Arts Canteen Visit the UAE

11 May '18

Aser El Saqqa, director of award winning organisation, Arts Canteen, tells us about about his whirlwind visit to Art Dubai and the inspiring people he met there.

Winning the Arab British Centre Award for Culture in 2017, I was offered the opportunity to visit a country in the Arab world of my choosing. Since last summer, I have had the pleasure of deciding where to go. But this has also thrown up many tensions inherent in doing any cultural work in the Arab world. I asked myself three questions. Firstly, where could I travel to in a period short enough to squeeze between my London programming commitments? Secondly, where would I meet the maximum number of people from around the region? Finally, where has the infrastructure to make such a short visit fruitful?

The answer? Dubai.  Art Dubai, the biggest cultural event in the region, was running at the end of March. This was the perfect focal point for my visit as artists, programmers and curators from all over the Arab world gathered.

I was last in Dubai in 2013 and I was keen to return with fresh perspectives 5 years later, even if only for four days in March 2018.

Away from the chandeliers and five star hotels, I wanted to meet emerging and original creatives, doing work at the grassroots. I recalled visiting Alserkal in 2013. Our taxi took us to what felt like a collection of industrial warehouses. In one we found the wonderful and pioneering Ayyam Gallery. Now Alserkal is a cultural hub buzzing with creative groups, events, designers and diners in cafes and restaurants.

While in the area, I was able to meet Alserkal Avenue’s Cultural Development Director, Fiza Akram and visit the Salsali Private Museum. Just around the corner, my long time friend, Hazem Harb, has a residency at Open Studio Mouaqat (Temporary). His fabulous show is a cardboard recreation of his neighbourhood in Gaza.

I personally became interested in art a long time ago. Initially it was the image of the legendary Spanish artist Rafael that drew me to a course in Spain in plastic arts. Since then, I have been surrounded by artist friends challenged by the realities of producing exhibitions. I realised after many years that I didn’t want to be a gallerist. But my background in arts and events management gave me the idea to curate exhibitions and produce performances for emerging artists and new audiences. This not only gives me the chance to bring artists from all over the world together to create something special and new, but to have the satisfaction of seeing audiences appreciate the art and music I love too! Perhaps most fundamentally, what satisfies me most is to see curators, artists and performers graduating from the platform that Arts Canteen provides in London.

At the opening of Art Dubai, my encounter with some galleries made me feel at times like an excited explorer and at times a little claustrophobic. This is clearly a place experiencing an art boom and some kind of cultural renaissance. Where else in the region could I attend a talk entitled “I am not a robot” as part of the transdisciplinary Global Art Forum? The growing number of commercial art galleries and art fairs, such as Design Days Dubai and Sikka are testament to that….and yet? Its art scene is so far away from the grungy east London vibe I am used to that at it is often difficult to connect the two worlds.

Complaining about property prices though, is a common thread between London and Dubai. One evening over a drink with an old friend based in Dubai, he talks about the rent increases, particularly since the UAE won the bidding to host Expo 2020 in Dubai!

Perhaps my most inspiring meeting of the Dubai 2018 visit was on my last day when I went to meet with Lisa Ball-Lechgar, Deputy Director of Tashkeel. She kindly opened the centre for me on Friday.This fantastic organisation provides a nurturing environment for the growth of contemporary art and design practice rooted in the UAE. It has multi-disciplinary studios, work spaces and galleries located in both Nad Al Sheba and Al Fahidi. I was mesmerised by the courage, perseverance, and hope of all the creative artists in this often overly materialistic world.

I had the pleasure of meeting with Catherine Abbott, the project manager Arts and Creative Economy at British Council, UAE, the sponsors and organisers of my trip. This gave me the chance to understand the work they do to promote the English language, Higher Education and the arts, primarily focusing on young people in UAE.

My four days just about allowed me time to squeeze in a trip to Abu Dhabi to meet with Bill Bragin, Executive Artistic Director of the Arts Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi. New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island has been open for a few years now. It has a range of technically cutting-edge venues, including a black-box space, an intimate 150-seat theatre, and a world-class music hall with capacity for 700. The NYUAD Arts Center has quickly become a beacon for lovers of music, theatre, and poetry from throughout the region. I was privileged that evening to attend Ragamala Dance company’s show “Written in Water” with compositions by my friend, Iraqi-American composer, Amir El Saffar. The performance unfolded on a large-scale projection of a Paramapadam gameboard on the stage floor. It was magic!


By Aser El Saqqa