A new monthly live art event, Sketch, had its first edition last week. The artists and organizers give their impressions.
Gathering large groups of artists in one room can go in two directions: silent introversion or loud, garrulous good will. Last Thursday saw a bit of both, as artists amateur and professional congregated at one of Dubai's most innovative galleries, the Jam Jar. While apron-clad painters applied themselves with mute intensity to producing canvas after small canvas, other small groups of artists scattered around the room joshed and good-humouredly sniggered at each other's work, occasionally wandering around to have a look at what everyone else was doing. People met, talked, networked and, most importantly, drew pictures before hanging them on a wall and applying a price of anywhere between Dh50 and Dh500.
This was the first edition of Sketch, an art event created by the newly formed design studio Fn, with the help of the hosting gallery Jam Jar, and the next step in the UAE's evolution as an artistic centre. Fn was set up by the artists Sheikha Wafa Hasher Al Maktoum and Vivek Premachandran (otherwise known as UBIK) with the intention of shaking things up in Dubai's art world, building an art community and coming up with, in Sheikha Wafa's words, "some big future events, things that no one has even thought of before in Dubai".
Sketch is the first of those events. The format was inspired by two similar events in America, Sketch Tuesdays at the 111 Minna Gallery, and Monster Drawing Rally at Southern Exposure, both in San Francisco, in which invited artists spend an evening drawing and then sell the resulting works for a few dollars. In the Dubai version, participation is open to any artist, professional or not, with a Dh30 registration fee to cover materials. Those taking part are offered a seat, paper, pens, charcoal or anything else they require, and when their work is complete it is scanned, priced by the artist and Blu-Tacked on the wall, ready for interested punters.
Though it might sound like an event exclusively for artists, in fact Sketch is as much about the art-loving public, says Sheikha Wafa. "Sketch is an event to bring artists together under one roof, to have a good time, to sketch and to be able to sell their work at an affordable price," she says. "Normally most people wouldn't be able to go into a gallery and buy collectors' pieces. It benefits both the buyers and the sketchers: artists can get recognised for their work, and buyers will be able to buy pieces they like, without spending too much. And if a well-known artist joins Sketch, buyers can sit with the artists and buy affordably. We don't take a cut from the art; it all goes to the artist."
It is indeed one of those strange quirks of life that, while most artists do fit that starving-in-a-garret stereotype, or squeeze their creative side into their few non-working hours, the art world is seen as a somewhat elitist place, in which only the very rich can aspire to be patrons or even minor collectors. This is something that Fn aims to change with Sketch, according to Premachandran. "I've been active in the arts scene for four years and we've seen a lot of inflated prices and it's already affected the market very badly," he says. "I have so many friends in Dubai who want to buy art but they can't because it's expensive. So we thought, why not make it affordable?"
Sheikha Wafa concurs, pointing out that it can be the artists themselves who create this problem. "The basic concept that artists have over here is OK, tomorrow I have my first solo show and I will sell things for Dh10,000, so my next solo show should go to Dh20,000. Artists can never go back, but say tomorrow we get a big artist coming in who wants to join Sketch, and someone can't afford the price in a gallery, they would be able to buy a sketch by this artist, so it makes everyone happy."
Meeting other creatives is another huge motivation for those attending the event. Drawing and painting can be a lonely business, with artists often torn between ego and self-doubt. The importance of peer criticism for creatives cannot be overestimated. Roland Rodriguez, 32, is a member of the Brownmonkeys art and design collective, one of the strongest forces in Dubai's underground art scene. He discovered Sketch through Premachandran, with whom he has worked before, and came along in support of what he sees as a necessary addition to the UAE's creative world - as well as an indication of an improving situation.
"There's a strength of people right now," he says. "Before, people were like hermits, doing their own thing, but right now a lot of people are joining together because they know they have to get out. Most important is that people have to be more into a community, so we can help each other out and develop this art community in Dubai, otherwise it will just continue to be selfish individuals working on their own."
One artist who has seen the scene change irrevocably is Rom Miclat, who has been in Dubai for 26 years. Standing at a table leaning on one arm, he swiftly turns out charcoal drawing after charcoal drawing, from cityscapes to portraits, watched by his niece, who is photographing the event. Others create just one or two pieces, carefully wrought from whatever inspiration they find at the Jam Jar - inevitably, there are a number of studies of people going up on the walls, as artists draw one another drawing one another.
One of the preoccupations of the founders is the skill of draughtsmanship, an underrated art in the days of digital manipulation and abstract painting. "Both of us wanted to do something with sketchbooks and the idea of sketching, because you don't get people drawing and we draw a lot," says Premachandran. "It would be safe to say that both of us enjoy drawing more than using computers - even though we've got a design studio, both of us love to draw."
It is, says Sheikha Wafa, a sense of returning to the basics of art that makes drawing so important: "Vivek has taken a look at my sketchbook, and I've taken a look at a lot of his work, which is basically just using a pen, a pencil and paper, and this is where it starts. Sitting there and actually drawing from scratch is what really inspires us." There is, though, a surprising amount of painting taking place at Sketch. While many of the more graphic artists sit enthusiastically doodling comic-book characters from their imaginations, chatting and laughing, several artists are splashing acrylic paint over canvases and the final wall of art has plenty of colourful work to go with the mainly monochrome sketches. Certainly for buyers who seek something bolder than linear drawings, there are plenty of affordable options, freshly minted. Towards the end of the evening, artists and buyers start to gather around the wall, assessing one another's work. They are generous with their praise. This is where the ice is really broken, as everyone joins in the discussions about the good work achieved tonight and people start to part with their cash.
As a little crowd gathers around one group of six figurative pieces, drawn using colourful pastels on sandpaper, with the bodies' muscles highlighted in a sort of fauvist chiaroscuro, the big revelation of the night takes place: these six pieces were produced in about half an hour by Darwin Guevarra, the photographer who had been charging around the room documenting the event. At Dh50 per piece, his works are virtually snatched off the wall, as everyone marvels at his speed and prowess. It turns out he has an exhibition at Tashkeel until June 11. And that's what Sketch is all about: meet the artists, marvel at the artists and buy the artists' work for the price of a takeaway curry. If only collecting was always that simple.
Future Sketch events will take place on the third Thursday of every month at Jam Jar. firstname.lastname@example.org