rents, has grown organically into the city's creative hub.

Guests at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai's Al Quoz district attend the opening  of Iranian artist Amir Fallah's Make It Believe.
Guests at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai's Al Quoz district attend the opening of Iranian artist Amir Fallah's Make It Believe.

On a busy workday, Dubai's industrial Al Quoz neighbourhood seems an unlikely spot to house a fledgling art scene. But as Jessica Hume reports, the warehouse district, with its large open spaces and lower rents, has grown organically into the city's creative hub. While projects such as The World and The Palm typify Dubai's development in defiance of nature's limitations, the nascent creative community in its industrial Al Quoz neighbourhood is a rare example of organic growth. Driving through Al Quoz at noon on a workday, you'd never suspect this was a creative hub. The area, between Sheikh Zayed Road and Al Khail Road, north of Barsha and south of the National Cement Factory, is made up predominantly of sprawling, low-rise warehouses. Forklifts and lorries outnumber cars on the dusty roads. But mixed in with the industrial elements is a handful of galleries, studios, retail outlets and the umbrella space, The Shelter.

Inside these galleries the work of what curators call the Middle East's best up-and-coming artists and designers is created, displayed, bought and sold. The young men and women credited with getting this movement going do not all agree on when it began specifically, but it was roughly six years ago. The way Sunny Rahbar explains it, this small group of people who had grown up in Dubai all went away to study abroad for a few years. Upon returning, they began to think that what they saw as the "coolest" elements of the cities they had been to were lacking in Dubai - and so they decided to do something about it. By pooling their qualifications and interests (fashion, art, gallery management, event planning), they hoped to build the same kind of creative community they had fallen in love with abroad and wanted to create here.

"When we came back to Dubai the city didn't seem as cool as it did before we knew what was out there," says Rahbar, who runs The Third Line Gallery with two partners. "We were just a bunch of young people with ideas. We thought we were cool and we had no outlet. So we decided to do this stuff." Hosting parties seemed a good place to start. A single event had the potential to incorporate all their respective interests.

"We started throwing parties, attracting all these artists, DJs, people with design backgrounds, and a lot of them were saying they were frustrated because they didn't have anywhere to sell their work," says 32-year-old Saadia Zahid, who helps run The Shelter. "So the parties grew more into businesses, and it all, this movement, it just happened really suddenly." For the first event, Rahbar organised the exhibitions, Zahid, with a background in fashion, arranged a fashion element, their DJ friends did the music, and so on; Rahbar said more than 500 people showed up. "We thought we were the only people looking for something different, but we weren't," she says. "There were all these other people."

The Third Line Gallery was the first to open and the creation of a slew of other galleries (B21, Traffic), retail and record stores (concept store Five Green, Ohm Records) and events organisations (9714 and the now defunct nightclub iBO) followed. Five Green, run by Zahid until its closure in December, filled a gap in the market, but certainly had its work cut out for it. In a culture whose attachment to the mall knows no bounds, the overwhelming desire when it comes to fashion is for high-end, established brands. To rent space in the malls, the brand has to have already made it big in a place like Paris, Zahid explains. And besides, the rents are much too high for a small business such as Five Green.

Al Quoz was an obvious choice. The industrial area offered large, open spaces for relatively low rent compared with the rest of the city. It's a worldwide phenomenon; artists with little money move into a rundown industrial area whose factories have closed down. Think SoHo in New York, Queen West in Toronto, or Shoreditch in London. Of course, the next step in the evolution of these neighbourhoods is gentrification. Once the artistic community has established itself, the place becomes cool, and other, bigger businesses and affluent couples and families want to work and live there, too. And when the gentrification begins, the rents go up.

The creative community at Al Quoz may not yet be as established as those in New York, Toronto or London, but the rents have increased nonetheless. And it's hurting the nascent arts businesses already. Depeche Depala, the managing director of the Ayesha Depala fashion brand, says that when his business moved into Al Quoz in 2007, the rent was about Dh85,000 a year. Three years later it has gone up to about Dh150,000. "For independent brands and small businesses, the rents in Al Quoz are prohibitive," he says. "Galleries have had to close down."

Rahbar says that when the rent for her gallery rose beyond what was affordable she began looking at other spaces in Al Quoz. She found rents to be about 400 per cent higher than when she moved in four years ago. "There should be an institutional effort in terms of helping local creative businesses. There has to be support, but there's nothing of the sort," Depala says. "People are basically on their own and you do the best you can."

Because this community is so new, it is not entirely surprising that government organisations and support mechanisms lag behind. Zahid says the biggest obstacles for her and other young entrepreneurs trying to get their small businesses off the ground were technical. "You can't register a trade licence to a warehouse; silly things like that were causing problems," she says. "So, you'd have your gallery here in Al Quoz and have to have your head office in Deira or something."

There is also difficulty in getting residency visas for unsponsored artists. The Dubai Culture and Arts Authority was formed last year to help ease the growing pains, but it has received mixed reviews. Simone Sebastian, of Traffic gallery, says the DCAA are "wonderful supporters", calling their existence evidence that the creative community has been recognised. Mishaal al Gergawi, a projects and events manager at the DCAA, says the body liaises between creative elements and the government. Many of the problems Al Quoz now faces could be solved with legislation, he believes; warehouses should be zoned for commercial or residential use, for example. Affordable rent for both uses is essential to this community's survival. The DCAA is trying to cordon off a section of Al Quoz as a separate district, with all the necessary zoning requirements.

"We can't control the rent, but we're involved in negotiations," al Gergawi says. "Senior government people have assured us about the rent and the district. We need a master plan, though, and right now we're looking for the right land. It should be finalised soon." Some of Al Quoz's artists feel that this level of government involvement in what should be an organic and unofficial movement should be avoided.

"There's a danger in this institution being a government thing. You don't want it to stifle or compartmentalise what's happening," says Depala. "You don't want a regulatory body. It could be an NGO, a private institution of benefactors. You want it to be someone who has an interest in developing the creative life of this place. That could give us a genuine identity." The lack of an arts umbrella body is a problem, but the most serious issue, according to Depala, is the lack of a genuinely critical view of some of the projects and what he sees as low-quality art. The media, patrons, the artists themselves refuse to "call it like it is". For example, he is highly critical of past Dubai Fashion Weeks. "You could send someone down that runway in a polyester gown and it would get a standing ovation," he says.

He feels people excuse low standards in art because the movement is new and burgeoning, making patrons, media, art and fashion experts reluctant to be critical. "It's not new, it's just that we have a long way to go." No one wants to quash a budding scene, but the sensitivity isn't doing anybody any favours. Depala says in the absence of any force "keeping people on their toes", the quality of the product suffers.

"You think international artists want to exhibit here? I don't think so. I only see Iranian art here anyway. It's beautiful, it's wonderful, but they really shouldn't call this the Dubai art scene. They should call it the Iranian art scene." Ahmed bin Shabib runs the lifestyle magazine Brownbook out of Dubai and has a decidedly more positive outlook. Admitting that "we don't have a scene" and that "there's no identity", Shabib says that one of the goals in launching the Middle East-focused arts and culture publication was to simulate creativity and highlight things as they happen.

And if a place like Iran has a longer history of art, why shouldn't the Iranians in Dubai be part of the creative community? Dubai is, after all, a cultural mosaic, he says. Sebastian at Traffic says the movement at Al Quoz is laying the foundation for a design economy in Dubai. She admits that it isn't perfect but believes something is happening here. It may have a long way to go, but "what we're doing actually betters things in the city".

Zahid is busy at The Shelter, where today there is a casting call in its bright, high-ceilinged main room. This converted warehouse provides office space for various independent organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, has a growing library and makes itself available for meetings of "creative people". But Zahid was also a founding member of the now defunct events planning company 9714 and the concept "lifestyle" store Five Green, which closed last year because it was an unsustainable money drain. Undeterred, Zahid carries on and has no plans for slowing down any time soon.

"Not everything works out, but what we're doing here, really, is giving people something to talk about," she says. "They say Dubai has no soul. People are always trying to figure out what's at the heart of the city. This is it. This is the heart of the city. This movement is the soul of the city."