Canvas Magazine: Young Voices from Dubai

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Augustine Paredes. Long Night Stands with Lonely, Lonely Boys. 2020. Image courtesy of the artist

YOUNG VOICES FROM DUBAI In recent years Dubai has been building a reputation as a global arts hub through increased investment in its creative industries. Much of this growth is owed to the strong grassroots conversations and community-building being done by the city’s diverse young people and their eagerness to pursue more introspective vulnerability, representation and critique as a form of care. Words by Vamika Sinha A decade ago, the concept of a Dubai arts scene still seemed threadbare. Creatively inclined young people were much more likely, even desperate, to leave the UAE and pursue opportunities abroad. But a stroll today through spaces like Alserkal Avenue, maisan15 or the Foundry reveals a pleasantly different reality: pockets of young people, clad in eclectic outfits, with cigarettes in hand and casual canvases tucked under their arms, throng the sidewalks and galleries. On Instagram, a hotbed for youth-driven discourse, new collectives and creative initiatives flower by the day, cross-posting and boosting each other, gathering on Zoom panels, events and workshops, swapping quirky art world memes, publishing, exhibiting and compassionately critiquing each other’s work and ideas. These admirable efforts have persisted even through the disruptions of a frankly terrifying pandemic. “Not a week goes by when I don’t find myself saying (to anyone who’ll listen) how exciting it is to be working in the arts in Dubai right now,” says independent curator Sarah Daher. “There’s a bubbling of energy that’s going to boil over at any moment into something very special.” Such energy is distinct however from 188

the larger, more government-driven initiatives aimed at branding Dubai and the UAE more generally as an international artistic hotspot. Art Dubai is now one of the biggest art fairs in the world, and the emergence of institutions such as Art Jameel and Alserkal Avenue, along with the arrival of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, have all contributed to a catalysis in terms of public interest, both aesthetic and economic, in the arts. Some have critiqued this development as a matter of merely importing large, glitzy names and labels to build a reputation – a top-down approach rather than organic, grassroots expansion. Work being done on the ground, particularly in online spaces, feels relatively undersung and underreported, circulating for the most part on social media platforms. Yet it is very much flourishing; independent publications, curatorial projects and youth collective spaces are emerging at a dizzying rate. Larger, more-established arts and culture institutions are responding to this growth, to their credit. An increase in internship and mentorship opportunities geared towards young people is noticeable across the UAE. One example is the 2018-launched

Christopher Joshua Benton. LLC FZ CO (A Great Place for Great People to Do Great Work). 2018. Installation view at Fikra Graphic Design Biennial. Image courtesy of Fikra Graphic Design Biennial

Assembly at Art Jameel Centre, “an experimental programme designed to foster creative leaders aged 18 to 24”. Such initiatives not only make the boundaries between institutions and the public more porous but also democratise the power and privileges usually held by those in higher, more elite professional positions towards supporting the wider art community. Emerging young creatives are therefore able to access resources, make valuable connections and develop their careers within the UAE rather than leaving the country. Systemic support in any place, however, is never perfectly just and equal. In a city as demographically diverse as Dubai, where the majority of the population is comprised of immigrants, opportunities can be defined or limited by one’s background and positionality, from passport and skin colour to language and beyond. A lot of youth-produced work is directly confronting issues of representation, accessibility and the idea of conceptualising a “home” in a city that has its own invisible, rigid restrictions and hierarchies. “The conversation on belonging and identity in the UAE is only starting to really take off,” says Sreerag Jyothish, a

mixed-media artist from Kerala, India who has grown up in Dubai and is a current member of the 2021 Art Jameel Assembly. For a lot of people like myself, the ability to speak, let alone celebrate our home spaces, is something we’ve only just started to realise.” Younger artists are now intentionally striving for more radical vulnerability in their work, displaying increased honesty and a willingness to engage in difficult conversations about their backgrounds and social positions within their community in Dubai. They are driven not only by their own narratives but also by encounters with those around them, creatives hailing from different socioeconomic classes, nationalities, professions and perspectives. Looking ahead, it is important that this great flourishing of grassroots art continues to be nurtured. Much of the onus for its sustained development lies with those in power; a more symbiotic, mutual system of community-driven care, support and progress must be prioritised. Meanwhile, the city’s art scene is only just beginning to name itself; a decade on, this is the community that will have been there when this happened – a responsibility that is surely intimidating, but also electrifying. 189



Sara Ahli Artist

Sarah Daher Independent curator

A strong artistic community is being nurtured here in Dubai and to be a part of that feels extremely fulfilling. As an artist, the crucial role I feel I must play is that of the storyteller; to consider space and context within the region and city. Artists have an important role in shaping culture and society – I am not only a maker of the works, but a vessel in which the narrative exists. The only way to tell and share that narrative is to create pieces that express truth and vulnerability in a way that can connect and influence people.

The generosity of this city and the people it is home to mean that, out of nothing more than an idea, persistence, and community effort, beautiful things are born. The young people here have proven themselves to be tenacious in the pursuit of platforms to share their voices. Collectives, independent initiatives and socially engaged practices today abound in ways not seen here before. A conversation I had about my most recent project After the Beep, an experimental exercise that gathered together 38 diverse artists, turned to the question of what to do with a clamour once you’ve catalysed it. As a curator here, I can only hope to keep making work that raises voices that are looking for space to be heard in a local community that is eagerly listening.

Sara Ahli. Photography by Dawid Rus

Installation view of After the Beep at Warehouse 16, Alserkal Avenue. Photography by Maria Daher. Image courtesy of Sarah Daher Sarah Daher. Photography by Maria Daher

Sara Ahli. Balloon Baggage. 2020. Plaster, latex balloon. Image courtesy of Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation

Moshtari Hilal. Untitled (from the Namus Series). 2013. Ink on paper. 63 x 48 cm. Photography by Uschi Irani

Christopher Joshua Benton Artist Dubai is a city laser-focused on its reputation, so it can be difficult to make and exhibit work that is critical. Being a good artist here is about finding that line between what’s allowed and what’s not—and pushing it just a little bit past that line. That said, I’m hyper-aware that being an American makes it easier to offer certain gestures, compared to some of my friends. Even so, right now is an exciting time to be an artist in Dubai. There are so many new young independent curators and indie publications taking big swings, like Global Art Daily and Postscript Magazine, as well as new institutions and venues like Jameel Arts Centre, Ishara Art Foundation and the Foundry, which are filling gaps in the ecosystem.

Christopher Joshua Benton. Photography by Ron John


Christopher Joshua Benton. Al Khat Al Thahabi Auto Accessories & Upholstery. 2020. Dining chair, emoji pillow, majlis foam, car bead cushion. Image courtesy of the artist

Yasmeen Gailani Collector A common misconception is that collecting and buying art is elitist and impossible for those of us who are younger and on a budget. But it just takes extra research, exploration and a curiosity and appreciation for equally young and emerging artists. Platforms like Engage.101 are here, with quarterly sales of non-gallery represented artists in the Gulf. My own collecting habits have also been directed heavily towards my native Afghanistan, with my first-ever purchase being a work by the Afghan artist Moshtari Hilal. Not only did I love her work, but she was an Afghan woman living in diaspora who I could relate to. I remember her saying “I have never had another Afghan buy one of my pieces before.” We ended up discussing the lack of information and resources in relation to Afghan art and in 2019 our collective, Afghan Visual Arts and History, was born – its presence even more pertinent now in the wake of recent political events in Afghanistan.

Reza Hazare. Afghan Wedding. 2009. Oil on canvas. 180 x 200 cm. Photography by Uschi Irani


Augustine Paredes. Long Night Stands With Lonely, Lonely Boys. 2020. 25.4 x 38.1 cm. Image courtesy of the artist

YOUNG VOICES Sreerag Jyothish Artist

Sreerag Jyothish. 1958_sand. Installation view at Youth Takeover at Jameel Arts Centre. 2020. Photography by Daniella Baptista. Image courtesy of Art Jameel

I truly think I’m only starting to figure out what my role here is: a brown cis-man holding an Indian passport and who calls Dubai home. While growing up as a Malayali kid in the UAE, I found myself veering into galleries and art spaces and discovering artists and works that celebrated and engaged with their home spaces in ways that felt new, honest and vulnerable. Yet I also didn’t see spaces that felt like home for people like me. Finding works like Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People (2017) and Neha Vora’s Impossible Citizens (2013) has helped. The “youth” of Dubai are taking texts like these, along with the energy that’s been built over the years, and rooting them in modes of interaction that are more colloquial and accessible. The scene is finding its feet as the country reaches an important moment of selfdefinition. This gives all of us as young artists a unique opportunity to help shape what these definitions are going to end up looking like.

Augustine Paredes Artist Being a Filipino artist in the UAE as its art scene develops is a great privilege and honour, especially as it has become more inclusive and supportive of the new voices brought in by the migrant community. Dubai is slowly being activated by spaces that welcome emerging artists of any background, regardless of where they come from, and there is more acceptance and celebration of vulnerability and honesty through different art forms. As an emerging artist, being here has awakened my senses to the different truths that migration brings to a person; it has given me the possibility for introspection and to use my personal narratives to tell other people’s experiences.

Augustine Paredes. Photography by Raheed Allaf

Daniel H Rey Independent curator

Sreerag Jyothish. Photography by Roseland Studio, Al Fahidi

Nikki Meftah and Dima Abdul Kader Digital gallerists, Emergeast The notion of ‘art collector’ has a certain intimidating factor about it that we wanted to break down. Our role as Emergeast is to create a tangible connection between artist and collector, one filled with passion, understanding and support through artwork appreciation. We want to change the narrative around art in the MENA art ecosystem by providing an accessible, user-friendly platform and to empower young urban professionals through knowledge and transparency so they can add long-lasting value to their lives through a cultural lens. Especially as the emerging art scene here has so much curiosity and inspiration – what we are seeing today is just the start of a fully self-sustainable arts and culture journey.


Mays Almoosawi. Patiently Waiting. 2020. Digital illustration. 42 × 59 cm. Image courtesy of Emergeast

Nikki Meftah and Dima Abdul Kader. Image courtesy of Nikki Meftah

Zuhoor Al Sayegh. Installation view at Youth Takeover at Jameel Arts Centre. 2020. Photography by Daniella Baptista. Image courtesy of Art Jameel

While I was raised 13,000 km away from the UAE, this is the place where I pursued my arts education – the cosmos to be credited for most of my cultural exchanges, exposures to discourse and spaces for leadership. As a Latin American curator practicing in the South West Asian North African (SWANA) region, I find it liberating to amplify conversations involving artists and institutions from the Global South. Our engagements are luckily moving away from some pressures of “more established” art scenes. My learning philosophy is about unlocking Dubai’s potential for art research in non-European languages, as well as the need to challenge art world hierarchies by striving for #YouthCuratingYouth.

Daniel H Rey. Photography by Noor Althehli


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