As Dubai’s art scene has rocketed to new heights in the past few years, plenty of initiatives have been launched to fill some of the gaps. Art hubs have been set up, along with locally-oriented art media and satellite fringe events to the big fairs, not to mention worthwhile motions towards getting Emirati art seen in the emirates’ galleries.
So far, so good. But in the flurry of development, the glaring hole in the local art scene right now is curatorial oomph. It’s a void that’s becoming ever-more apparent as more galleries open to compete for our attention, with several big institutions (Louvre, Guggenheim and all the subsidiary public art pavilions on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island) also on the horizon. The lack of local curators was even more glaring when the UAE featured in the Venice Biennale this year. A whole raft of Emirati creative operations and artists and, at their helm – an Iranian?
The aim is to move beyond the idea that Zayed University professor Janet Bellotto describes as ‘getting artworks and putting them together on a wall’. This was the perspective she faced when she started teaching the first curating course as part of the university’s fine art programme. ‘Some students knew that maybe you work around an idea, because they’ve seen some things about calls for artists for exhibitions. But they didn’t understand the whole scope of putting it together and the different types of curating that exist, the history of curating and where it’s come from. Over a semester, we’ve looked at how to start an exhibition, the different types of curated exhibitions you can do (such as working with a gallery or independently), thematic curation, scouting out artists and then how to work through the various parts of getting an exhibition together. But it’s everything from press and publicity information to writing out statements and working with artists: a whole practical study.’
Bellotto’s nine Emirati students who took part in the curating module have now worked in groups of three to curate three different shows on the Zayed campus. Assumptions is a five-artist show that focuses on works that leave interpretation to the viewer as much as possible, without disorientating them in the process. 0.06 & 2.0mm In Diameter features nine artists who must incorporate sand somewhere into their work, while Dasein is a solo show of pieces by Dubai-based artist Vivek Premachandran.
In Diameter is the more daring of these three shows, and the three curators also feature as artists. The nine contributors, who include Arwa Fuad Bukhash and Hassina Sakhri, were instructed to feature sand somewhere in their work. Curator Matitha Huraiz, who also curated Elementa’s Beyond Convention show of new Emirati art earlier this year, believes the strict brief deterred some locally based artists. ‘Not a lot of people responded,’ she tells us, in between feverish preparations for last week’s opening, ‘but I’m glad. The space is huge and we wanted to have more artists, but it’s ended up being a good show, I think.’
Finding the space has also been part of the programme, and Huraiz and her team have managed to get hold of a huge in-development floor above Zayed’s cafeteria. This vast concrete bunker-like area already had some of the industrial rawness the group were looking for. ‘It’s an inspiring place – really huge. When they came to see the space, a lot of the artists were more inspired to do large-scale stuff.’ Huraiz explains that a number of artists produced works specifically for the show, ‘but we wanted to give the artists a material to use to create something. We chose sand because it has a lot of concepts around it. For example, we are created from sand – from sand we come and to sand we return, dust to dust. A lot of the artists’ work revolves around life and death and the cycle of life.’
To understand what Dubai is lacking without home-grown curators, it’s necessary to return to what Bellotto sees as the most important factor of strong curating. ‘It all comes down to educating viewers,’ she explains. But as Dubai’s art scene, home-grown or otherwise, garners ever-more attention and money, there’s a real danger of losing some integrity along the way. As commercial endeavour grows, do the ideas that should pin an exhibition back to earth disappear in a flurry of selling and dealing? ‘There has to be someone who is managing that side of it,’ says Bellotto. ‘As things change in the history of art, there has to be someone, the curator, who brings a sound idea to what’s happening.’
Exhibitions continue until December 31.