x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The artist's road to the Louvre should start in the backstreets of Al Quoz

We believe Dubai needs the equivalent of a Greenwich Village to become home to many such talented individuals.


For the past several years, we have been trying to pave the way on defining culture in our part of the world. Dubai is a city rich with talent, heritage and urban spaces. More important, enclaves in the city also serve as empty canvases for us to paint our future as we choose. We started with a modest round-the-clock project called brownbag.ae, which was created to service the residents of Dubai with groceries, magazines, movies, electronics and other products delivered within an hour. The success of this concept has allowed us to start launching initiatives and projects to encourage the arts in recognition of how important these projects are to the audiences we serve.

Two years ago we launched brownbook magazine, a publication focused on casting a light on the unsung cultural revolutionaries of the Middle East. The magazine highlights the artists, chefs, musicians and other innovators who are shaping the cultural terrain of the region. Our writers cover topics as diverse as skiing in Tehran and surfing in Yemen, as well as the gains being made by young Emirati chefs fusing Emirati food with international cuisine.

In many parts of the world, casual observers see the Middle East in stereotypes: primarily, that the region is full of conflict and instability, or that the Gulf states are teeming with fast-paced developments that have no substance. As residents of the region we understand that not only is the Middle East full of culture and history, but it is a source of inspiration for the next generation of innovators making a difference in a wide range of industries.

A major challenge in the UAE and the region is that it is too expensive to launch a grassroots initiative, given the legal costs and property expenses. This leads to a massive loss of opportunities and talent and, more importantly, kills experimentation. We understood this from the challenges that we faced with the launch of brownbook. We realised we faced few options: with no income from advertising, we would need to look for space to operate from. The cheapest office would cost us a minimum of Dh85,000 (US$23,000) annually. This posed an immediate challenge - we would be working out of an office that would not be large enough for our editorial team.

We needed an environment where people could operate and take risks in their concepts without taking too much of a financial burden. In our case, we had recently taken over an old nail factory in the Al Quoz area of Dubai and converted it into The Shelter, a space that allows people to meet, develop new contacts and work with good coffee. The idea for a drop-in arts space came to us when we were launching brownbook. Working on the magazine for six months from a cafe was awkward. We wanted to create an environment that merged a cafe space with the modern workplace and create a laid-back atmosphere where young professionals, freelancers and start-ups could meet without the expense of soaring rents and regulation. At The Shelter, we combine a work environment with more social events to highlight our grass roots goals.

Developing these different initiatives has led us to realise that there is still much to do. While the UAE has paved the way for the arrival of international institutions such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Museum, we lack small-scale initiatives for those of more modest means. In Dubai, for example, there exists a small movement of artists and curators who need encouragement to develop their skills. As yet, they remain uncatered to.

Elsewhere, arts collectives have blossomed from humble beginnings. In the 1960s, in New York's Greenwich Village, the upper-middle classes gave birth to a landscape of galleries, restaurants and theatres that continue to enhance the quality of life and culture to this day. Greenwich Village was and is home for talents such as Marcel Duchamp, Truman Capote and Anna Wintour. It houses institutions such as New York University, Lion's Den and the Village Vanguard. The area is not only home to many talented and unique individuals but is a major exporter of music, literature and film.

We believe Dubai needs the equivalent of a Greenwich Village to become home to many such talented individuals. In common with the people who come and visit The Shelter, we need more refined spaces where we can set up what we'd like to call a contemporary village. Fortunately, Dubai has already paved the way for beautiful, modern infrastructure. An organic cultural village would prove easy to inspire. The city already has an airport that is a short hop away from any city in the region. Dubai's forthcoming modern rail system will rival that of any city in the modern world.

So where could Dubai's Greenwich Village exist? The area would need to house an organic movement that recognises meritocracy rather than conventional hierarchy. To us, Dubai's Al Quoz district is by far the best contender - it is an area where galleries, artists and cafes will soon define our new movement. This small but powerful urban community needs to be incubated. As our experience has shown, we believe the following steps are needed to ensure that Al Quoz prospers:

Understand the urban landscape - to start, we need to define a space where people can come together. Successful locations in any area in the world start off with a focal point where people meet and share ideas. Be tolerant - as history has shown, one sign of a civil society is the tolerance of people's values and cultures. Tolerance and acceptance will allow individuals to freely follow their own initiatives and ideas.

Have courage - we believe this is an important value. Artists should have the courage to follow their passions and their talents. We believe that although the path seldom taken can often be more challenging and demanding - even frustrating, at times - the rewards and sacrifice will make us all proud of being Arabs. I once read something written on a school wall that sums what we are trying to say: "Dream big dreams." This would be my advice to the generation of like-minded Arabs I have met in recent years. Dream big dreams, and Al Quoz will surely become home to a new tribe of cultured, creative individuals.

Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib are the founders of brownbook magazine and The Shelter.