Beyond the Louvre: Abu Dhabi’s Art Boom
The desert city’s art scene is heating up. Here’s where to go now.
Has there been a more vaunted art-world opening in recent memory than 2017’s unveiling of the Louvre Abu Dhabi? There was the pedigree that comes inherent with the name, of course, but also the striking building—designed by Jean Nouvel with seemingly intergalactic aspirations—and the instantly iconic collection. The 300 works on loan from the mothership in Paris joined 300 from the museum’s own permanent collection, including the most expensive painting ever sold, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, snapped up at Christie’s in 2017 for a cool $450 million.
Such a cultural milestone doesn’t emerge from a bubble. Recent decades have brought “historic changes” to Abu Dhabi’s arts scene, says Dyala Nusseibeh, director of the annual Abu Dhabi Art festival. Along with the museum, she sees several key factors—a buying spree by new Emirati collectors, increased studio space for artists, and prestigious international universities opening satellite campuses—contributing to the cultural renaissance here. Nusseibeh, a UAE native who took the helm of Abu Dhabi Art in 2016, moved to the city after working at London’s Saatchi Gallery and founding the Art International fair in Istanbul. “Abu Dhabi seemed like a natural progression for me,” she says. “I was excited to be a part of the changes here.”
This year’s Abu Dhabi Art, which runs from November 14 through 17, reflects many of these changes. More people than ever are curious to learn about the talents brewing in this swath of the Gulf. “It’s never been more vibrant, it’s never been more connected,” Nusseibeh says of the city’s dynamic art scene. Here, she shares with Rosewood Conversations her tips on how to fully experience it.
The Festival: Abu Dhabi Art
More than 20,000 people descend on Abu Dhabi’s sprawling Manarat Al Saadiyat exhibition center for this annual affair, which gives a global platform to emerging and established artists. Among the new initiatives on deck this year: an exhibition curated by Hammad Nasar, the mastermind behind the UAE’s pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale and its Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions At Play exhibition, along with Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s “Beyond: Emerging Artists,” which will unveil original commissions by three up-and-coming talents. She’s also excited about returning curators, including “Focus: Icons” with eminent author Dr. Omar Kholeif, and “Durab Al Tawaya,” a performing arts program designed by Tarek Abou El Fetouh. “One new initiative is expanding beyond the grounds to three historic sites in Al Ain,” an oasis town two hours east of Abu Dhabi.
The Museum: Louvre Abu Dhabi
Unsurprisingly, Nusseibeh counts the Louvre as an essential stop. “As a museum it defies expectations,” she says. “You don’t expect a museum to be open to the elements, yet the domed ceiling is flooded with light.” Nouvel was inspired by the way light falls through leaves in Abu Dhabi’s Al Ain oasis. “It makes for a very beautiful building.” But beyond the dramatic design, Nusseibeh is inspired by the museum’s exhibitions—which include Eastern and Western masterpieces, fostering a dialogue on global artistic traditions—and what messages there might be for the Middle East and beyond: “The universality of culture, and uniting mankind—looking at the commonality between different cultures as opposed to differences, which is very important today in terms of the turbulent climate in the region.”
The Public Art: Wahat Al Karama
Adjacent to the stunning Shaikh Zayed Mosque—a sight to behold in its own right, with 1,000 pillars, 82 domes, and the world’s largest handmade carpet—stands renowned British artist Idris Khan’s serene outdoor sculptural installation. Meaning “Oasis of Dignity,” Wahat Al Karama commemorates fallen soldiers, and is “a place for people to mourn those they’ve lost over the years,” says Nusseibeh. “It’s the first public commissioned work that Abu Dhabi has ever done,” and it won the 2017 American Architecture Prize. Khan’s work text-based work uses layers of writing on glass. “The layering smudges the words out of comprehension—you get this idea of the density of words.”
The Exhibition Space: Warehouse 421
Near the port area of Mina Zayed, abandoned warehouses have transformed into a thriving creative precinct, including Warehouse 421, an arts and cultural space that hosts exhibitions and regular programming. Recent shows include monographic showcases of Middle Eastern artists (like Palestinian painter Kamal Boullata), as well as retrospectives and geographically-themed programs. “The last installation was everything from the UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale, for people who weren’t able to go see it.”
The Artist Studios: Bait 15
This new artists’ residency and exhibition space gives a sense of the exciting work being produced in the city right now. “Five artists jumped together to open it,” Dyallah says of this “homegrown, ground-up artist-run space” whose studios are open for visits. The founders include Afra Al Dhaheri, who works in everything from drawing to sculpture to photography to printmaking; Hashel Al Lamiki, who works in multidisciplinary design projects; and Maitha Abdalla, who does mixed-media works and paintings with cultural narratives. The space came with a poignant legacy: “When they took the house over, they found a work by Mohammad Ahmed Ibrahim, one of the pioneers of art for the UAE,” Nusseibeh recounts. “He had given it to a friend, who’d left it in that house. It was a significant find for the first-ever artist-run space in the country to have an important artwork lying in a cupboard.”
The Music Academy: Bait Al Oud
Music lovers won’t want to miss a visit to this institution, which aims to preserve and celebrate the region’s rich musical traditions. “Bait Al Oud is a house of traditional music that’s always putting on performances, sometimes in historic sites like the Jahili Fort,” says Nusseibeh. In addition to performances of Arabic music, you can see the making of the oud—one of the world’s oldest stringed instruments—and discover other ancient instruments up close, such as the stringed qanoon and rababah.
Abu Dhabi Art: November 14-17; Manarat Al Saadiyat
Louvre Abu Dhabi: Saadiyat Island
Wahat Al Karama: 3rd Street, Khor Al Maqta
Warehouse 421: Mina Zayed
Bait 15: Al Zafaranah, House 15
Bait Al Oud: Villa No. 72, Malqatah Street, Al Nahyan