Industrial city's art scene is picture of vibrancy
DUBAI // At first glance, and perhaps at second glance as well, the Al Quoz industrial area seems like one of the least likely havens for artistic sensibility in the city of Dubai.
The neighbourhood is a gritty sprawl of lorries, factories and storage spaces, certainly not a recipe for "beauty" in the traditional sense. But it is precisely that grim urban reality, in tandem with available warehouse space, that is turning Al Quoz into a hot spot on the Dubai arts scene. "I think this area will always be industrial, and that's the beauty of it," says Kourosh Nouri, the owner of one of the art galleries that have sprung up in Al Quoz in the past year.
"You drive in and it's full of action and life and it's dirty and houses so many different types of people and nationalities," Mr Nouri says. Al Serkal Avenue is the focal point of artistic activity in Al Quoz. Five galleries have opened there over the past year, and they are showing the work of some of the best young talent in the Middle East. Mr Nouri is the owner of Carbon 12, a gallery that struggled to survive a year at the Dubai Marina. He moved into a warehouse on Al Serkal in October, an act of desperation as well as inspiration.
"Economically, it made sense because we needed a large space and these warehouses were ideal," he says. "From the beginning, Dubai Marina was an absolute mistake. We averaged only three visitors per month there, while here we average five a day." Al Serkal Avenue is now home to Ayyam Gallery, Portfolio, Mojo, Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde and Carbon 12. Mr Nouri cites Manhattan's Meatpacking District and London's Shoreditch area as examples of vibrant art scenes emerging from traditionally industrial areas.
He notes, however, that it is still expensive to rent a warehouse in Dubai. He says he pays just under Dh200,000 (US$54,000) a year for his space. "That is still expensive when compared with industrial areas of other cities," he says. "Our space would probably go for the equivalent of Dh100,000 in other cities." However, Carbon 12 has blossomed since the move, and from tomorrow to Sunday it will become the first gallery from the Middle East to feature at the Vienna Art Fair. Mr Kouri now has no plans to take his gallery out of Al Quoz.
He says the area impresses him as a better centre for art than, for example, the Dubai International Financial Centre, describing Al Quoz as "more authentic" and "more organic". It's a view shared by Kurt Blanckenberg, the founder of the art gallery at Mojo. Mr Blanckenberg says he had been searching five years for a good space for his gallery. He considered the Bastakiya area but found it difficult to move there "if you're not directly benefiting tourism". He even considered a purpose-built houseboat in the marina but was unable to get approval from the municipality.
Then he found Serkal Avenue two years ago. In October, Mojo Gallery was launched, and he has no regrets. "There's a certain appeal to being in the industrial zone, a feeling that you're outside the city centre," Mr Blanckenberg says. "It has a very gritty aspect to it, like in many of the art scenes around the world." Mojo has benefited from the presence of the cluster of galleries on Al Serkal. "If we are clever about it, we can all market ourselves as a destination, and that would benefit all the galleries," Mr Blanckenberg says.
Tessa De Caters, of Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde (IVDE), formerly B21, agrees that one of the most encouraging aspects of the scene in Al Quoz is the sense of community, even camaraderie, that exists between the staffs of the art spaces. "We have a great relationship with the other galleries and it really is a win-win situation for all of us as visitors end up stopping by all the galleries." IVDE is the new kid on the Al Serkal block, having opened its doors in March. Ms De Caters feels that location is no longer an issue.
"Al Quoz is a difficult area to navigate by its nature," she says, "but once people got to know the area it was not a problem at all. We are so lucky to be working here. It might be in the middle of the industrial area, but we're only five minutes from Burj Al Arab, and two from Mall of the Emirates. The location is amazing." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org