Issue 7, Dubai. Art Week

Dubai. Alserkal Avenue.
The new cultural hub.

11 March 2017

My first encounter with Alserkal Avenue goes back to 2011. I was in Dubai to cover the Art Dubai fair. I knew very little about Alserkal Avenue. I wanted to see some galleries, but especially the Salsali Private Museum. I took a taxi there. Chatting with the Pakisthani driver I discovered he had family in Italy, near Venice, but that he’d never been there. He wanted to know what I was going to Alserkal Avenue for, and informed me that Al Quoz, the neighbourhood it’s situated in, was an industrial area. I told him I wanted to visit a museum. He said nothing. He dropped me off on the side of the road and wished me a good day.

At the entrance to the avenue, from the warehouses that formed several alleys, came the sound of mechanical instruments. At the time, some of the spaces were occupied by industrial atéliers.

Concrete, by OMA, 2017, courtesy of Alserkal Avenue

The Salsali Museum – the only contemporary art museum in Dubai – was near the beginning of the central alley. Ramin Salsali’s private collection was being exhibited, the works almost all by Iranian and other Middle Eastern artists. The names and works were unfamiliar to me: all I knew about modern Middle Eastern artists was what I had learned at Christie’s in Dubai. As far as Contemporary Middle Eastern art goes, I was indebted to the Venice Biennale, which had allowed given the international public a glimpse of it.

In 2011, there weren’t yet many galleries: there was Ayyam, which also had a branch in Damascus. There were Carbon 12, Isabella van den Einde, and the gallerist of Hassan Sharif (Dubai 1951-2016), the master and pioneer of conceptual art in the UAE. In the 1980s, Sharif founded the Emirates Fine Art Society, a critical component at the basis of the UAE contemporary art scene.

Concrete, by OMA, 2017, courtesy of Alserkal Avenue

I wandered around Alserkal Avenue, not really knowing what to do there. It was buzzing. When I left, the feeling that stayed with me was that I if I came back the following year it wouldn’t be the same. A taxi was called for me. As I got in, I noticed that my feet, in their Rossetti sandals, were covered in dust.

I went back to Alserkal Avenue every year I came to Art Dubai, and spent longer every time. I met and discovered extraordinary artists, like Reza Derakshani, Imran Qureshi and Nazgol Ansarinia. For a European, Alserkal Avenue has an authenticity missing in Dubai. It’s a place of meetings and exchanges, that immediately feels familiar.

The history of the Avenue is recent: it was founded in 2007 by Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, who decided to dedicate a part of the industrial area that belonged to his family, to the creation of a center to remedy the lack of cultural spaces in Dubai. In the space of a decade, the Avenue has grown into a cultural ecosystem unparalleled in the UAE.

Nowadays the ex-industrial area hosts the most important names in Modern and Contemporary Art and their Middle Eastern colleagues. More and more often, the showrooms are sponsored by well-known names in the art world: the Jean Paul Najar Foundation warehouse is under the Marcel Brauer & Associates studio. The Foundation focuses on western art from the 60s to the 90s.

Concrete, by OMA, 2017, courtesy of Alserkal Avenue

The New York gallerist Leila Heller chose the Avenue as the venue to open the UAEs biggest gallery. She presents her top artists here, including Ghada Amer and Tony Cragg. Third Line, the first gallery to open in Dubai, has moved to the Avenue and has held some amazing exhibitions, including those of Monir S. Farmanfarmaia’s and of Tarek Al Ghoussein’s work. It is increasingly clear that the Avenue is a frontier of art. Showcase gallery held Ukama, an exhibition centering on the Contemporary stone sculptures of the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

Wandering through the alleys, you come across ‘Les Arches’, a metal work by Bernar Venet, nonchalantly laid outside the Custot gallery. It immediately brings to mind his installations on the Promenade and in the parks of Nice.

Concrete, by OMA, 2017, courtesy of Alserkal Avenue

At the Custot gallery can also be seen the abstract works of Nicolas De Stael, whose canvases fetch several million dollars at auction; and Ian Davenport’s Poured Lines, as well as Josef Albers. It also houses the canvases of the Modern painter Chu Teh Chun, an expatriate Chinese artist considered, along with Zao Wou-Ki, one of the great masters of abstract art of the 900s. Both are members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Their works attract fervid bidding in auctions of Impressionist and international Modern art.

That the Avenue was in perennial transformation became very clear in 2012, when Abdelmonem Alserkal announced an investment of $40 million in a project for expansion of the area. The pavilion Concrete, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA studio, was built off the foundations of a group of warehouses. I am told that Concrete was not designed as a museum but as a polyvalent space for art and culture. Mr. Alserkal points out that Alserkal Avenue is to be a non-profit set up. This doesn’t surprise me.

Concrete’s inaugural exhibition, entitled Syria: into the Light, is dedicated to the works of Syrian Modern and Contemporary artists and is built around the Atassi Foundation collection. Among the well-known names are those of the Modern masters Fateh Moudarres (1922-99) and Louy Kayyali (1934-78), both of whom, unlike their Middle Eastern contemporaries who studied in Paris, chose to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. It was the second half of the fifties, and Rome was where Fontana, Burri, Uncini and Mimmo Rotella were working. Before I leave Alserkal Avenue I can’t miss visiting the warehouse of the graffiti artist El Seed, whose calligraphy works I love.

Here, my visit ends. A taxi is called for me. As I get in I notice that my feet, in their Rossetti sandals, are not covered in dust. This makes me think: everything truly has changed in Alserkal Avenue.