Avenue for creativity

Published in DestinAsian Magazine, Indonesia; April 2016.

With its recent expansion bringing
in a wealth of new galleries and more, Alserkal Avenue has cemented its reputation as Dubai’s hub for contemporary art and culture. – Priyanka Pradhan


Avenue for Creativity, published in DestinAsian Magazine,Indonesia.April 2016 issue.

Download pdf: https://www.scribd.com/doc/306416851/Avenue-for-creativity

Back when Alserkal Avenue was established in 2007, taxi drivers would wonder what their Louboutin-wearing passengers were doing, coming to such a neighborhood. Smack in the middle of nowhere—or, more precisely, Dubai’s Al Quoz industrial zoneit consisted of a couple of streets of corrugated-metal ware- houses set across from dusty auto shops and rusty hardware factories. Fast forward to today, and Alserkal Avenue has evolved from that rugged, industrial landscape into an arts and culture destination pinned firmly on the map of the city—and, with its recent expansion, on that of the region too.

Created by renowned arts patron Abdelmo- nem bin Eisa Alserkal, whose family has owned the area for decades, Alserkal Avenue’s modest, brick-and-steel aesthetic is a sharp contrast to the glitzy glass skyscrapers of Dubai. The rst gallery to set up shop here was the Ayyam Gal- lery (No. 11; ayyamgallery.com), showcasing new and old Middle Eastern contemporary art, soon followed by other well-known regional galleries such as Lawrie Shabibi (No. 21; lawrieshabibi .com) and Grey Noise (No. 24; greynoise.com). As the years rolled on, places like The Fridge (No. 5; thefridgedubai.com), an indie record company that organizes concert series and educational music programs, and The Jamjar (No. 74; the jamjardubai.com), which o ers workshops and a DIY painting studio for the public, joined the area, growing it into the mix that it is today: con- temporary art heavyweights alongside spunky, interactive creative spaces.

The Avenue’s recent expansion has seen it double in size to 50,000 square meters with the addition of a host of new galleries, places to eat and drink, and an OMA-designed project space that will open in September. “When we an- nounced the expansion of Alserkal Avenue, we pledged that we would use this opportunity to break new ground and stimulate new thinking,” says Alserkal, and the newcomers seem to be doing just that.

El Seed, the prolific French-Tunisian “calligraphiti” artist, installed himself in the Avenue’s first artist studio, where visitors can make appointments to come see his work known to juxtapose different languages, cultures, and identities. In another first, Swiss luxury watchmakers MB & F’s is making a splash as the only gallery of its kind in the Middle East, focused on kinetic art such as hand-crafted motorbikes, robot hands, and horology.

But the surest sign of the area’s success is the art-world power players who are moving in. While Dubai has yet to match the financial prowess of other contemporary art destinations such as New York, London, or Hong Kong, the international galleries flocking to Alserkal Avenue show that the future might be different. For example, the Avenue has just welcomed the New York–based Leila Heller Gallery,  a blue-chip gallery that’s a source for some of the most exceptional works from major 20th- century artists, Andy Warhol included.

“With the opening of many major museums and institutions in the U.A.E. in the near future, and the expanding design district and arts scene, the art world’s interest in Dubai is only increasing,” Heller explains. “And at the same time, the collector base here is growing, so it felt like the right moment to make a move here.”

“I was immediately attracted to the uniqueness of this district, where tire sellers and art galleries rub shoulders,” says Stephane Custot, whose Custot Gallery opened in mid-March. In its Paris and London locations, Custot has a legacy of fostering a dialogue between influential modern masters and international contemporary artists, and here in its gorgeous 700-square-meter Dubai outpost, it continues to do just that. In the inaugural exhibition,The World Meets Here, Robert Indiana’s textual sculptures and Marc Quinn’s giant metal seashells appear alongside hanging works from the likes of Miró and Picasso.

“The combination of Alserkal Avenue’s cheerful, diverse character and the large exhibition spaces available won me over, as I wanted to find a venue that could house large-scale sculptures and installations.” It seems that every tenant offers something different. The Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, a private nonzerofit museum, showcases the impressive American and European post-minimalist collection of the late Paris-based collector Jean-Paul Najar, set in Bauhaus-influenced architecture designed by Mario Jossa of Marcel Breuer & Associates.

On an entirely different note, Dubai-based gallery The Third Line moved here from its prior location in order to double its space (which now includes a lounge and screening room) and better support its 27 emerging contemporary artists, all of whom are Middle Eastern.

And it’s not just an appetite for art that Alserkal Avenue satisfies. Eateries have set up shop here—an outlet of Paris’s cold-pressed juicer Wild & The Moon; a soon-to-open artisan chocolatier, Atelier 68 —and fashion is making its way in too, such as the upcoming kimono boutique Chi-Ka.

In the words of its founder, “Alserkal Avenue is a home for dreamers, visionaries, and creative leaders who are looking to add to the cultural wealth of our region.” Needless to say, taxi drivers are no longer surprised by requests to come here.

Download PDF: Within The Palms. Published in VILLA 88 SEPT 2015

Within The Palms

Published in Villa 88 Magazine, AW 2015 

Emirati artist and designer Latifa Saeed attempts to revive the UAE’s traditional crafts through industrial design and art

Words by Priyanka Pradhan

Download PDF: Within the Palms. Published in Villa 88 Magazine,  September 2015

Download PDF: Within the Palms. Published in Villa 88 Magazine, September 2015

How can design trigger nostalgia? How can design make tradition relevant?”

These are some of the questions that ran through the mind of interdisciplinary artist, Latifa Saeed, before she embarked upon a unique concept to bring industrial design and tradition together. The Emirati artist’s latest design installation project, Kinetic Khoos, is a series of sculptural toys for children—a concept that aims to revive the traditional Emirati craft of toy making by using natural raw material such as khoos or palm fronds. She hopes the project challenges one’s perception of a traditional craft to recognize its relevance today.

“Traditionally, palm leaves and fronds were used to make fans, food trays, food covers, baskets, mats, houses and boats,” she says. “Fronds were even bound together and lined with pitch to make water tanks. An inconspicuous use for palm leaves was children’s toys—I remember when older women used to show us how to play with them when we were young, showing us techniques on how to build a fan and make it fly, to weave a thick piece of fresh palm leaf strip, and palm dolls dressed in the sheila (headscarves) and thoab (traditional dress); it brings back memories, emotions and laughter.”
VILLA 88 SEPT 2015 Extensive research into the different types of weaves led to artistic exchanges with local artisans and offered her an insight into how traditional artisans work, fabricate and survive in the modern world. According to Saeed, the sharing of passions and ideas created an interesting dynamic between her and Sheikha, an artisan she collaborated with, on exploring ways to connect the contemporary to the past.

As part of the Design program for Contemporary art organization, Tashkeel, Latifa Saeed was selected for a second time to represent them at Dubai Design Days 2015 with her Kinetic Khoos project.

“It took about two weeks to complete a single toy from the collection, starting from design to industrial machinery to assembly,” says Saeed. “For the limited edition crab, which is part of the collection and is sold out now, it took almost two months to produce each piece.”

But the most challenging part of the project was learning the ropes of industrial manufacturing on the go. “It was difficult to convince the industrial manufacturers at first because the concept was new and unheard of—it was difficult for them to understand the idea, especially without a sample product at hand,” she says. “Also, sourcing materials and finding artisans who are willing to have their work artistically manipulated was a tough challenge.”

But “persistence and refusing to give up” made sure the project ran to fruition.

Her previous project, Braided, was also supported by Tashkeel and showcased at the 2014 City Scape exhibition as part of Dubai Design Days last year. Inspired by hair braids—a very popular traditional hairstyle for children in the Emirates, the project saw her crafting a collection of furniture using braided linen cushion tubes upholstered in a wooden frame.

Unable to find a child-friendly and functional headboard in the market, she created her own design by experimenting and re-imagining the classic buttoned headboard. She then developed the technique of braiding linen cushion tubes and gathering them into clusters to create a padded surface of an organic pattern.

Infact, it was a picture of a headboard using her ‘braided’ concept on Instagram, that caught the attention of Sheikha Lateefa, founder of Tashkeel, who offered to mentor her under the Tashkeel Design Program last year.

VILLA 88 SEPT 2015 057-page-001Her commissioned work entitled Pleated Chair for Tashkeel, followed her experimentation with the headboard and went on to win positive feedback at Dubai Design Days 2014.

While her work so far has been fairly diverse, using vastly different concepts and materials, she says what she’s currently working on is even farther away from what she’s ever done before. “It’s confidential,” she says. “But let’s just say we will have a presence at the upcoming Dubai Design Week (26-31 October 2015) where more will be revealed,” she adds mysteriously.

Saeed’s ability to work in different disciplines without allowing herself to become restricted by a certain material or methodology is reflected in her attitude and free- spiritedness. “I can never have a favorite piece, discipline or medium to work in,” she says. “I’m wholly in love with whatever I’m working on at the moment but I know my next project will be even more fascinating!” www.tashkeel.org

When the medium becomes the message: Priyanka Pradhan. Published in T Emirates: The New York Times Style Magazine (March 2013)

When The Medium Becomes The Message

Published in T Emirates: The New York Times Style Magazine (March 2013)

When The Medium Becomes The Message

Exploring Art Dubai for sound, visuals and other forms of digital media that are shaping the rise of the new media culture in the Middle East.
By Priyanka Pradhan

When the medium becomes the message: Priyanka Pradhan. Published in T Emirates: The New York Times Style Magazine (March 2013)

When the medium becomes the message: Priyanka Pradhan. Published in T Emirates: The New York Times Style Magazine (March 2013)

From the re-creation of a quaint Iranian cafe scene from the 60s using spliced up black-and-white movies, to an abstract sound artwork that enquires “Where does dance go when it dies?”, there’s a lot of new media art to be discovered at art Dubai this year. The regional creative community is increasingly experimenting with new media to give a fresh perspective, testing out technology and even adding a sense of humor to the somber mood that seems to permeate the regional art space today. Globally, a democratization of art has spawned the rapid growth and influence of new media art in the span of the past two decades, but in the emerging Middle East art market this liberalization of art mediums is only beginning to be explored and understood.

One cannot find a better example than inter disciplinary artist Joe Namy’s his work at Art Dubai. He is using the medium of sound to explore traditional forms of dance in the UAE, and the roots of electronic music.

“I feel I am working toward a new conception of listening, by re-examining the basic mechanisms for how we understand sound,” he says. “The tools and techniques I use are appropriated from everyday technologies developed for listening. My approach to sound is mostly rooted in music, not necessarily in music itself but everything around music: history, economy, distribution, consumption, identity, etc. there are so many issues wrapped within the role of music in our society and how we listen.”

Namy is among 50 new media artists out of the 500 artists that are exhibiting their works at Art Dubai.

Antonia Carver, Fair Director, Art Dubai, says: “Many new media artists are coming, particularly from Beirut and Cairo, but also increasingly from the rest of the Gulf. It’s a growing trend and more artists and collectors are becoming interested in this form of expression. Earlier, only institutions were collecting new media art because people usually don’t think of buying a sound piece or a video artwork for their homes. But now more private collectors are trying to understand the medium. You can, as buyers, buy rights to reproduce new media art and have your own share in that artwork.”

Valuation for new media art usually takes into consideration the format of the number of limited editions and rights to reproduce thework. “It’s a bit hard to get your head around it because the new media artwork may be a CD, which you may use and show sparingly, but then the artwork becomes even more special, because you’d be one of only three or four people in the world with the right to own, show and reproduce that CD.”

Antonia adds, “It goes up in value over time, obviously, as the artist grows to be known better and as the influence of new media art grows, as well.”

This potential is attracting regional gallery curators and collectors, as is the intrigue of the new medium itself. Umer Butt, co-founder of Grey Noise, a new gallery based in Dubai, says: “Moving image is becoming an important part of contemporary art practice. It is overlapping cinematic choreography. It’s interesting how material becomes your content. Material exploration is something I’m very interested in, and the visuals my artists are making are very diverse in their language.”

But this new-generation artwork could sustain itself in the Middle East, if it succeeds in stepping out of the “new fad” bracket. Antonia emphasizes a rise in demand from institutions and collectors within the UAE, saying: “Patrons such as Sultan Al Qasimi of Sharjah, who has been investing in video work for the Sharjah Foundation, are encouraging new media art in the country. There is demand, and the medium itself is also well suited for this region, as taking this form of art to some places in the Middle East is much easier than bigger art forms. There’s ease of transport for new media artwork which, I think, is fueling the growth and influence of this category of art, especially in the Middle East.”

More importantly, new media art is allowing artists to express themselves remotely and influence a larger audience through technology.

Iraqi-born American artist Wafaa Bilal, who is known internationally for his online performance-based and interactive works on international politics, says: “The artist no longer needs to be confined to a specific place in order to express him or herself. The audience too needn’t be in a physical place to experience these works of art. New media allows people to create and become their own distribution channels. New media is really helping to drive social change throughout the world. People’s ability to access democracy is emphasized with mobile gadgets. I think advances in technology and mobile devices lend themselves to that trend. If we think about it, the medium becomes the message itself. It enables people to have a greater sense of connectivity.I ’d call this the thumbnail generation effect.”

Some of Bilal’s most prolific work includes art created using a camera, surgically implanted on the back of his head, to spontaneously transmit images to the web, 24 hours a day, as a statement on surveillance. In 2010, in his work titled “…and counting”, he used his own tattooed body as a medium, by depicting a map of Iraq with dots that represented Iraqi and US casualties in invisible ink, seen only under a unique black light.

But while new media art has appeal for artists and collectors, it has also faced challenges. According to Bilal, “One of the challenges for new media art is the limitations imposed on the freedom of the platform itself by limiting the access to a site or amount of activity that an individual can create online. This is a politically driven idea of censorship. For instance, you do not censor a person from broadcasting or downloading things but you do censor the amount of downloading. This is driven by larger entities beyond the public control or interest. If the platform is not censored there’s a greater opportunity for people to engage others and create work that’s not limited to a physical existing institution.”

Namy adds: “The current scope of new media art is reflective of a wider trend of culture production in the region, with artists working as best as they can in the absence of proper infrastructure. Institutional support – governmental, academic, museum and gallery spaces – for sound/art is dismally limited, and sound/art is not easily ‘monetised’ like sculpture or painting, so most of the sound artistsI know are self-taught and rely on peer support, having to travel outside the region for education and exhibition opportunities.”

However, the adversity faced by new media artists is paving the way for a powerful voice.

Namy says: “I’m not trying to reinforce the cliche of the struggling artist, but the lack of support forces us to be more innovative.”