x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Street fair debuts in Dubai

Three South American women have added a little bohemian spirit to the streets of Dubai, writes Tahira Yaqoob.

Cultural night market, Safa park, Dubai.
Cultural night market, Safa park, Dubai.

Wander around Montmartre in Paris and you will spot a plethora of street artists, people sketching caricatures and the odd busker playing mournfully on his harmonium. Or take London's Hyde Park on a lazy Sunday morning, when dozens of artists gather on the pavement outside its gates to sell their wares.

And consider the street art hub that is New York, with its Chelsea and SoHo neighbourhoods bursting with painters and graffiti artists expressing themselves on everything from canvas to walls.

Dubai has historically been lacking the bohemian spirit which exists in older cities. Graffiti is almost nonexistent. And thanks to the heat and the inevitable draw of Sheikh Zayed Road, there is little of the street life one gets in more pedestrian-friendly cities.

But if three South American friends have their way, amateur painters, photographers and artisans will be able to gather in a hub in the city which harks back to the very essence of street art - that is, art created in public spaces without government intervention.

The inaugural cultural night market was launched in Dubai's Safa Park last weekend with the aim of providing a platform for aspiring artists and craft workers to showcase their work.

Over two days, more than 35 artisans displayed their wares to visitors against a backdrop of live performers, from Emirati rappers Desert Heat and the Colombian singer Fatiniza to a Brazilian troupe demonstrating capoeira.

The market's co-founder, mother of three and former architect Lilian Velasquez, originally from Peru, says she was thrashing out ideas over a coffee with her friends and business partners Emily Munoz, a fellow Peruvian, and Lorena Serrano from Venezuela when it occurred to them that what Dubai was missing was this kind of event.

"We thought there was a need for a market like this," says Velasquez. "In Dubai we do not have a place where people can showcase their art. There is talent everywhere, but performers and artists do not have a place where they can demonstrate it."

While there are outlets like The Fridge, which stages live performances, the JamJar for amateur painters and Artisans of the Emirates (Arte), which holds monthly forums for its craft-making members, the trio could not find an organisation which brought together all three strands.

The friends, who run Great Events, an event management company, began flipping through their contacts books and scouring the internet.

This search produced a longlist of more than 160 artisans keen to exhibit at the event, which they later narrowed down to 37. Additionally, 17 performers were invited to put on short sets in the park's outdoor amphitheatre.

"Some we found by word of mouth, others we tracked down by going to groups like the Poeticians," says Velasquez. "The mix of people who are taking part is very cosmopolitan; it speaks of Dubai.

"We want to make this a monthly event, although it depends on sponsors. We did not have any this time round and all the performers went on stage for free."

Their only criteria was that anyone wanting to exhibit had to come with goods made in the UAE; in the event, a lack of suitable candidates meant a small number of the exhibitors were selling imported products.

But for Wael Hamadeh, 42, a Lebanese flight attendant for Emirates Airline, it gave him an all-important opportunity to sell the work he produces in his spare time and describe his passion to potential buyers.

"Artists are not looked after in the Arab world," he says. "I have many awards for my art but I cannot rent a shop for Dh250,000 a year and need sponsorship as I have a family.

"We cannot enter our work in art fairs because they are expensive and galleries only feature a few artists. This market will help promote art."

The son of a sculptor, he began painting as a child and studied at the Edinburgh College of Art. Life took him on a different course - but he still wishes he could paint full-time.

When he moved to Dubai in 1995, he began collecting scraps of wood and debris from dhow shipyards and construction sites and using them as his canvas.

Among the paintings he has on display, priced between Dh500 and Dh7,000, is one produced using a corrugated metal sheet he picked up from the ruins of a dismantled camel farm in Nad Al Sheba.

"I use recycled materials and paint on anything. There is a lot of waste in Dubai and I find it inspiring as a different base - it is organic," he says.

His favourite theme is Lebanese men wearing a traditional tarboosh, or fez. "It reminds me of my culture and heritage."

Newlyweds Katriona Hirst, 29, and her husband Brad, 32, are looking for artwork to decorate their new home. They leave empty-handed but take Hamadeh's details.

"We were looking for something to do at the weekend and this seemed different," says Katriona.

"It can only be a good thing for Dubai. I much prefer art from the city because it is more personal and you get to know more about the artist's inspiration. I think it means more if you have met the artist instead of buying the usual wall hangings from Ikea."

The Hirsts say they would have preferred a wider selection of art. With only a handful of stalls selling paintings, the rest of the market is given over to jewellery makers and stallholders selling imported clothes and shawls.

Li Chen Pan, 40, a Chinese artist based in Dubai, has a disappointing weekend. Despite spending Dh600 on a stall to exhibit her artwork made entirely of shells picked from coastlines around the world, she sells nothing.

Her husband Mohammad Zomorrdian, 52, complains it is not targeted enough at art lovers: "People are coming just to look but not buy. This market has been good for jewellery stands but not for art.

"It is trying to do too many things, from providing music and clothes to food and face painting for children."

Iraqi fashion student Hind Adib, 22, who is selling handmade bracelets and earrings, says she has made about Dh800 but admits business was slow.

"It is a good place to show what you can make," she says. "When I have tried to do it on my own I cannot reach enough customers. If you are starting out, that is important."

For visitors Hassan Al Mousa, 34, and his wife Hiba Asseh, 24, relaxing on the grass listening to music is a pleasant way to spend an evening.

"It is a nice market, but a bit small," he says. "We have not bought anything but would come back if it is bigger next time."

Velasquez is disappointed only 3,000 attend instead of the anticipated 8,000, but says as the weather cools, more are expected to come, particularly as she plans to move the monthly event between different sites in the city, such as Dubai Creek Park and the beach.

"We feel a sense of social responsibility," she says. "It has been an enchanted evening. We hope to have many more."

Tahira Yaqoob is a former senior features writer at The National.