421 Arts Campus: in Abu Dhabi, art “takes off” from the old port

A route out of the spotlight of the UAE capital’s great artistic and cultural stages leads to the rough landscape of Mina Zayed’s old port, where the 421 cultural platform is a stepping stone for emerging creativity.

Abu Dhabi is a young and fast-changing Emirate, making its way between the bustling and flashy Dubai and the introverted and intellectual Sharjah.

In the Mina Zayed district, a massive urban regeneration process is transforming the area of the old commercial port, whose main activities were relocated in 2012, into a vibrant multifunctional neighbourhood where the spirit of the place lives on in the industrial buildings that have been reclaimed to house community spaces and services. Among them, there is 421 Arts Campus: a research, learning and experimentation platform for emerging artists and creatives, located in a renovated former Mina Zayed warehouse. 

Talking to me about it at breakfast among the bougainvillea along the harbour is Faisal Al Hassan, Jordanian by origin and for more than a decade in Abu Dhabi, head of 421 Arts Campus and director of its programming.

421 Arts Campus: the stepping stone for creativity in the UAE

Faisal says that 421 was born out of the need to fill a gap in the UAE's arts and culture scene.  On the one hand, there is the exclusive market of art galleries; on the other, there are the "giants" of the cultural industry who are calling on the most renowned architects (from Jean Nouvel to Frank GehryNorman Foster and Mecanoo) to design the Al Saadiyat district.

In between, there is a creative milieu that uses the arts as a tool for investigation and social transformation but does not yet have the opportunity to expand its practices independently. And it is to this community that 421 Arts Campus addresses itself.

The platform provides artists with learning opportunities in exhibition-making, programming, and other practices that will support their career development. In addition to nurturing the region's creative ecosystem, the centre works to establish cultural exchange in the neighbourhood by strengthening Mina Zayed's sense of community and identity, organising initiatives and engaging artists in bringing the community closer to creative practice.   

Over the years, 421 has become a "stepping stone", as Faisal says, for many artists and for the entire 421 team it is a satisfaction to see creative people "take off" from Mina Zayed.

421 Arts Campus, Abu Dhabi, UAE
421 Arts Campus, Abu Dhabi, UAE

421: the space

The renovation project of the two discarded warehouses where 421 is now located keeps the industrial spirit of the area intact, enriching it with suggestions borrowed from Arab culture.

The complex houses galleries, studios, co-working spaces, a library, a café, a shop, a space for permanent installations and a multifunctional outdoor plaza. 

421 Arts Campus, Abu Dhabi, UAE

A fluid and functional layout features a sequence of courtyards with native vegetation, introducing light into the hermetic building and evoking the courtyard as the heart of Islamic architecture, in alternation with essential exhibition spaces.

The buildings are wrapped in a perforated cor-tén shell that features geometric motifs, as in traditional mashrabiyya, and echoes the rusty texture of the surrounding warehouses.

421 Arts Campus, Abu Dhabi, UAE. Courtesy of 421, Photo Seeing Things_Ismail Noor

The emerging art scene: identity and awakening

Within the centre, there are currently two exhibitions taking place. In gallery 1, Asma Belhamar, in her solo exhibition (Solid Void), focuses on the theme of identity as a link between past and present: a relief hanging on the wall made of carved wood depicts a traditional Islamic front, reinterpreted in the variation of textures to suggest the distortion resulting from a perception in motion, as from a high-speed train line whizzing past a historical context (Vision on the Periphery). 

Asma Belhamar, Vision on the Periphery. Courtesy of 421, Photo Seeing Things_Ismail Noor

The group exhibition "Nine Nodes of Non-being" investigates the theme of extinction as a consequence of the collapse of the natural and anthropic ecosystem that society tends to ignore, and the awakening of a new consciousness. Nine artists open doubt as a pathway to a new awareness. Among them, UNMAKE LAB introduces nonsense into the comfort zone of a domestic living room as an opportunity for critical waking up: the photographs on the walls show seemingly verisimilar but are AI-created, unreal animals, which introject the spectre of the uncertain into the stillness of the ordinary (“Domestic Animal Syndrome”, "Oracles"). 

UNMAKELAB, Domestic Animal Syndrome. Courtesy of 421, Photo Seeing Things_Ismail Noor

The journey through the region's universe of emerging artistic thought leads beyond the doors of 421 to areas of development outside the city, in the tracks of artists who have "taken off" from Mina Zayed and now move independently on the art scene.

Out of the nest

I meet Nasser Alzayani (and his cat Felix) at home, in a neighbourhood of serial mansions. Nasser develops a research on memory as the only - Foscolian - tool for survival.

In the installation "Watering the Distant, Deserting the Near" (exhibited, among others, in 2021 at the Louvre Abu Dhabi), he refers to the freshwater spring of Ain Adhani in Bahrain, now dried up, which he revives in memory through the parched sand solidified in a process similar to vitrification.

Nasser Alzayani, studio

In an industrial area lapped by arid land that already preludes the desert, Afra Al Dhaheri speaks in her warehouse-workshop of her urgency to recapture a "scent of time" obliterated by today's pace. In the "Hair Drawings" project, she elaborates her connection with time through the material of her body: the hair, gathered and shaped in a slow and meticulous process, represents a fragment of life that continues beyond the detachment from the body, when it draws chromatic compositions on a sheet of cardboard.

Afra Al Dhaheri, Hair Drawings

By attempting a connection with space (exterior and interior) and with time as the only means of self-preservation to resist the flow of history (which runs faster here than elsewhere), Abu Dhabi's young artistic and cultural scene offers a unique opportunity to establish a sense of place in a country that is more and more global and shaped by pharaonic investments and marketing strategies that blur its identity profile.

It is a complex challenge that recalls the image of David versus Goliath and gives hope for the future of this region.

The programme

The winter programme at 421 Arts Campus is "Entanglements" (January-March 2024). The project invites people to experience real connection beyond the virtual by stimulating interpersonal relationships and caring for others, and to reflect on the sense of community and the value of proximity. “This season we invite visitors to share generously and compassionately with one another through our public program, which is in conversation with the exhibitions on view", says Faisal. In parallel with workshops, jamming sessions, a film festival, lectures and special events, two exhibitions are hosted: the collective "Network Culture" brings together the work of twelve creatives who, over the last three years, have developed their own research in collaboration with 421 and have "taken off" from here; the solo exhibition "Counting Fingers", by Hana El-Sagini, proposes a reflection on the theme of trauma and human frailty, reinventing sanitary spaces in a dreamlike, ironic, disturbing or funny way. All this under the banner of inclusiveness, through learning and involvement tools targeting the most diverse audiences, from family-friendly labels, to braille labels, to multiple languages.

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