T his city often prides itself on extravagance, which is why it’s ironic to think that one of Dubai’s least glamorous enclaves is effectively home to the artistic lifeblood of the emirate. Last month, deep within the industrial chaos of Al Quoz, thriving art hub Alserkal Avenue celebrated the start of a new art season with a community event that attracted almost 2,000 people, its biggest turnout yet.
When we visit Al Quoz on a Thursday afternoon, the area’s dust-covered warehouses are teeming with oversized trucks and the grit and grime that are so characteristic of the area. Yet beyond this industrial aesthetic, Alserkal Avenue is an oasis of culture and calm. Street art lines the back wall of the property, while pristine galleries and edgy art spaces sit alongside odd-job businesses such as a T-shirt printing company, a famed wedding planner and a small workshop specialising in labourers’ uniforms.
It’s that coexistence, says Emirati founder Abdelmonem Alserkal, that makes Alserkal Avenue appealing to both artists and galleries. ‘I remember visiting the art districts during my studies in the US. It was my first encounter with galleries and creatives functioning within one space… as a cluster,’ he explains. ‘To witness neglected warehouses become thriving hubs for arts and creativity was very inspiring. I remember thinking to myself: “I’d love to one day be a part of such a wonderful development back in my home country.”’
Now, that vision has become a reality, and a fast-developing one at that: 20 galleries and art spaces currently call Alserkal home. But more impressively, the area has generated so much hype that I’m told there’s
a waiting list of 30 businesses that would like to make the move.
But those wanting to set up residence in Alserkal Avenue will have to wait a while yet. Alserkal explains that there are expansion plans to double the area by March 2014 with an investment of Dhs50 million. The plans include the construction of a communal area and events centre in which to hold outdoor events and film screenings. For gallery representatives and owners, it’s a natural progression.
Yet while others are quick to praise him, Alserkal insists that he can’t take credit for the phenomenal growth of the area. ‘The credit goes to the owners of the galleries and the creative spaces that took risks, that believed in the local and regional talent, that paved the way for their artists and changed the cultural landscape of the arts scene altogether,’ he says. ‘This year has been a year of substantial accomplishments. For the first time in the history of the region, two art galleries – Green Art Gallery and Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde – were accepted to Art Basel [an international contemporary art fair held each June, sometimes referred to as ‘the Olympics of the art world’], and they’re both from Alserkal Avenue.’
Ayyam Art Centre co-founder Hisham Samawi, a Syrian-Austrian expat, explains the draw of the area. ‘People always say there is no culture in Dubai, that it’s a bunch of fake buildings. But when you look at Alserkal, it really is that underground, edgy, next generation of culture that’s rising up, and it’s happening at the very grass-roots. It’s the one thing that Dubai didn’t plan – it kind of happened on its own.’
One of the most unique things about Alserkal Avenue is that each of the spaces has its own distinct identity. No two venues have designed their warehouse or hung their art in the same way. South Asian gallery Grey Noise is dark and eerie, French vintage furniture haunt La Galerie Nationale is polished and modern, and the hangar-like lower level of Salsali Private Museum is sparse, while old-school Moulin Rouge-like cinema curtains are set up on the loft level, where video installations are displayed.
Mojo Gallery, meanwhile, bridges the gap between business and creativity, running an advertising firm and gallery from its unique multifunctional space. ‘People talk about the energy in our space; it’s alive and, we believe, hugely inspirational,’ says Mojo’s South African director, Kurt Blackenberg. ‘A multifunctional space gives us the opportunity to bring talented individuals from different creative and artistic disciplines together in one place. The gallery forms the focal point for that convergence and ongoing exchange of ideas.’
This winning combination has proved worthy for the gallery, which this year created waves abroad. ‘We placed a commissioned piece, entitled “New World Map” by renowned African artist El Anatsui, in a Bonham’s auction held in May in London, where it attracted huge interest. It eventually sold for Dhs3.2 million, a record price for the artist.’
With such solid credentials, Alserkal Avenue is well placed to continue its ascent. ‘I like DIFC, but that’s more of an entry gateway. I find [Alserkal Avenue] to be a bit younger, edgier,’ explains Samawi. ‘It’s more the heart and soul of where the contemporary art scene is. Our goal is to meet people in DIFC and bring them to Alserkal – this year is going to be the rise of Alserkal Avenue without a doubt. Dubai is taking notice that Al Quoz and Alserkal Avenue are some of the city’s greatest assets. But all these things, they take time.’ From what we saw on our visit, we’re prepared to wait.
Three upcoming events and exhibitions to look out for
Monday night concerts at The Fridge
Featuring musical talent across various genres, including hip-hop and Latin, the first to take to the stage are Emirati rappers Sain & Friends on Monday October 8.
The Fridge (04 347 7793).
Young Art Collectors auction
An informal auction for young art enthusiasts on Monday October 15.
Ayyam Art Centre (04 323 6242).
‘House of Cards’ at Grey Noise
A group show starting on Wednesday October 31, featuring works by European artists including Danilo Correale, Julian Göthe, Niklas Goldbach and Judith Hopf.
Grey Noise (04 379 0764).
Where to eat
Three restaurants and cafés to try during your Alserkal visit
THE ONE Fusion
This homewares haunt also houses a café and deli.
Street 4b, Al Quoz 1 (04 346 8977).
Lime Tree Café
The Kiwi-owned king of home-style café cooking has a location nearby, offering its renowned breakfasts, sandwiches and cakes.
4b Street, next to Courtyard Gallery, Al Quoz 1 (04 349 8498).
Located at the Gold & Diamond Park, this reliable café serves decent breakfast and lunch options from its lengthy menu.
Gold & Diamond Park, Al Quoz 1 (04 323 4350).