Inside Jameel Arts Centre: a game changer opens today on Dubai Creek
The Jameel Arts Centre, a significant addition to the contemporary art landscape in Dubai, opens today: "the first non-commercial, non-government institution, and one with civic mandate," as director Antonia Carver put it at the packed opening remarks.
The Jameel Arts Centre, a development of the Saudi organisation Art Jameel, offers three floors of exhibition space, plus a library, restaurant, design shop, outdoor amphitheatre and members' room.
The bespoke building, designed by Serie Architects, is in the Jaddaf development and positioned right on the Corniche by Dubai Creek. Light, water and access are key: every door seems to open onto a public thoroughfare; wall-size windows face onto water to show the creek flowing by.
Little light wells dotted throughout have perfectly assembled miniature gardens. The trees in these nooks are refugees, all rehomed by a man who rescues them once uprooted from sites in southern Africa – they are poignant little fighters. “There’s a Namibian tree,” Carver notes, pointing to one of them. “That’s 300 years old.”
One room is painted black. Another turquoise. Let’s just say, Jameel Arts Centre isn’t cookie-cutter. It’s like a contemporary art institution that said yes to every idea its staff members proposed.
The idea behind the centre, says Carver, is “to produce exhibitions and works that challenge audiences to think about their world. As is nurturing a community and building a new audience for contemporary art. This is something that the Jameel family and Art Jameel feel really passionate about. How do you reach beyond the usual suspects? How do you reach beyond the institution?”
Jameel Arts Centre is the first major project in Dubai by Art Jameel, a Saudi art and culture organisation founded in 2004 by the Jameel family, who made their fortune in car dealerships. The foundation is a long-time supporter of culture and education: they run a House of Traditional Arts in Jeddah and in Cairo, to support artisanal production, and have forged a number of partnerships with places such as the V&A in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York that have supported the international exposure of Middle Eastern artists.
They’re also in the midst of building a major institution in Jeddah, Hayy, which will function as a community hub for the city’s dispersed art community. Construction for that larger project has met delays, and the Dubai outpost has pipped it to the post. “Thinking strategically, the reason behind the Dubai centre was, how do you have the maximum impact in a place that really needs art institutions?” Carver asks.
Jameel Arts is for both cultural tourists and curious residents
“In places like London or New York, it’s much better for us to work with institutions to make sure they’re representing Middle Eastern artists. Then, we thought about cities around the world where Art Jameel has a presence already. Dubai is the most obvious, where you can reach a broad international public, where cultural tourists are looking for an institution to visit – to gain a window into regional art talent – and where there’s a local public hungry for an institution too.”
The institution will draw on Art Jameel’s impressive collection, but mostly operate like a kunsthalle, with a focus on temporary exhibitions. There are three galleries on the main floor that are earmarked for solo presentations, with galleries on the upper two floors that will mostly cater to curated group shows.
The opening four solo presentations are of women artists who have been important in the region but who have not had the level of attention they deserve: Maha Mullah, for example, from Saudi, who reflects on women’s labour, or Lala Rukh, a Pakistani artist who worked with Minimalism and sound. Rukh’s work here shows a monochrome representation of EKGs of her mother’s heartbeat in the last year of her life.
The room for this installation is painted entirely black. It’s fitting for the subject matter, and signals a broader play with colour in the institution. A room by the Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota is suffused, ecstatically, maniacally, with red threads, which threaten to consume a weathered dhow that sits in the centre of the room.
In addition to the galleries, the museum has a number of community spaces: a member’s room allows freelancers a place to work and to meet. School visits are a priority: on its public opening day, the first visitors to the centre will be children aged 12 to 14. The library, of 3,000 art and art history books and periodicals, is open access. A shop stocks local and regional designers and contemporary art books.
Even when the building is not open, you can wander up to the garden, where an extraordinarily beautiful – talk about pop of colour – installation of fantastical lighted trees is visible along the creek; it’s an installation by Kuwait-based artists Alia Farid and Aseel Al Yaqoub.
From next month there will be a restaurant too, an outpost of Lighthouse, the art-world (and royal) favourite from Dubai Design District.
Sheikh Hamdan at Lighthouse:
A huge outdoor amphitheatre will provide spaces for concerts and films during the winter months, set among a sculpture park that is developed with Dubai Holding. It’s a flurry of openness that you might expect will sit uneasily with the centre’s programme of ambitious, intellectual shows. But Carver disagrees.
An emphatically Middle Eastern institution
“Quite often there’s an impression that critically minded exhibitions are somehow alienating to a mass public, but I don’t think that’s true,” she says. “The mass audience for art in Dubai has come of age concurrently with the last 20 years of art practice.”
Dubai’s art audience, in a sense, is ready for a next level of curatorial attention.
For its first show, Jameel Arts Centre has tapped the longtime UAE resident Murtaza Vali, who is also an advisor to the centre. In Crude, he is using the history of crude oil as a way to frame art production in the region.
“We’re a Middle East organisation, so we’ll do a show about what’s our reality, without having to declare it,” he says. “MoMA won’t do a show about western art and have to declare it. This was an attempt to do a show about Arab modernism without saying it’s about Arab modernism.”
Arranged roughly chronologically, the show begins with the discovery of oil in Iraq, as documented by Latif Al Ani, and later addressed by Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck in a brilliant installation. The exhibition also takes in the compounds and exploration of the Gulf by foreign investors; a commissioned work by Hajra Waheed looking into the history of the Aramco compound in Saudi Arabia. It ends on the contemporary moment, linking petroleum by-products such as rubber flip-flops – 500 in Hassan Sharif’s monumental pile – and consumerism and car culture.
The show will remain up throughout March, while the four solo exhibitions will end in February, with four new artists being presented for Dubai Art Week in March.
“Every time people come back, there will be something different,” says Carver.
Presentations by Maha Malluh, Mounira Al Solh, and Lala Rukh are on view till February 9, 2019. ‘Crude’, curated by Murtaza Vali, will be on show until March 30, 2019. Chiharu Shiota’s artist room will be up till May 25, 2019. All at the new Jameel Arts Centre.