Alserkal Avenue

From the first Art Dubai event in 2007 to the recent inauguration of Concrete, an art gallery designed by OMA, this is how in ten years Alserkal Avenue has become a Middle Eastern art destination with a future focus on commissioned art.

The years 2006-2007 can be considered a watershed biennium in the establishment of cultural credibility in the United Arab Emirates. From then on, thought was given to shaping and promoting a cultural model. In contrast to the world-famous solidity of the financial and business sector, there was a total lack of culture until then. Apart from a few mediocre museums on local history, there were no reference points for people wishing to visit more than the seaside and the giant skyscrapers.
All began in Dubai with the almost contemporary opening of a Christie’s auction house and Art Dubai, the first trade show for modern and contemporary art in the Middle East. Until 2007, the only contemporary art gallery in Dubai was the Green Art Gallery. There was also a handful of dealers in traditional art headquartered at the Dubai International Financial Centre.

 

Despite the fact that during its first events, Art Dubai had difficulty finding an identity of its own, and the modern and contemporary artwork presented at the stands was without precise curatorial guidelines, its favour with Middle Eastern collectors increased yearly. After a short while, a group of local collectors and aficionados became so involved as to give shape to an initial art system. At that point, there was an evident need for galleries with suitable spaces. The time was ripe for a change.

In the Al Quoz industrial zone, the Alserkal family of entrepreneurs possessed a vast block full of warehouses laid out in an orderly fashion. In 2007, Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, a patron of the arts, decided that some of the buildings would be used for art galleries, calling the compound Alserkal Avenue. At the end of the first decade of the 2000s, the Ayyam Gallery debuted on Alserkal Avenue. At the time, it had four branches, in Damascus, Beirut, London and Dubai. More galleries followed: Carbon 12, Green Art Gallery, Grey Noise, and Isabelle van den Eynde, which is the gallery of the artist Hassan Sharif (Dubai 1951–2016), a pioneer of conceptual art in the UAE.

In 2011, the Iranian collector Ramin Salsali chose Alserkal Avenue for the location of the Salsali Private Museum. Besides his own collection, over the years he has presented the work of Hazem Harb, Reza Derakshani from Teheran, one of the best abstract artists in the Middle East, the Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi, and Nazgol Ansarinia.

In time, the change of destination from warehouses to art galleries became a given, and the restyling of the spaces altered the face of the street, which became Dubai’s art hub.

 

Its echo resonated far away. Leila Heller from New York chose the location for her gallery’s second branch, the largest gallery in the UAE. From the start, her idea was to work along the lines of a twofold exhibition formula aimed at the encounter between extra-occidental and occidental visual art. Shows have included Bill Viola and Rashid Rana; Michelangelo Pistoletto & Y. Z. Kami; the Egyptian-born American artist Ghada Amer and the British sculptor Toni Cragg.

To create a private museum for her father´s collection, Deborah Najar Jossa decided that the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation would be housed on Alserkal Avenue. She chosed Mario Jossa (of Marcel Breuer & Associates) to design a Bauhaus-inspired gallery, which opened in 2016 and is registered with the International Council of Museums. The Foundation presents an exacting overview of European and American abstract art.
For young people, the first stop on Alserkal Avenue is often the studio of the Tunisian-French graffiti artist and calligrapher eL Seed (Paris 1981). His work is frequently made on a giant scale, together with young artists. He has made an unforgettable mural (2016) stretching across 50 buildings in a corner of Cairo’s periphery called Manshiyat Naser, inhabited by Coptic garbage collectors, the Zaraeeb community. For decades, the community has been working on efficient garbage recycling, most of the raw material of which arrives from the city. The artist said he intended to change popular perceptions of the district, too narrowly associated with squalor, and to celebrate decades of unsung work by its residents who sort and recycle tons of the city’s waste. He met with them, and with their cooperation created a monumental piece of Arabic calligraphy that quotes a third-century Coptic Christian bishop who said, “If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes.” The work received the 2016 Unesco Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture.
The latest arrival at Alserkal Avenue is Concrete , a pavilion designed by OMA/Rem Koolhaas. Positioned at the heart of the street, the building is a conglomeration of four warehouses. It has been described as a triumph of discretion for its minimalist appearances. Its colour, varying from grey to pale blue, depends on the light of the sky. Says Koolhaas: “Concrete is a Dubai building. Not only because it is here physically, but also because everything involving it belongs to the city: the materials and the labour. In a city where everything is oversize and skyscrapers are overwrought and gleaming, the only solution was to make a building with a neutral impact.” Concrete is truly the most innovative piece of architecture in Dubai in recent years.
Inaugurazione di "Syria Into the Light", Concrete on Alserkal Avenue, 9 marzo 2017. Photo Abby Kemp, Courtesy of Alserkal Avenue
Inaugurazione di "Syria Into the Light", Concrete on Alserkal Avenue, 9 marzo 2017. Photo Abby Kemp, Courtesy of Alserkal Avenue
We asked Abdelmonem Alserkal about the future of Alserkal Avenue. He replies calmly, “Non-profit work. We have experience in commissioned artwork, and at the 2017 Art Dubai we have produced the projects of four artists: Ammar Al Attar, Karim Sultan, Farah Al Qasimi and Raja’a Khalid. We are starting with a number of residencies curated by Luigi Fassi.”
“Syria: Into the Light”, the inaugural show at Concrete, is a collective exhibition of Syrian artists, produced through the Syrian Atassi Foundation. “Some people were expecting a show on the war,” says Mona Atassi, the co-curator with Rasha Salti. “Instead, we decided to organise a historical overview of portraits. In that sense, Syria is an extraordinary country, especially in modern times.”
“Syria: Into the Light” begins with canvases from the early 20th century and ends with contemporary work by Hiba Al Ansari, Layla Muraywid and Mohamad Omran. Ample space is given to Louay Kayyali (Aleppo 1934–1978) and Fateh Moudarres (Aleppo 1922–1999). Contrary to many Middle Eastern artists who went to Paris to train in art, these two chose the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. It was the mid-1950s, and Mimmo Rotella was living in Rome, frequently visited by Lucio Fontana. Palma Bucarelli was the director of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea then, and with Giulio Carlo Argan she organised exhibitions that have left their mark on the history of art. “They lived in Rome for many years,” says Mona Atassi. “Paintings by Kayyali are relatively few, compared to other modern Syrian artists. He was very demanding toward himself, and destroyed a certain amount of his work. Today his paintings are in high demand.”
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