Documenting Dubai

Exhibition shows just how quickly history of emirate unfolded

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No single image from Charlie Koolhaas’ exhibition is remarkable – it’s the sum that speaks volumes. Taking tens of thousands of digital images over a period of five years, this Dutch/English sociologist and photographer has captured the city’s rapid growth, peak, decline and re-emergence.

Charlie was originally based in China, and first came to Dubai in 2006 thanks to her interest in ‘instant cities’; in 2008 she showcased her ‘Dubai Next’ collection at Art Basel in Miami. Now, in 2011, Charlie is presenting 350 or so of these images in a giant flip-book format. ‘The idea behind this was to show the depth of the city: at whatever point you enter, you enter a different part of Dubai,’ she explains. The current exhibition, commissioned by Dubai Culture, is now called ‘Dubai Then’, an acknowledgment that the burgeoning, super-optimistic, almost arrogant Dubai seen in the earlier images is now a slice of history. Accompanying the past images are snippets of text and images of the city’s present, a more uncertain future.

‘Dubai Then’ continues at The Pavilion until August 18.


Five things Charlie learned about Dubai

The city helps to bridge religious and cultural divides.
‘The Dubai Culture & Arts Authority asked me to visit the expat South Asian workers and represent them. I just wandered into the labour camps, which are interestingly just like India, and found this group of guys who invited us into their room. It was during Ramadan, and there were 15 of them staying in one room. The thing that most struck me was how proudly they spoke about how many religions were represented in that room – 12. They were telling me that back home they’d all be fighting, but here they were brothers. These human connections are one good point about globalisation. However, the same man who was so proud of this also told me that his wife had just had a baby. When I asked him how long it’d been since he’d been home, he said more than two years, and that his brother was looking after his wife – it was obviously his brother’s baby. This shows how contractual work does place a huge strain on families.’

Dubai is a non-Western ideal.
‘I produced the whole flip book while in China, in one of the most polluted cities in the world. I asked women who sew on streets to sew up the whole thing. They were amazed by Dubai – they said they’d never seen anywhere so beautiful, anywhere with such blue skies or amazing buildings. And I realised that Dubai is a non-Western ideal. The buildings that I saw as tacky, these women saw as amazing, I finally understood what a beacon the city is for the rest of the world.’

It’s a haven for outsiders, helping them to feel welcome.
‘Nowhere else in the world have I met so many people who are outsiders. It’s a place where people can feel like they belong when they don’t belong anywhere else. A haven of shifting identities. I was surprised by the level of tolerance in the city.’

UAE women play a big part in art.
‘When I’m in America, all anyone ever asks me about is women in Dubai – there are so many assumptions. But I was really struck by how important women are in the emirate. Young women control the art scene.’

The city feels like Noah’s Ark.
‘I personally love Deira – the whole world is there. The recreation of so many cultures is so strong. It’s amazing how Dubai is like Noah’s Ark – you can meet two people from everywhere in the world.’

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