Antonia Carver

Jameel Arts Centre: The internationalism of Dubai is the inspiration behind our programming

Interview with Antonia Carver, the director of the recently inaugurated Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai.

Jameel Arts Center, 2018

For over a decade now, the United Arab Emirates have been focused on incrementing the countrys cultural offer. The absence of museums representing the history and culture of the region needed an immediate response.

The aim for an arts model offering opportunity for exchange between contemporaneity and history has produced different answers in different cities. Sharjah, one of the emirates, is widely considered the nations culture capital. There, the Sharjah Art Foundation offers a busy programme of events revolving around modern and contemporary Arab culture. These are alternated with initiatives concerning contemporary international culture. Abu Dhabi was chosen as the location for the big museums, first and foremost the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Dubai is the city where international art galleries and Christies auction house are found. It is also where many Middle Eastern artists have chosen to live. Dubai is an international tourist destination. In 2020, it will host the World Expo. The city is changing under the influence of numerous cultural events organised in the city. The latest large project to be added is the Jameel Arts Centre designed by Christopher Lee of Serie Architects.

The 10,000-square-metre centre was conceived to “exhibit contemporary art to the public and engage communities through learning, research and commissions”. It features vast exhibition spaces, a library and a research centre. Its director Antonia Carver describes it as “a place for dialogue where art is an experience”.

Shaikha Al Mazrou
Installation view of Green house: Interior yet Exterior, Manmade yet Natural, 2018, Artist’s Garden commission by Shaikha Al Mazrou Art Jameel Commission for Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, Courtesy Art Jameel

On November 11, Jameel Arts Centre opened in Dubai. The Centre is a vast non-commercial and non-governmental art institution with 10 gallery spaces, a research library and project spaces. In the UAE there are over 70 nationalities, and a high percentage of the population is non-native. Did you consider the impact that will produce this amount of culture, this incredible flux of cultural information to the people? To communicate with such an international audience is something that certainly pushed everyone to a deep reflection. Which was yours?

This is it a great topic, actually because it is very much on our minds. This idea of having an arts centre that really reaches out, beyond the usual suspects, to the very broad public is something that the Jameel family themselves are very insistent on.

This idea of the internationalism of Dubai is also the inspiration behind our programming. The Centre is situated right on the creek of Dubai and we’re very close to the Jaddaf boat yard, where all the boats were made, and are still made, that enabled Dubai to become a trading city. So we’re taking the water of the creek and the fact that this creek has been the main centre for trade and the connectivity between Dubai and other places, as the basis of our programming.

We have worked with artists from all over the region, and we really explored these links between the Gulf and South Asia, the Gulf and Iran, the Gulf and North and East Africa, and see Dubai as a great web of connectivity with the rest of the world.

Can we say the UAE is strongly engaged to build up different cultural projects to create a new form of communication with the rest of the world? Also I’m thinking, Expo 2020 Dubai, its title is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, the idea, in same way, is to look toward the future with much confidence…

In Dubai and across the UAE, the leadership from the government and the perspective of the people is totally future oriented. The whole conversation is about how can we be ready for future, how can we debate the kind of society or community we want to be? We can say that culture and art are totally at the heart of the debate that is taking place now in the UAE. Cultural institutions are directly involved in this conversation and lead it.

Continuing the reflection between past, future, identity, the exhibition Crude is a reflection about oil, an element that has contributed to shape the image (and the perception) of Arab countries, in the last Century. This subject has never been approached from a cultural point of view…

You’re very right, it has been a great investigation! We’ve built up an exhibition to explore the larger idea of oil. ‘Crude’ considers some of the complex histories of oil as a catalyst of modernity across the Middle East, tracing its effects through the archives, infrastructures, and technologies it has produced. So, in a way, this exhibition is very indicative of the direction we want to go in, because it’s a very discursive debate, and also looks at the kinds of influences and influences oil has had on us as people, wherever we are in the world.  

Oil is everywhere. Oil drives many things we do – as people living in the contemporary world - yet we do not really acknowledge it or talk about it. And, at the same time, we’re heading for a situation in our future, which is very much in the minds of the leadership here in the UAE: what are we going to do when oil runs out? What are we going to live on then? In a way, it’s again going back to the idea you mentioned of looking forward to the future, but by looking forward to the future we also need to understand the past. ‘Crude’ is the kind of exhibition that, even if you’re not a regular museum-goer, or even if you’re not a big fan of contemporary art, you could find everything in it: history, politics, society.

Jameel Arts Center, library
Christopher Lee of Serie Architects, Jameel Arts Center, view of the library, 2018

You set up four solo shows focused on female artists’ practices: Lala Rukh (Lahore 1948 -2017), Maha Mallh (Riyad, Saudi Arabia, 1959) Chiharu Shiota (Osaka, Japan, 1972) and Mounira Al Solh (Beirut, Lebanon, 1978). Maha Malluh is a Saudi Arabian artist born in 1959. Rukh was an activist and founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), one of South Asia’s most significant platforms for women’s rights and feminisms of the Global South…

It is interesting to have more prospective points of view in Dubai. These four artists, they are all doing incredibly dynamic things and two of them – Lala Rukh and Maha Malluh – are total pioneers and they’ve only recently really been more widely appreciated. They really broke ground and influenced so many other artists. Same with Mounira al Solh and Chiharu Shiota, both of whom deserve even greater attention.

Shiota is a very well-known Japanese artist. This is her first project here in the Middle East. She worked on the idea of connectivity of history and travel and the way, as people, we’re all connected with each other, through her really dynamic installation.

In some way you came back to the previous thought, in the sense that even if we live in at different latitudes with different origins and culture, mentally and spiritually we can be connected…

This theme of connection and confluence is key for us. You can be an artist from Japan, but still have similar kinds of ideas to artists from this region. Even between Japan and the Gulf, we’re totally connected as individuals. It’s an evocative theme and it really sums up what it means to make an institution in Dubai.

So, to summarise: the direction you are taking as an institution is as you say “to bring communities together”?

Yes. This is true for Jameel Arts Centre on two levels. One, thematically: this idea of confluence is one of the thematic concerns central to the Centre’s programming, exhibitions, and Jameel Collection acquisitions. Two, in terms of audience, we are committed to considering widely to encompass all communities living in the UAE as well as ongoing global conversations.

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