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Some fresh voices rise in Arabia

Modern, foreign artists get a bigger stage in the United Arab Emirates. They have a lot to say about repression.

May 04, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — It's A quiet Sunday morning in this city of cacophonous ambition. Construction has yet to hit a deafening pitch, and traffic is still moving. But, as the temperature rises, all sorts of art activity bubbles up in the historic Bastakiya district, a low-lying island of traditional Arabian houses in a sea of modern high-rises.

At the hub of Bastakiya's walled complex, XVA Gallery -- a contemporary art showcase with an eight-room guesthouse and a vegetarian cafe -- offers an international array of works, mostly by Middle Eastern artists, in a series of rooms surrounding a square courtyard.

Gallery owner Mona Hauser, an American expatriate, and Fereydoun Ave, an Iranian artist and dealer who recently joined forces with her, give drop-in visitors an impromptu tour.

Among the attractions: headless metal figures with perforated bodies by Halim Al Karim of Iraq, an installation combining a projected image of a woman's lips with a carpet of bright red men's hats by Hilda Hiary of Jordan, digital photographs of childhood "demons" transformed into grotesque cartoons by Malekeh Nayiny of France and Iran.

Next door at Sauce, an arty boutique favored by trendsetters with a taste for the quirky and outrageous, are Pop-flavored novelties and fluffy dresses that look like out-of-control flower gardens.

About 20 other spaces, in a maze-like arrangement, are occupied by participants in the Creek Art Fair, a showcase for emerging talent that has settled into Bastakiya for a couple of weeks.

Organized by XVA and named for Dubai Creek, the city's central waterway, the Creek Art Fair is a spinoff of Art Dubai, the 2-year-old fair held each spring at a luxurious seaside resort and scheduled next year for March 17 to 21.

At the relatively low-key Creek event, galleries and design studios show their wares in interior spaces originally used as dwellings.

Artists' projects, such as "Open Shutters" -- a photographic record of 12 Iraqi women's lives, organized by British photojournalist Eugenie Dolberg -- pop up along walkways and on exterior walls.

All of which adds up to a melange of sights and experiences that defies stereotypes. The subject matter of the art is somewhat restrained, as expected. Nudity and sex rarely appear. Yet there's no shortage of political and social commentary that alludes to the devastation of war and the challenges of living under repressive governments.

And the fashion police are not in charge here. Stylish clerks at Sauce sport tank tops and cargo pants, as does Nadine Kanso, a Lebanese artist whose photo-and-text mural about the sad state of Beirut fills walls of a nearby courtyard. But in the same area, female art students from Zayed University who are working on a public study of color preferences wear traditional black robes -- and, occasionally, big sunglasses. Mixing duty with pleasure, the students ask passersby to play a board game intended to reveal their favorite color combinations, chat with Kanso and photograph each other with her mural.

So it goes in a part of the world where contemporary art is only beginning to be integrated into the global exhibition scene and marketplace.

Bigger is better -- way better -- in Dubai, which has exploded into an unruly mass of humongous shopping centers and glittering office towers. In a place where image makers boast of having the world's biggest indoor ski resort and the first seven-star hotel, art is barely on the charts. But that is changing as the federation of seven United Arab Emirates adds cultural components to its tourist attractions.

Sharjah, the emirate adjoining Dubai on the north and east, has appointed itself the cultural leader of the United Arab Emirates, and it has established several museums, galleries and arts centers. But Abu Dhabi, the federal capital that borders Dubai on the south, has spectacularly ambitious plans to build an arts complex designed by leading architects that will outshine anything else in the region.

The Cultural District of Saadiyat Island, or the Island of Happiness, is expected to transform a 16.7-square-mile island into a cultural destination. Phase One of the plan includes Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a branch of the modern and contemporary art institution in New York; Jean Nouvel's Louvre Abu Dhabi, described as a "classical museum" that will display part of the Paris museum's collection; and Norman Foster's Sheikh Zayed National Museum, a showcase for the United Arab Emirates' heritage. All three are slated for completion in 2012-13, although construction has yet to begin.

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