Heritage and culture are central to the UAE’s national identity and there is a deep awareness of the need to preserve the indigenous culture on which Emirati society is based. But there is also a renewed emphasis on the evolution of art and creativity in a region that has traditionally focused more on the spoken word than other forms of artistic expression. In particular, there are some exciting developments taking place in the arts at a government level. The private sector is also thriving and young Emiratis are laying claim to their artistic future, expressing themselves in a way that reflects the enormous cultural diversity of the UAE and the region.
Cultural renaissance in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi's visionary urban development plan, Abu Dhabi 2030, includes the establishment of a series of world-class museums in the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island close to the centre of Abu Dhabi. Under the guidance of the Tourism and Culture Authority Abu Dhabi and Tourism and Development Company (TDIC), the emirate's goal is not only to provide a repository of global art and culture for UAE citizens to appreciate and enjoy, but also to position the UAE capital as a world-class cultural destination: 'a gateway and beacon for cultural experience and exchange.'
To fulfill this aspiration acclaimed architectural firms were engaged to design a series of spectacular museum buildings that are currently under construction on Saadiyat Island.
Foster and Partners’ iconic concept for the Sheikh Zayed National Museum encompasses a series of 125-metre-high aerodynamic structures resembling the wings of a soaring falcon. Evoking traditional UAE windtowers, the elegant and emblematic extensions are also functional, pulling cool air through the building. Scheduled for completion in 2016, the Zayed National Museum and its beautifully landscaped gardens will bring to life the UAE's rich history and will also serve as a memorial to the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first President of the United Arab Emirates. In cooperation with the British Museum, Sheikh Zayed's inspiring story and his efforts in building the nation over a very short period of time will feature throughout the museum.
The fantastical Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, destined to be the world’s largest Guggenheim museum when it opens in 2017, will focus on contemporary art from across the globe. Commenting on the unique nature of the architectural commission, Frank Gehry explained: ’Approaching the design of the museum for Abu Dhabi made it possible to consider options for design of a building that would not be possible in the United States or in Europe. It was clear from the beginning that this had to be a new invention. The landscape, the opportunity, the requirement, to build something that people all over the world would come to and the possible resource to accomplish it opened tracks that were not likely to be considered anywhere else. The site itself,
virtually on the water or close to the water on all sides, in a desert landscape with the beautiful sea and the light quality of the place suggested some of the direction.’
Jean Nouvel’s light and lovely design for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is scheduled to open in late 2015, also owes much to Saadiyat’s natural surroundings:
’The island offers a harsh landscape, tempered by its meeting with the channel, a striking image of the aridity of the earth versus the fluidity of the waters,’ commented Nouvel. The result is a complex of pavilions, plazas, alleyways and canals, evoking the image of a city floating on the sea. The ethereal building is covered with a large dome, a web of interlaced patterns in a translucent ceiling that lets a diffuse, magical light filter through in the best tradition of great Arabian architecture. Water is given a crucial role, both in reflecting every part of the building and in creating, with a little help from the wind, a comfortable microclimate.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, in cooperation with its counterparts in Paris, is destined to be a universal fine arts museum, presenting artworks and objects of historical, cultural and sociological significance – from prehistory to the contemporary. Most significantly, this will be the first universal museum in the Arab world.
Plans for the second phase of development in the Cultural District include a Performing Arts Centre designed by Zaha Hadid, an organic structure in which all forms of artistic performance can be celebrated, bringing together world-class artistes in opera, theatre and music.
Manarat Al Saadiyat
The design and construction of these iconic buildings is only the beginning of an exciting journey. In the meantime, a temporary exhibition space, Manarat Al Saadiyat ('a place of enlightenment' in Arabic) hosts an imaginative series of cultural programmes dedicated to developing art appreciation and awareness, at the same time revealing loans and acquisitions that will eventually form the core of the new museums. Through a variety of talks, performances and workshops, the collections are having their stories told in a vibrant and interactive way.
The fourth and final Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking Art Series commenced at Manarat Al Saadiyat in the autumn of 2014. Speakers include illustrious art historians, prize-winning architects and award-winning film directors. But the real star of the series will be a Leonardo da Vinci painting, 'Portrait of an Unknown Woman', otherwise known as La Belle Ferronniere, one of only a handful of undisputed portraits painted by Leonardo da Vinci – and one of the great masterpieces of the High Renaissance.
All in all, Louvre Abu Dhabi will receive approximately 300 loans of artwork from major French institutions for its opening year. These loans will complement the new museum's already growing permanent collection, from which 160 masterpieces were on display at a highly successful exhibition ('Birth of a Museum') at the Louvre in Paris during the summer of 2014.
Leading up to the eagerly anticipated opening of Zayed National Museum in 2016, TCA Abu Dhabi, in collaboration with the British Museum, staged an enthralling exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat, ' A History of the World in 100 Objects' in early 2014. The narrative that unfolded in the exhibition continued to contemporary times and to the celebration of today's objects, such as Emirati student Reem Al Marzouqi's prototype foot-controlled car. Through exhibitions like this, TCA Abu Dhabi aims to place the Zayed National Museum in the context of the Middle East and the wider world, while encouraging the development of a cultural dialogue that will promote and celebrate the position of the UAE within the global community.
Acquisitions for the permanent collection at the Guggenheim are also providing opportunities for exploration and dialogue: 'Seeing Through Light' exhibition, which opened at Manarat Al Saadiyat in November 2014, showcases 16 contemporary works from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection, as well as two pieces on loan from the institute in New York. The exhibition gives visitors a glimpse of what they can expect to experience in the museum in terms of diversity in culture, themes and media. In conjunction with the exhibition, public programmes, film screenings, adult and youth workshops, and performances by several leading contemporary artists whose works are now part of the permanent collection of the museum will be presented.
Manarat Al Saadiyat is also home to Abu Dhabi Art Fair, an annual event held in November, which is attended by the world's leading contemporary commercial art galleries. Although the primary focus of the fair is to sell art, Abu Dhabi Art also brings unique art forms to the region, provides a forum for local artists to exhibit and for important discussions on the future of creativity.
Art centres such as Art Hub Abu Dhabi and its sister property Art Hub Liwa also serve as platforms for interaction and cross-cultural artistic exchanges between national, regional and international artists.
At the same time, UAE-based artists are finding their feet on the international stage: UAE participation at la Biennale Di Venezia commenced in 2009 with a national pavilion at the 53rd International Art Exhibition, and has continued in subsequent editions since.
Ahead of the 55th International Art Exhibition in 2013, the UAE was awarded a permanent pavilion in the Arsenale – Sale d'Armi, providing the Emirates with a platform to showcase visual arts and architecture for a period of 20 years. The National Pavilion, which was initiated by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development and is now under the direction of the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, also organises the Venice Internship, a specialised programme offering a range of training opportunities for young citizens of the UAE to gain experience in the industry through a month-long internship as exhibition managers onsite in Venice.
The featured artist at the 55th International Art Exhibition in 2013 was Mohammed Kazem, a leading figure in the contemporary art scene in the UAE since the 1990s. 'Walking on Water', an immersive installation comprising a 360 degree projection of the sea and illuminated interchangeable GPS coordinates within an enclosed chamber, engaged viewers in a seascape that invited them to experience what it is to be lost at sea.
Participation at the International Architecture Exhibition was marked with a debut pavilion in 2014. Responding to the theme 'Absorbing Modernity: 1914–2014' 'Lest We Forget: Structure of Memory in the United Arab Emirates' presented the seminal findings of a larger initiative to archive the history of architectural and urban development in the UAE over the past century.
Visual arts in Sharjah and Dubai
Whilst far-reaching plans for major new cultural projects are being implemented elsewhere, a vibrant arts scene has been stretching boundaries in the Emirate of Sharjah for many years. Host to the Sharjah Biennial since 1993, Sharjah, which aspires to be the cultural heart of the UAE, has also been given the title of Islamic culture capital 2014.
During the Biennial, art exhibitions and cultural events featuring local and international artists take place across a wide range of unique art spaces and cultural institutions, including the Sharjah Art Museum, the Heritage Area, and the Sharjah National Theatre.
But Sharjah's determined participation in the art scene is not limited to the Biennial: throughout the year, the emirate's many museums hold important exhibitions, frequently in conjunction with global organisations. For example, in 2014 an unprecedented collaboration between the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation and the Vatican Ethnological Museum resulted in an exhibition on the material culture and arts of Muslim cultures from around the world.
Dynamic arts centres in Sharjah, such as Maraya Art Centre, are also very active in the arts, providing dedicated spaces that have been specifically designed to nurture creativity in the community as well as hosting exhibitions by leading international artists. The art space at the Maraya Art Centre comprises three units: the Maraya Gallery, the Barjeel Art Foundation and an educational community space named 'The Shelter'.
Nearby, Dubai Culture is striving 'to establish the city as a vibrant, global Arabian metropolis that shapes culture and arts in the region and the world'.
The city certainly comes alive each March for the Dubai Art Season an umbrella cross-platform arts initiative that underlines the cultural and artistic strengths of Dubai. Commencing with Art Week, which features SIKKA Art Fair, dedicated to new works by UAE-based artists; Design Days Dubai, featuring product and furniture design; and Art Dubai, Dubai Art Season also encompasses Galleries Night comprising new exhibitions at the many art galleries that have sprung up across Al Quoz and at DIFC, as well as the Middle East Film and Comic Con, and the Gulf Film Festival. In addition to the commercial focus of Art Dubai, where world-renowned galleries exhibit their wares, the broad programme of cultural events includes outdoor art projects, interactive initiatives, workshops, exhibitions, panel discussions and performances through the Emirates and the Gulf.
Less commercially driven studios and art spaces throughout Dubai also nurture art and creativity: Tashkeel studios in Nad al-Sheba Dubai, a collaborative committed to facilitating art and design practice, cross-cultural dialogue and creative exchange, supports and exhibits young and emerging artists. Members have access to studio facilities for fine art, photography, printmaking, textile printing, jewellery-making.
Art Dubai Projects is a not-for-profit curated programme of new commissions, film, talks, performances and radio dispatches. The Pavilion Downtown, modelled ont he Serpentine Gallery's non-commercial arts shows, intends to stimulate on a number of levels. In addition to the art gallery, the space includes a library and theatre.
The non-profit association Emirates Fine Arts Society was established as far back as the 1980s to develop fine arts and to nurture and promote young artists of the UAE at local and international level.
Dubai International Art Centre is another long-established, not-for-profit community-based art centre that is open to all levels of accomplishment.
A number of exciting initiatives are ongoing iin the UAE with the aim of fostering literature in general and addressing the limited range of literature available in the Arabic language.
Kalima, a TCA Abu Dhabi project, funds the translation, printing and distribution of classic and contemporary literature into Arabic; Tarjem is an ambitious translation initiative that falls under the umbrella of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation.
Meanwhile, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (held in March), organised by Kitab, a joint venture between TCA Abu Dhabi and the Frankfurt Book Fair, continues to enjoy record crowds. Kitab also works year-round to tackle the most fundamental problems preventing Arabic publishing from becoming an industry capable of supporting professional authors, notably piracy and the lack of distribution systems. The organisation helped found a UAE Publishers Association in 2009, in preparation for Abu Dhabi’s historic hosting of the International Publishers Association Copyright Symposium in February of 2010.
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award was established in 2007 to reward significant achievements in Arabic culture and promote interest in Arab literature. Presented every year to outstanding Arab writers, intellectuals and publishers, as well as young talents whose writing and translation in humanities have objectively enriched Arab scholarship and cultural, literary and social life, the Zayed Award also runs international cultural programmes to promote the Award's 'Arabic Culture in Other Languages' category, which honours all written works in non-Arab languages about Arabic civilisation and culture.
Sharjah International Book Fair has been in operation since 1982. This is a ten-day annual event that bridges cultures, promoting books and publishers from many nations. The main aim of the fair is to make quality books available at affordable prices, at the same time inculcating a love of reading, especially among the younger generation.
Promoting the importance of reading and fostering a reading culture throughout Emirati society, especially children, is also the aim of Sharjah-based UAE Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY).
The very-well attended Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, held in Dubai in March, hosts a wide-ranging world-class list of authors, philosophers, theologians, and commentators in Arabic and English (simultaneous translation available). This is an invigorating and inspiring celebration of literature at its best and a chance to tap into the creativity of successful writers from many different cultures. The festival also runs the Montegrappa Students' Writing Competition in Arabic and English, as well as a packed programme for younger children.
The newly established Dubai International Writers Centre (DIWC) and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature are both part of the Emirates Literature Foundation. DIWC celebrates the written word in all its forms with a year-round programme of events catering to the multicultural and multinational communities living in the region.
A love of and interest in verse, both classical Arabic and vernacular ‘nabati poetry, known as ‘the voice of the people’, is a deeply rooted cultural attribute that has not been lost with modernisation. Composing poetry is still viewed as one of the highest forms of literary expression amongst all echelons of UAE society., Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is widely acknowledged as a champion of 'nabati verse and there are many revered exponents of the art throughout the United Arab Emirates.
Admiration for the medium is obvious from the popularity of TV shows dedicated to poetry. This unusual meeting of traditional Arabic poetry and modern media takes place through the highly successful television shows – 'Poet of the Million' and 'The Prince of Poets', broadcast on Abu Dhabi TV and poetry TV channels.
Sponsored by TCA Abu Dhabi, the Poet of the Million competition specialising in ‘nabati poetry is watched by millions of viewers each week. Judges include leading critics from the Arab world with long experience in folk literature. The project features a monthly magazine and a website that showcases online events complementing the TV programme.
The award-winning Prince of Poets Festival, although it has a similar format, is aimed at promoting and enhancing classical Arabic poetry, ‘reviving the positive role of Arabic poetry as a medium of expression, and discovering young talent and giving them the chance to develop and grow’. The programme, it is claimed ‘. . .connects poetry to the pulse of the community…' .
Both competitions are supervised by the Abu Dhabi Poetry Academy, a TCA Abu Dhabi project. The aim of the Academy is to play a key role in investigating and documenting Arabic poetry as well as rehabilitating it as a modern literary genre.
Along with poetry, music has always been an integral part of traditional Emirati culture, although other performing arts were not so well developed. Today, contemporary and classical music, opera, theatre and dance performances featuring local and international artists are staged in many venues throughout the Emirates: Abu Dhabi National Theatre; the Cultural and Scientific Association’s venue at Al Mamzar, Dubai; Sharjah’s National Theatre; as well as in many hotels and conference centres.
Performing arts are a particular focus of Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (DUCTAC), the first non-profict, cross-community creative centre in the Gulf.
The art of theatre is also fostered by Dubai Festival for Youth Theatre whilst The Emirates Youth Symphony Orchestra also caters for young people.
Theatre as such isn’t necessarily an Emirati tradition but story-telling is an integral part of Arab heritage and in most cases the stories have a universal theme. One remarkable performance in Al Jahili Fort in recent years was a mostly Arab cast performing a reworked Richard III set in the contemporary Arabian Gulf. The adaptation was by the Kuwaiti-British dramatist Sulayman Al Bassam.
Resuscitation Theatre has also explored the meshing of Arab and international culture, most recently in its production of 'The Rivals' as part of Abu Dhabi Festival. Emiratisation of the text created a truly unique multicultural work.
An extraordinary celebration of the performing arts, Abu Dhabi Festival brings together world-class musicians, performers and artists from East and West in the heart of the United Arab Emirates.The Festival is run by the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (ADMAF), a not-for-profit organisation that has been advancing arts, education, culture and creativity in Abu Dhabi since 1996.
The popular Abu Dhabi Classics, an eight-month season of classical music commencing in October was reintroduced by TCA Abu Dhabi in 2014. Leading international musicians and orchestras perform at numerous venues across Abu Dhabi city, Saadiyat Island and the emirate's heritage heartland, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al Ain. The Classics series also focuses on Arabic music and invests time and effort into education programmes, organising concerts for children. The current season features eminent Emirati musicians and poets.
In recognition of the unique Arab musical tradition, TCA Abu Dhabi established Bait Al Oui to promote oud performance. The oud or lute is one of the oldest stringed instruments of the Arab world and TCA points out that ‘in many ways it is considered the soul of the Arab people so closely is it linked to their cultural identity’.
An important part of its mission, TCA says, is to teach the techniques of oud playing and to raise awareness of the various schools and trends in oud playing. In this way, it hopes, the contribution of generations of oud players will be respected and carried on by today’s students. Ultimately the vision is to have a new generation of professional musicians in the UAE and create a musical nucleus of local ensembles to participate in musical festivals within the country and abroad.
Popular music events featuring international pop stars, blues and jazz bands are also regular features, especially in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Film and television
International A-list stars regularly grace the red carpet at the UAE’s popular film festivals: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADDF), held in October–November each year, and the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), held in December. Over and above the opportunity to view a top-class list of feature films and documentaries, the festivals also provide support, both intellectually and financially, for the nascent indigenous film industry.
SANAD, ADFF's Development and Post-production Fund, assists talented filmmakers from the Arab world with the development or completion of their narrative and documentary feature-length films.
ADFF also runs the Arab Film Studio competition in conjunction with Abu Dhabi Media's billion-dollar film-fund subsidiary Image Nation and Abu Dhabi media free zone twofour54. Image Nation's mission is to help build the foundations of a strong film industry in the UAE through international partnerships and it leads a number of initiatives geared towards developing local talent both in front of and behind the camera, including internships and casting programmes.
Twofour54 was set up to position Abu Dhabi as a regional centre of excellence in content creation across all media platforms, 'developing Arabic media by Arabs for Arabs'. Abu Dhabi Film Commission, part of twofour54, supports the development of Abu Dhabi's film and TV industry, and promotes the emirates as a production location, regionally and internationally.
Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) along with Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC) and the fee zone Dubai Studio City (DSC) are key players in that emirate's film and TV content market. The Dubai Film Market (DFM) runs concurrently with DIFF. Its mission is to support filmmakers by creating a hub for Arab cinema and a destination for sales and acquisition of Arab films and TV content.
DFM's production funding initiative, Enjaaz, offers production support to filmmakers of Gulf origin, helping widen the choice of Gulf films shown to audiences and supporting a sustainable film industry in the region. Image Nation Abu Dhabi partners with Enjaaz to strengthen the support for the production of Gulf short films and have collaborated on many projects.
DIFF also runs Samsung's Short Film Contest; an exciting initiative to stimulate the creativity os aspiring filmmakers across the UAE and one that will provide one lucky winner with a platform to help launch their career.
Return to top