In a move that's inspirational to artists, gallerists and patrons alike, UAE art is treading new ground and heading to London.
Dubai art galleries expand and open up in the West
Setting up shop in the UAE can be an attractive move for a western art gallery: you plug into the lucrative regional market and get access to the Middle East's biggest fair, all in a sunny, tax-free sort of way. Artspace, however, one of Dubai's longest-running outfits, is the first to do things the other way round.
Founded in 2003 at the Fairmont hotel before later moving to the Gate Village enclave of galleries in DIFC, Artspace opened a second branch on Wednesday on Milner Street in London's South Kensington borough.
The gallery is positioned close to Knightsbridge, an area popular with many Arab expatriates, indicating that the Artspace managing director, Maliha Al Tabari, is trying to tap into a new market of Middle Eastern buyers. "The Dubai space is still doing well," she says, "but a lot of our clients are Arabs and Iranians who live in London.
"Many of these people are building significant collections and are genuinely switched on to what's happening art-wise across the region. In the UK, not many gallerists focus on Middle Eastern art, so this is going to approach that market on a more intimate scale and really explain to clients our artists' ideas."
Artspace London opens with works by Mohamed Abla, an Egyptian painter whose work is also currently on show in the Dubai venue. The distinction between the two spaces is clear: whereas the UAE exhibition focuses on Abla's nostalgic, almost sentimental line paintings of his close familial bonds in Egypt, the works showing in London are markedly more political. In one work, for instance, we see three men from the Egyptian army linking hands, while around them the crowds in Tahrir Square amass. Elsewhere, there's a graffiti-like mural of scrawlings, found images and phrases - an accumulated history of events in modern Egypt.
"People in London want to see edgier art," Al Tabari says. "For Mohamed Abla, the crowd represents some community. There's a sense of people reuniting across his work; it's still a political conversation but an uplifting one."
Artspace was the subject of a flurry of media attention during Art Dubai in March when works by two of their artists were removed from the gallery's booth by security officials concerned that they could be deemed offensive.
Has the move to London been inspired by this incident? "We support our artists in what they want to show," says Al Tabari, who doesn't want to comment directly on what happened in March. "As a gallerist, you stick to what your artist wants, and not necessarily what sells."
More Dubai-based galleries are heading west in the near future. Ayyam Gallery too is due to open up a London outpost in November.
"Bringing artists to a different environment can certainly be an inspiration to them," says Al Tabari. "Also, our job as a gallery is to push our artists to branch out and be seen outside the region. If you're not participating in many art fairs internationally then I recommend opening a space in another part of the world. It really is a case of this or that."
My Family by Mohamed Abla continues at Artspace in Building 3, Gate Village, DIFC, Dubai until May 31. For more information on the new London space, visit www.artspace-dubai.com