The Changing Face Of Public Art In Dubai: The Arab Fund For Art And Culture Commissions 5 Public Artworks In Historic Shindagha

A new project is changing Dubai’s understanding of public art, which up until this point, has largely been marked by decorative (read: pretty), sculptures installed at hotels or in wealthy areas of the city, such as the ultra-chic downtown. The Arab Fund for Art and Culture (AFAC) commissioned five of the region’s most inventive artists to conceive works of public art that not only call for a deep viewing, but also directly interact with the historic Shindagha area of the city. The creekside neighborhood, which boasts the revamped Heritage Village, (soon to be a major tourist stop: you read it first here!) is one deep breath and a few steps away from Al Gudaiba metro station, which serves as the ventricle of public transportation for the emirate.

Works were unveiled along the Creek back in November and will remain installed through March, 2015. Participating artists include Monira al Qadiri from Kuwait, Sheikha Mazrou’ and Vikram Divecha from the UAE, Vartan Avakian from Lebanon and Doa Ali from Egypt. All work concerns the theme, “Invisible” and was thoughtfully curated by Amanda Abi Khalil.

Deer in the headlights - Doa Aly

Deer in the headlights – Doa Aly

Deer in the headlights 2 - Doa Aly

Deer in the headlights 2 – Doa Aly

I took the metro down to Al Gudaiba and made my way through Heritage Village (where I was surprised to come face to face with a grazing camel), got charmingly lost, and ultimately discovered a series of helpful signs pointing me in the direction of the project.

I got lost and came across this camel grazing in a sand lot near Heritage village with the city's futuristic skyscrapers beyond

I got lost and came across this camel grazing in a sand lot near Heritage village with the city’s futuristic skyscrapers beyond

Though I’ve lived in Dubai for three years, I was unaware of the tranquil corniche that winds through Shindagha, and is dappled with tourists, fishermen, locals, and laborers. It shows great vision that AFAC selected this part of the city as the site of these installations, as I’m certain that many of the area’s residents would not otherwise encounter art in their daily lives. I truly hope that this first foray into accessible public art will mark the beginning of a lasting trend in the UAE.

Then I reached the creek and discovered a peaceful corniche that I never knew existed. The serenity was a sharp cry for the other side of the creek, which is bustling with tourists, fishermen, dhows, and a souk

Then I reached the creek and discovered a peaceful corniche that I never knew existed. The serenity was a sharp cry for the other side of the creek, which is bustling with tourists, fishermen, dhows, and a souk

Just when I was about to give up, I came across this helpful sign, and that was when my public art walk truly began

Just when I was about to give up, I came across this helpful sign, and that was when my public art walk truly began

I was particularly struck by Doa Ali’s sculpture, ‘Deer in Headlights’, which is an interpretation of last year’s news story featuring a wild oryx spotted darting along the median on Dubai’s Palm Island amidst rush hour traffic. Strikingly spartan, the skull of an oryx plays upon the lines between mythology and modernity, conservation, and progress.

Doa Aly's 'Deer in Headlights'

Doa Aly’s ‘Deer in Headlights’

Another view of Doa Aly's 'Deer in Headlights'

Another view of Doa Aly’s ‘Deer in Headlights’

The inspiration behind Vartan Avakian's public art piece

The inspiration behind Vartan Avakian’s public art piece

The sketch that led to 'Stand Here' by Shaikha Al Mazrou

The sketch that led to ‘Stand Here’ by Shaikha Al Mazrou

I was shocked to find myself admiring the sheer beauty of Monira Qadiri’s ‘Alien Technology’, which essentially presents an enlarged drill bit painted in sultry iridescent tones to invoke the Gulf’s history as a pearl diving economy, while calling into question the foreign influence of oil technology. Who knew a drill bit could be transformed into such an appealing and provocative sculpture?

Monira Al Qadiri's 'Alien Technology'

Monira Al Qadiri’s ‘Alien Technology’

Vikram Divecha (an artist whose career I’ve closely followed for two years and hope to feature one day on the blog), engaged with the city’s construction culture by surrounding an installation of boulders half-concealed behind a fence that mocked the typical construction sites found in Dubai. It was a delight to be invited into a space that is typically forbidden.

A shot of the boulders in UAE rock quarries, the inspiration behind Vikram Divecha's 'Boulder Plot'

A shot of the boulders in UAE rock quarries, the inspiration behind Vikram Divecha’s ‘Boulder Plot’

I had the chance to briefly interview Amanda Abi Khalil about the project and here is what we discussed:

DL: Do you think that this project may change the way that Dubai residents understand and engage with public art?

AAK: I think that Dubai can foster new aesthetics and discourse on public art, since it is a new city in constant definition and re-definition of its public spaces. Beyond taking artworks outside of the museum, public art carries a set of aesthetics, methodologies and complex procedures. With this project we tried to challenge the preconceived ideas and characteristics of public art by calling into question scale; modes of intervention, site-specificity, and the notions of monumentality and temporality.

Public art can take many forms and shapes but it’s most relevant when it is commissioned to be site-specific, responding to a context as much as this same context is expected to respond back to it. The commissioned artists worked on different concepts inspired by the proposed theme ”InVisible”.

Through the mediation tools deployed on site and beyond (bi-lingual texts, barcodes, social media and the press), the works call for interpretation, astonishment, curiosity and reflection beyond the aesthetic potential they present. We hope that this commission will change the way Dubai residents engage with public art by showing that artworks can resonate in public space and public life beyond the ”beautification” and ”decoration” aspect one primarily thinks of.

The makeshift barricade surrounding Vikram Divecha's 'Boulder Plot'

The makeshift barricade surrounding Vikram Divecha’s ‘Boulder Plot’

DL: Why did you opt to install these works on the Creek near Heritage Village rather than in another Dubai neighborhood?

AAK: We first started to work on the artists’ concepts before having locations confirmed, which was really challenging for the artists. Then we tried as much as possible to get the permits for the ideal locations. This second step took us almost three months of scouting locations and negotiating authorizations.

Shindagha was one of the sites we were hoping for, since it had open spaces and closed areas, a strong aspect of public life with diverse inhabitants and visitors ranging from the customers of the cafés, tourists who visit the Heritage area, and residents who practice they daily sports and activities on the corniche.

One of the works has been installed outside Shindagha; Shaikha Al Mazrou’s concept was very relevant to Al Jalila Cultural Centre for Children’s mission and philosophy. The organization decided to host the work at their center’s entrance, even before their official opening.

The meditative boulders that make up Vikram Divecha's 'Boulder Plot'

The meditative boulders that make up Vikram Divecha’s ‘Boulder Plot’

Good Ideas: For more information about The Arab Fund for Art and Culture’s projects, as well as details about the five commissioned public artworks go here.

Image Credits: Unless otherwise specified, the images are my own.