History of art and culture in Dubai

Time Out celebrates the thriving art scene in Dubai with a special profile on the history of art and culture in Dubai, including Alserkal Avenue

History of art and culture in Dubai

Fifteen years ago, there weren’t many places to go to see art. Among the options available was Total Arts, at The Courtyard in Al Quoz. One of the first galleries in Dubai, it’s been around since 1996, and is still open now. Created by architect and designer Dariush Zandi, today there are more than 300 paintings on display.

Despite the odd Peter Andre-level pop concert, not many musicians had visited the city to perform, but 2002 marked a significant turning point for Dubai, with shows from musical powerhouse Elton John and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, both of whom took the stage at the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club in 2002. Fourteen years later, the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road singer is just months away from a return to the city.


One of the first major art galleries opened in Dubai this year. In the heart of Al Fahidi, the city’s historical district, XVA Gallery focussed on contemporary art by artists from around the Middle East. It’s also still home to a café and a hotel – both among the most quaint, serene spots in an often frantic part of town.


The inaugural Dubai International Film Festival kicked off this year, and today it’s the biggest event of its kind in the region. It was also one of the first major events to be held at Madinat Jumeirah, which had opened earlier the same year. Some of the films showcased at the festival included Bend It Like Beckham, starring Keira Knightley, Morgan Spurlock’s infamous Super Size Me, and heist movie Ocean’s Twelve.

Ten years ago, Al Fahidi Historical District (then known as Bastakiya) was restored by Dubai Municipality, preserving one of the oldest parts of the city from being paved over. It’s now home to cafés, art galleries and museums, which you’ll find in the maze of alleyways. Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding also offers tours of the area.

Dubai’s Community Theatre and Arts Centre, or DUCTAC, opened in Mall of the Emirates in 2006, introducing international productions and performances to the city. As well as operating a theatre, the not-for-profit arts centre runs courses for everything from pottery to dance.


In 2007, a cluster of nondescript warehouses in the middle of Al Quoz were turned into Alserkal Avenue, which has gone on to become Dubai’s biggest arts hub and hipster magnet. It expanded last year, and is home to the likes of Mojo Gallery and La Galerie Nationale, performance art venues such as The Fridge, workspaces, showrooms, cafés and more. This was also the year that gave birth to the city’s annual Art Dubai festival, held in March, which has since grown into a citywide Art Season every spring.


Set in the quiet neighbourhood of Nad Al Sheba, Tashkeel art studio and gallery was established in 2008 by Lateefa bint Maktoum. The organisation supports local artists with residencies and fellowships, and there are regular exhibitions and workshops on offer for aspiring artists here.

It may now be a well-oiled machine, but the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature only launched in 2009. On the inaugural line-up were 65 international authors, including Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes, who made one of his final public appearances at the event.

Many people’s home interiors got a lot more interesting following the opening of Pro Art Gallery on Jumeirah Beach Road in 2010. The gallery championed art that the general public could afford to buy, with pieces by international artists like Picasso, Damien Hirst and Banksy. It’s also worth visiting for regular exhibitions and lectures by contemporary artists.


The first Sikka Art Fair was held in 2011, in the Al Fahidi district. The event showcased (and still does, annually) art and music by UAE-based artists – both local and international – along with workshops, exhibitions and performances.

In the same year that plans for Dubai Opera were first announced, an artwork in Dubai broke a world record. The world’s largest mural was revealed on the roof of the Gloria Hotel. Called Caravan of Women, the painting covered 1,700 square metres and took 100 hours to paint.


D3 – short for Dubai Design District – was announced in 2013. The neighbourhood was planned to create a hub for the city’s creative minds, with offices, galleries and workshops for designers and artists, and officially opened in 2015.

Dubai set another world record two years ago – this time for the world’s longest graffiti wall. Near Jumeirah Beach Park, across the exterior wall of Dubai Ladies Club, the finished project was more than 2km long (2.2454km, to be exact), and saw street artists travel to the city from all over the world to take part. Called Rehlatna, or Our Journey, the project aimed to show the history of the UAE.


Dubai Canvas Festival, which celebrates street art and 3D art, was held for the first time last year. Taking over part of The Walk at JBR, local and international artists created mind-bending works of art outside, where people could watch the optical illusions taking shape.

More than 250 artworks by two of the biggest artists of modern times – Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró – went on display at the Burj Khalifa earlier this year. The exhibition took 18 months to plan and put together, and included paintings, sketches and ceramics by the two artists.

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