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Dubai: a contemporary identity

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Somewhere along the way, journalistic portrayals of Dubai changed drastically. From regional success story to cautionary tale of the Middle East. And yet, Dubai has begun to develop a contemporary culture.

Sacha Robehmed
10 September 2012

Somewhere along the way, journalistic portrayals of Dubai changed drastically. From regional success story and a city to aspire to, Dubai’s veneer of flash and brash then became the cautionary tale of the Middle East. Now we hear from the New York Times that high-rises “have turned downtown Beirut into generic Dubai.” And in the subheading of AA Gill’s scathing Vanity Fair critique, “...Dubai is a cautionary tale about what money can’t buy: a culture of its own.” 

It’s not only journalists wondering where Dubai’s culture is. Questions of national identity and culture are also on the minds of Emirati authorities and Gulf-based researchers.

As a teenager, it was frustrating to live in a ‘cultural wasteland,’ as one friend often described Dubai. But the few galleries there once was have multiplied, and there is now an emerging contemporary culture scene complete with an international art fair. Increasingly, community initiatives are pushing this development.

Before the intense summer heat set in, I attended a MENAtalk run by tasmena, a community owned, not-for-profit design association. It aims to create “socially responsible opportunities for interaction between the community and the city, academia and industry, and the East and West,” described Nasreen Al Tamimi, cofounder of tasmena. Al Tamimi is a trained architect, while her cofounders Yunsun Chung Shin and Adina Hempel are professors at Zayed University in visual communications and urban design respectively. 

Discussion focused on Al Khor, the Creek area of Dubai and the oldest part of the city. Prior to exploring the area on foot, tasmena had brought together academics, students, a government official working to preserve the historic area, and interested people from the community. The diverse mixture of professional backgrounds and different nationalities within the group was like nothing I had ever experienced before in the UAE. Although lower income expatriates (such as construction and domestic workers) are admittedly not adequately represented, tasmena’s initiatives are refreshing in providing a forum broadly reflecting Dubai’s demographic diversity. Group discussion and collaboration allow for re-engagement with the city, as its residents are empowered to take ownership of a place that is fragmented, constantly changing and often alienating.

We gathered at the Jam Jar, a painting studio and arts consultancy founded in 2005, which also creates a popular art map of Dubai. “Accessibility to the arts was the intention from the word go,” remarked Hetal Pawani, director and founder of the Jam Jar. While it’s one of Dubai’s oldest community-minded spaces, several others have since appeared. These include collaborative co-working cafes such as Make and Shelter, The Pavilion, which aims to encourage dialogue between arts and the community, and Traffic, a gallery which has become a community-orientated space. Rami Farook, owner of Traffic and a designer, curator, publisher and entrepreneur, described the transition: “On January 1, 2012 we went non-profit and now operate as a school, studio and public space. The reason for this change is probably due to my developing interest in socialization, sustainability and independence.”

Farook sees community as “very important” in cultivating creativity. Yet the UAE’s more grassroots, community-centric creativity is overshadowed by big-name projects, such as branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre being constructed on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, and a Modern Art Museum and Opera House planned for Dubai. This gives the impression that the arts, and a cultural identity, will just be imported. However, Hetal Pawani sees no problem with this, as “Importing is the way Dubai has done it for a long long time,” referring to the city’s past and present as a trading port. Instead, she sees these artistic ‘imports’ as being pivotal to audience education and the development of future artists.   

Imports aside, UAE authorities and critical journalists alike would do well to take heed of Dubai’s grassroots contemporary culture scene. Although at an early stage, the growing emphasis on  collaboration and community creates space for residents to explore and contribute to their city’s identity. Community engagement through art and design is therefore a means to answer questions of national identity and culture.

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