Dubai Art and Design

Amid the glittering stands of gold and crystal objects that seem keen to compete for the most boorish ostentation of wealth, some episodes speak a very different language and centre on women in the white Design Days tent.

Malaz Elgemiabby, Soul makers
March is definitely a good time to visit Dubai, not only because the climate is mild enough to wander around the city on foot but also because, for some years now, March has brought the city’s Art Week, an umbrella of cultural initiatives that encourages the region’s most flourishing creative industries to meet up in a packed programme of openings, talks and concerts beneath the stars, and with its glittering downtown and old souk turned into a maze of fine restaurants and art galleries.
Malaz Elgemiabby, Soul Maker
Malaz Elgemiabby, Soul Maker. The project is part of Souvenirs, a collaboration between the classes of design and visual communication, Design course, VCU-Qatar, professor Paolo Cardini and Simone Muscolino

Design Days Dubai is an international design fair with a focus on designers of Middle Eastern origin; Sikka is a fair organised by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority aimed at discovering new artists based in the Emirates; Galleries Night features more than 40 exhibitions spread across Al Quoz and the Dubai International Financial Centre. All these and other events make Dubai Art Week the hub of artistic action in the Middle East.

The stakes are high as it hopes to make this city the new world capital of culture and creativity, an achievement still far off, of course, and that will take more than money to deliver but the real surprise lies in its capacity for vision as well as production.

In the late 1960s, Dubai grew from a fishing village inhabited by pearl merchants to one of the oil-producing Emirates but it only has a little oil and, in the 1990s, the city decided to attract capital linked to another two rising stars of the closing century: technology and finance, offering colossals such as Microsoft and IBM a number of tax-free zones as strategic corporate bases. The ploy worked and the city decided to relaunch itself by focusing on real estate. At the dawn of the new millennium, Dubai became the capital of experimental properties, pushing not only its size limitations but, more importantly, the experiential ones, too: living on a palm-shaped archipelago surrounded by water; skiing on snow in the desert; and diving in a tropical aquarium at the heart of a shopping centre. The financial capital restyled into a property capital became a capital of shopping and tourism but the city did not stop there and now wants to become the cradle of the future.
Design Days Dubai, 2015
Carpenters Workshop Gallery, Design Days Dubai, 2015
Connecting Minds. Creating the Future is the key theme chosen by Dubai for Expo 2020, for which it is gearing up to welcome 25 million visitors. So, although the city’s present airport has already overtaken Heathrow as an international hub, a second mega-airport is under construction. Meanwhile, the city has already opened a futuristic metro system, the first in the Gulf, providing fast, cheap and scenic links between the airport and various parts of the city. At the same time, seven-lane urban motorways passing beneath it struggle to cope with the mega SUV traffic that is typical in the Gulf.
The future lies beyond oil and in a knowledge economy in which culture, creativity and innovation will be the new currency. Part of this currency involves the high-level training market, to which research and innovation are linked, so the Gulf challenge has already begun. In a global framework that saw the number of students studying outside their home country duplicate in the late 1990s and first decade of 2000 (from approx. 1.5 million to 3 million), the percentage that chose North America and Europe fell, matched by a rise in the Middle East.
Anna Szonyi, Boomerang Bench, Design Days Dubai, 2015
Anna Szonyi, Boomerang Bench, Design Days Dubai, 2015
It is hard to say whether a new cradle of thought and experimentation really can develop in a political scenario so far removed from democratic freedom and sex equality but some episodes speak a very different language and centre on women in the white Design Days tent, amid the glittering stands of gold and crystal objects that seem keen to compete for the most boorish ostentation of wealth.
A precious collective sofa by established Lebanese designer Nada Debs is echoed by multiple seating from Anna Szonyi, a designer of Hungarian origin based for some years now in the Emirates. She won the annual prize awarded by Urban Commission, a creative platform that seeks to attract talent to the region and promote it as a public stage. Her Boomerang Bench has a flexible configuration, is more than 3.5 metres long and comprises 73 rotating pieces of wood. It will be manufactured locally and embellish the cityscape of D3, the Dubai Design District with more than 6000 square kilometres of offices, shops, hotels, residential and academic spaces, galleries, studios, terraces and promenades overlooking the water.
Nada Debs, Distorted Arabesque Chair, Design Days Dubai, 2015
Nada Debs, Distorted Arabesque Chair, Design Days Dubai, 2015
Very different but with the same space-sharing theme is a project by 26-year-old Malaz Elgemiabby from Sudan, a student on the design and visual communication course of Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. Her Soul Maker, displayed in one of the two VCU Qatar spaces, is a machine that captures the breath and imprisons it in a solid sand and chalk ball. It is featured on the stand of one of the universities (also in a tax-free zone) seeking to attract intelligence from around the world and proposing a critical design approach that goes beyond the object in search of emotions, actions and a “machine” that, in these times of self-production, creates an object. What remains is the poetry of the song and the metaphor of the breath in which our existence is constantly mixed with the environment.
Southern Guild, Design Days Dubai, 2015
Southern Guild, Design Days Dubai, 2015
The other VCU-Q stand presents the results of 25 workshops held by designers from all over the world in the ten days before “Design Days” opened, as part of Tasmeem Doha, a biennial event devoted this year to playfulness. Animations produced using drawn-on cardboard balls, robots with souls or their own personalities, sound devices, inflatable architecture, bamboo bicycles, new types of coins and many other unlikely objects are testimony to the reverberations of a work that certainly centred on critical, lateral and divergent thought, managing to move the horizon and construct new points of view – even from beneath a black veil.
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