Dubai: An unlikely haven for Middle Eastern artists

Artists from all over the region are lured by political stability and economic freedom
On the frontline: Tammam Azzam’s ‘Wallpaper’ (2015), a photomontage depicting the destruction caused by the war in Syria © Ayyam Gallery

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Dubai’s transformation over the past 100 years from sleepy village to bustling trading entrepot to global metropolis was achieved in part by creating a tax-free environment to attract Persian traders across the Gulf. The city has since drawn in vibrant Arab and Asian expatriate communities, lured by its connectivity, political stability and economic freedom.

At the start of this century, an equally dramatic transformation began in Dubai’s art scene. Artists from all over the Middle East, fleeing war, violence and persecution, have arrived in the emirate. “Dubai has become a safe haven for the intellectuals and creatives of the region,” says Manal Al Dowayan, a Saudi artist whose installations often have a feminist bent. “As an artist living here, I have access to a growing and exciting art scene that is supported and protected by the community.”

The cultural influences on this community are diverse: in the 1970s Palestinian-born painter Youssef Dweik came to Dubai; the late Iraqi artist Ismail Fattah worked in the United Arab Emirates following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; the brothers Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh, known for their arresting paintings and installations, entered self-imposed exile from their native Iran in 2009; and Tunisian “calligraffiti” star eL Seed has set up a studio in the city.

More recently, the tumult of the Arab spring has driven people, businesses and money from troubled states such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria to Dubai, inflating property prices and filling the city’s hotels. Meanwhile, second-generation expatriates born or raised in the UAE to non-Emirati parents, such as Dubai-raised Chinese multimedia practitioner Lantian Xie, have been making a name for themselves.

“An unfortunate reality is that as political, economic and social issues affect the wider region, more people flock to the UAE as a place of refuge, to raise a family and find employment,” says Myrna Ayad, director of Art Dubai, an annual fair that has run since 2006. “For an artist, Dubai provides a diverse network of patrons, collectors and gallerists. It’s a scene that offers them a solid international stage from which to successfully launch their careers.” The scene, she adds, has created programmes and spaces, such as Tashkeel, an artists’ studios complex, that are attractive for regional artists. Elsewhere in the UAE, institutions such as the Sheikha Salama Foundation of Abu Dhabi offer education and residencies, while the Sharjah Art Foundation supports artists through its biennial.

Renowned Syrian artists have also moved to Dubai, including painters Safwan Dahoul and Tammam Azzam. Azzam, 36, came to Dubai from Damascus in 2011 along with his gallery, Ayyam, which transferred its operations to the Gulf as the civil war intensified back home. “I spent four years in Dubai from 2011. I went there because it is a safe place,” says Azzam, who works as a graphic designer as well as a fine artist. The nature of his work, which describes the destruction of the war and supports the populist revolt, means he cannot return to Syria, he says. “Some of my work is political — I have been supporting the revolution since the first moments.”

But while Dubai offers political safety, it is an unlikely haven in other respects. Freedom of expression there has been curtailed since the Arab spring raised tensions over political freedom and sectarianism in the Middle East. Artists work in a sometimes strained atmosphere, carefully negotiating the red lines of accepted expression in the city’s burgeoning gallery scene and at Art Dubai.

In the absence of work visas, artists obtain residence visas at the invitation of a gallery or Emirati national. Artists from countries afflicted by Arab spring violence say it is increasingly difficult to secure such papers. The authorities are concerned about importing revolutionary zeal that might undermine the Gulf’s stability.

Azzam left Dubai for Germany to take up a fellowship on an academic arts programme, in part because the country offered longer-term stability for a foreigner. His UAE visa only allowed for visits from his parents, not his siblings, and there was no chance of naturalisation in Dubai. He says if he had lost his contract with the gallery, he would have had to leave the country within a month.

Back in Baghdad: the pull of home

Not all artists who come from troubled parts of the Middle East have chosen to leave their homeland, reports Erika Solomon. Qassim Sabti, 63, owner of Hewar Art Gallery in Baghdad, has stayed throughout Iraq’s crippling international sanctions, the US occupation and, since then, the sectarian violence he describes as “the most dangerous thing a country can go through”. He says he has received death threats three times since 2005.

Despite that, the Iraqi artist has enjoyed considerable success at home and abroad, most notably for a series employing the tattered remnants of books that were burned or destroyed in the looting after Baghdad’s fall to US forces in 2003. “At Hewar we’ve done 280 exhibitions, not just of visual art but of poetry as well. My success would not have happened without Baghdad. I’m a son of Baghdad — this is where all my memories are,” he says.

Sabti says he also feels a moral duty to stay, despite receiving reports about relatives killed in Anbar and Diyala provinces, where Iraqi forces have been fighting to push back Isis. “I tell artists here that instead of raising our weapons, our job is to raise our culture,” he says. “They create death, but we create life. We are in a dramatic and essential struggle.”

Still, Sabti admits that the pull to leave can be strong. Even his 24-year-old son, a graphic artist, dreams of moving abroad. Sabti has held several exhibitions in New York, Paris and Tokyo. He has organised exhibitions for Iraqi artists in Beirut and Paris, and is planning another series of shows around the region. Dubai, he says, is becoming an increasingly important regional hub. “We can call it one of the capitals of creativity in the Arab world and it deserves to be a cultural capital,” he says. “I extend my hand to this city.”

For most artists who have stayed in Iraq, however, living off their art is nearly impossible. Most have second jobs — from working as civil servants to driving taxis — says Iraqi-German artist Furat Jamil, who is also director of the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq. Jamil, who focuses on film-making, moved to Iraq as a teenager and says she chooses to remain in Baghdad despite the violence. “It’s very hard to make a living. It would be easier in Berlin — but I’d miss the inspiration.”

One of Jamil’s forthcoming pieces was inspired by the remains of a Koran she found at the site of a truck bomb explosion this July that ripped through Baghdad’s bustling Karrada district, killing nearly 300 people. She believes the Iraqi artists who stay also play a critical role in preventing a rich, ancient heritage from being ravaged by violence and western cultural hegemony. She recently made a 3D animated film that revives the story of Sulawa, a beautiful demon creature that harks back to ancient Sumerian culture and that Jamil believes inspired Europe’s vampire tales.

She estimates that half of Iraq’s younger generation of artists do leave but that many of them end up returning. “After the novelty has faded, many of them find that something is missing.”

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