PRINT April 2008


OMA/Rem Koolhaas, Waterfront City, 2007–, Dubai. Rendering.

FOR THE WESTERN CRITIC, delirious Dubai makes the easiest of targets. What was only two decades ago a languorous trading post known mostly for pirates, pearl fishing, and gold smuggling has swiftly fashioned itself into the commercial and recreational hub of the Persian Gulf region—a haven of tax-free zones and corporate enclaves, home to seven-star hotels, indoor ski slopes, and megalith malls. The dizzying scale and speed of Dubai’s growth have led many to write it off as little more than a surrealist pastiche, a theme park, all fake, all the time. Architect Rem Koolhaas has dubbed this vein of criticism the “Disney fatwa.” Koolhaas—who happens to be designing a dense 1.5 billion–square-foot Waterfront City in Dubai—insists that such pat dismissals conceal the anxieties and insecurities of the critics themselves: After all, the metastasizing skyscraping landscape of Dubai has its origins in big-city urbanism from New York to Los Angeles to Las Vegas. “Is it possible to view the Gulf’s ongoing transformation on its own terms?” he asks. What would it mean to learn from Dubai?

The question resonates now more than ever as the city-state and its parent federation, the United Arab Emirates, enter the international art market. Buoyed by oil and by one of the world’s highest economic growth rates, the UAE is injecting money, energy, and bling into what was formerly a quiet, mostly hermetic Arab and Iranian Middle Eastern market spanning from Dubai to Cairo, Beirut to Tehran. While these developments can inspire reductive discussions about cultural imperialism, there is little question that the current moment stands to fundamentally change the way people in the Middle East make, experience, and talk about art.

As recently as a few years ago, the region’s most famous art-market story involved a compulsively collecting sheikh with epicurean tastes; he had a predilection for nineteenth-century photography and eighteenth-century French furniture, and even asked artist David Hockney to design his swimming pool. Fancying himself akin to the maharajah of Indore, he once spent $9.57 million on a Fabergé egg at a Christie’s sale. But the tale of the sheikh is anomalous; for the most part, the art markets of the Middle East have remained conservative affairs, marked by sales of bucolic watercolors and medium-nice hagiographic works by local ministers of culture and their friends.

Yet if you ask people in the commercial art world about Dubai today, they will describe it as “the next Hong Kong”—an assessment often made with hands thrust excitedly into the air for extra flair and emphasis. Dubai inspires the same breathless tales that once accompanied the “discovery” of markets in China and India. Following a global trend of dabbling equally in commodity markets and luxury goods, the financiers of the UAE in general, and Dubai in particular—Arabs, but also Indians, Iranian exiles, and increasing numbers of European and American expatriates—are emerging as a new collector class.

Western auction houses have taken note. The genesis of the current art-market moment may have been Christie’s inaugural sale in Dubai in 2006: Hundreds of Gulf cognoscenti and glitterati—including a smattering of government officials—gathered in an elegant salesroom in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers one spring evening. Intended to test the waters, the auction nearly tripled expectations, bringing in close to $8.5 million. Since that initial success, Christie’s has held two more auctions, each outperforming the last. Although inching toward presenting more contemporary works, the auctions primarily sell the variety of art that has long been popular in the galleries of the Middle East: works by artists of the 1960s and ’70s generation, such as oil paintings by Lebanon’s Paul Guiragossian and calligraphic abstractions by Egypt’s Ahmed Moustafa. Many works are overtly or obliquely linked to national identity; few take big risks. While these artists are iconic for a certain type of established collector in this part of the world, they are virtually unknown outside it. Yet new stars are emerging within the auctions themselves, such as Tehran-based artist Farhad Moshiri, whose most sought-after works are ironic Pop updates of more traditional motifs. Just last month, at Bonhams’s debut sale in Dubai, Moshiri’s Eshgh, 2007, became the first work from the region to sell at auction for more than $1 million: a canvas liberally sprinkled with Swarovski crystals and glitter, spelling out the word love in Farsi. Sotheby’s has yet to open officially in the Middle East, but a London sale of modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian work this past fall also fared well. While sales numbers are modest compared with those of Western art in New York or London, most agree that the Middle Eastern market will continue to grow exponentially—even as the West tumbles into a recession.

Alongside the arrival of the auction houses, dozens of galleries have opened their doors across the Gulf—from the Third Line and B21 in Dubai to Al Riwaq Art Gallery in Bahrain. The Art Dubai fair, now in its second year, attracts galleries from both the region and abroad. Charles Saatchi is launching an Arabic-language version of his website for artists in the Middle East and has announced plans to open a gallery here; rumors abound of other Western galleries (Gagosian among them) moving in as well. It remains to be seen whether they will bring their own stables of artists to the East—works by Andy Warhol have sold at almost every Dubai auction—or expand their programs to include regional modern or contemporary art.

But the UAE’s most ambitious arts plan is currently being undertaken by Abu Dhabi. The wealthiest emirate and the largest in the area, it is positioning itself to become a cultural center markedly different in style and substance from the glitz of Dubai. The centerpiece of Plan Abu Dhabi is Saadiyat Island: Floating off the emirate’s skyscraper-lined coast, the Island of Happiness (as it is also called, in full English translation) is a $27 billion paradise on steroids, anchored by a 670-acre cultural district where the behemoth-like 300,000-plus-square-foot Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim museum will open its doors in 2011, alongside a mushroom-shaped branch of the Louvre by Jean Nouvel, a performing arts center by Zaha Hadid, a maritime museum care of Tadao Ando, and a national-heritage museum named after the Emirates’ visionary founder and patron saint, Sheikh Zayed; last fall, Charles Merewether, a curator and art historian who headed the last Biennale of Sydney, was appointed deputy director of the project. According to the Abu Dhabi tourism authority, which is overseeing the island’s development, the goal is to attract no fewer than three million “upscale” (the team’s word of choice) tourists each year by 2015. Saadiyat’s official website, complete with soothing elevator music, describes it all as “A Whole New World of Opportunities.”

Shirana Shahbazi, Staying Alive, 2005, acrylic on canvas. Installation view, exterior of Sharjah Art Museum, 2005. From Sharjah Biennial.

AUCTIONS, GALLERIES, and soon museums: An art world is undeniably materializing in the UAE but, oddly, in the reverse of the traditional trajectory, and perhaps even at the expense of a full-fledged art scene. The elements that typically precede market activity—schools, critics, and curators—are all but absent. The Emirates themselves have precious few artists to speak of, and fewer art schools. In the Middle East at large, most art schools are state sponsored; staffed by aging bureaucrats and marked by libraries that shun anything after modernism, they tend to foster creative despondency. A planned Yale University fine arts institute on Saadiyat Island, along with a branch of New York University that will focus on the liberal arts, may go a long way toward bridging this gap, but this is the sort of investment that may take a generation or two to leave its mark and whose success will largely depend on finding a balance between the best of the system of Western higher education and regional specificity and relevance. (In the meantime, the auction houses loudly proclaim they are investing in arts education, but this translates into little more than showing collectors at Art Dubai what to put on the walls of their new condominiums.)

Already the influx of money is shaping the nature of art production. Some artists have become veritable factories, making paintings en masse for eager collectors. In Dubai, the auction houses are more involved in the primary market than they are almost anywhere else, and artists are increasingly cutting gallerists out of the process entirely, hauling their work directly to the block; amid soaring demand, careers are being made at the auction house. Artists from Tehran and Cairo are selling their work in the UAE for as much as five times more than they would at home, pricing them out of local markets that are increasingly pushed to the peripheries. Still, some of the most compelling contemporary art initiatives in the Middle East—including Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, Amman’s Darat al Funun, and Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan—are firmly nonprofit; the parallel sales market nearby could allow artists in those cities to support themselves through their work. Centrally located between Singapore and London, the UAE provides an ideal international platform.

For the most part, galleries and auction houses in the UAE still cater to a conservative clientele and hardly represent the full scope of contemporary art in the Middle East. While there are signs of an emerging younger collecting class that is more open to photography and video—Shirin Neshat’s work inspires nostalgia among a certain type of Iranian expatriate—works that tend toward conceptualism or address the realities of war and occupation do not fit the taste of the typical collector; contemporary Lebanese artists, for example, are rarely shown here. Most of the Middle Eastern artists known internationally—such as Walid Raad or Emily Jacir—are not yet represented in the UAE market.

Contemporary art, however, has increasingly found support in the emirate next to Dubai. The Sharjah Biennial was launched in 1993 as little more than a governmental pet project filled with decorative art, but under the directorship of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi—the Slade-educated daughter of the ruling sheikh—it has begun to commission thoughtful, even political work, much of it site-specific, from both local and international artists. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the 2007 biennial jury.) A new residency program attached to the biennial brings artists from around the world to Sharjah to produce new work. Sharjah, in its own modest way, could be a model for the Gulf.

Farhad Moshiri, Eshgh (Love), 2007, Swarovski crystals, glitter, and acrylic on canvas, 61 x 69 1⁄4".

WE STILL DO NOT KNOW how Saadiyat Island will look and feel. As the examples of Islamabad, Brasília, and even China’s industrial center of Shenzhen have shown, it is not easy to build a city from scratch, let alone a cultural metropolis. While the Guggenheim plan bears superficial similarities to Bilbao, there is little about this project that has precedent. For Abu Dhabi, sitting atop 9 percent of the world’s oil reserves, money is truly no object. But it remains to be seen whether the museums will have Bilbao’s immense audiences—and, the critical question, to what extent the audiences will be drawn from the Middle East. Plainly, the Louvre and Guggenheim projects, both totems of particular Western art traditions, have inspired the most impassioned responses. In France, some five thousand art professionals—from historians to museum directors—signed a petition deploring what they saw as the sale of the country’s national heritage ($600 million for the use of the Louvre name alone). Others have pointed out that the museum venture is embedded in a larger effort to expand French influence in a region dominated by the US: In January, the French government announced plans to set up a permanent military base in Abu Dhabi. Even an oasis of culture is subject to the politics of the region. News of the Guggenheim venture perhaps came as less of a surprise, as it is in keeping with the museum’s stewardship under Thomas Krens (who will now focus on Abu Dhabi after stepping down as director of the Guggenheim foundation).

Rather than fixate on the sheer spectacle of a Guggenheim or Louvre emerging on the shores of the Persian Gulf, consider the possibilities this moment presents. Abu Dhabi’s planned national-heritage museum, for example, has rarely been mentioned in the barrage of press coverage. It could turn out to be an institution in the service of the state, one more in a string of vanity projects that dot the landscape; but if undertaken seriously, its collection and education program could induce a dialogue about historiography in the Middle East more generally. And although the Louvre may simply house its Parisian overflow, the Guggenheim will build an entirely new collection, potentially amassing important works from in and around the region and inspiring an important conversation about the legacies of international modernism at large. Nearby in the Gulf, Qatar is set to open the Museum of Islamic Art this November (a modern-art museum is also planned), which may help mitigate the centuries-long trickle of antiquities from East to West.

Critics will doubtless continue to sneer at these seemingly overblown ambitions, dismissing them as little more than a passing fancy, a scheme in branding through culture, the caricatured vulgar Arab buying the best of the West. But Koolhaas’s plea to view the Gulf on its own terms is a nuanced and productive one, for such criticisms obscure an important set of experiments-to-be in a part of the world that has been fertile ground for trade and exchange throughout its past. While it is tempting to look at the region with the myopic gaze of recent history, facile dichotomies of local and global, East and West, don’t apply in a place that has been international for centuries. At its very worst, the Island of Happiness and its associated projects may end up a dystopian palm tree–lined ghost town that is all surface and no depth. But at its best, it stands to pioneer a new sort of cosmopolitanism, linking the cultural capitals of Cairo and Beirut—to each other and to the rest of the world—and to reinvigorate a region that has been subject to one too many narratives of failure.

Negar Azimi is a senior editor of Bidoun magazine and a member of the Beirut-based Arab Image Foundation.