Dubai is a city built on vision and ambition. Literally rising out of the Arabian desert, Dubai has metamorphosed from a fishing and pearl diving hub to a sprawling metropolis in only 49 years. In a city best known for shiny skyscrapers and superlatives discover Dubai’s arts and culture scene.
In 1971 the seven emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah) unified and became one nation, the United Arab Emirates. From those beginnings the bold ambition of the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has helped put Dubai on the map. The emirate is now a sophisticated, futuristic and popular destination where visitors can land in the world’s largest airport terminal, visit the Burj Khalifa the world’s tallest building, shop at one of the world’s biggest shopping malls, and stay in the world’s tallest hotel. In fact, Dubai has so many records that it has set the record for the city with the most world records – 224 and counting.
While a trip to Dubai is not complete without the obligatory visit to the Burj Khalifa, which is an elegant and remarkable feat of structural engineering in its own right, on first appearances it may seem that Dubai does not have much to offer the travelling aesthete. But when you step away from the flashy lights and the lure of the dancing fountains, you will discover that there is indeed a deep rich history and a burgeoning and bright arts scene in the city and beyond that can inspire and delight as much as any record-breaking building.
Start with a wander around Bur Dubai, Dubai’s Old Town, an area to the north of the city which is steeped in heritage. Here is where the beating heart of the city was long before the foundation of a single skyscraper was laid. Head to Dubai Creek and the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood for a glimpse of traditional Emirati living. Al Fahidi is one of the oldest communities in Dubai, with its sandy houses and wind towers (known as barajeel), the area is characterised by its winding network of narrow alleys or sikkas. The area was once the home of Dubai’s wealthy merchants, and reflects the way of living that was typical in Dubai from around the mid 19th century to the 1970s, and is awash with culture at every turn, from the 18th century Al Fahidi Fort and Ruler’s Divan to the recently opened Al Shindagha Museum.
A trip to Dubai Museum at Al Fahidi Fort provides visitors with a historical context to the pioneering city around them, showing that the emirate’s desire for development and ambitious ascension is rooted in a heritage of trade, natural resources and industrious peoples.
Another highlight of the neighbourhood is the XVA Art Hotel. Here, traditional architecture meets modern design. Entering the Art Hotel from the narrow sikka, visitors are transported to an art-filled oasis and are welcomed by a charming tree-shaded courtyard. Part hotel, part gallery, XVA showcases contemporary works from across the Arab world, Iran and the Sub-continent with a roster of exhibitions which focus on works by the region’s foremost artists as well as those emerging onto the scene. To stay at XVA is to experience the beauty and simplicity of traditional Arabic architecture as each of the 15 rooms with cool stone floors and courtyard views are uniquely decorated and designed with regional art.
The UAE is a Muslim nation and a common misconception is that female voices are not heard in this society, their stories, faces and experiences untold and hidden behind abayas and burqas. But one special place challenges this narrative, the Women’s Museum. Created and established by Professor Rafia Ghubash, the first Emirati psychiatrist and the first Emirati woman to receive a professorship in psychiatry, the museum is situated across the Creek in Deira- a bustling district full of souks selling spices, textiles, gold, meat and fish. Getting to the museum requires navigating the Old Gold Souk in Deira, so explore the markets and haggle for bargains on your way.
The Women’s museum is built within Bait Al Banat, meaning The Girls House. The exhibition space takes visitors through a lovingly curated journey that shows the roles and impact of Emirati women, recalling the daily lives of women living in the UAE from as early as the 1950s.
The museum also houses two exhibition spaces, one dedicated to temporary exhibits of female artists from across the Emirates, while the other is home to a body of work called Zayed Empowering Women, which highlights the late President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his contribution to women in the UAE. The Diwan Ousha Bint Khalifa Al Suwidi Room is a striking embodiment of the work of the Emirati poet, known also as ‘The Girl of the Arabs’. Ousha is regarded as one of the finest Arabic poets and the exhibition charts her experience.
Dubai has around 50 art galleries and being a relative new player in the global arts industry has not stopped it from creating distinct visual and experiential spaces for artists and aficionados alike. Alserkal Avenue is one such place. A cultural district of contemporary art galleries, non-profit organisations, and homegrown businesses in the Al Quoz industrial area of Dubai. Al Serkal Avenue is spread across 500,000 square feet and is not only a centre of art but a vibrant community of visual and performing arts organisations, designers, and artisanal spaces that have become an essential platform for the development of the creative industries in the UAE.
Alserkal Avenue has its own gravitational pull, attracting acclaimed artists from all over the world to its district of warehouse style art galleries. Alserkal has had collaborations with UK galleries such as The V&A, The Hayward Gallery and Whitechapel Gallery. The art-loving traveller can spend time wandering the lanes of galleries and studios, watch an arthouse film, pick up an original artwork or simply browse and enjoy an artisanal coffee roasted on site.
Dubai’s theatre and performing arts lovers used to have to make do with productions in conference halls with acoustics that were not designed for the vibrato of a philharmonic orchestra. That was until Dubai Opera opened in 2016, becoming the city’s first purpose-built multi-format performing arts theatre. Though the city does not have a theatre district like London’s West End, Dubai Opera has played host to stunning productions of West End shows such as Les Misérables, The Nutcracker and The Kite Runner, and the stage has been graced by the biggest names in opera such as Placido Domingo, José Carreras and Katherine Jenkins.
If you are looking for vast visual spectacle then this year’s Expo 2020 Dubai, from 20 October 2020 to 10 April 2021, promises to offer the greatest show on Earth. With six months of innovation, arts and technology in hundreds of unique country pavilions for visitors to marvel at. At the time of writing, despite the global Covid-19 crisis, Expo 2020 Dubai is still scheduled to go ahead.
Dubai is not the only emirate with artistic attractions. The UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, also has a wealth of art and heritage to explore too, but if you only see one thing, see the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Around an hour’s drive away from Dubai Marina, Louvre Abu Dhabi is a testimony of the UAE’s commitment and appreciation of art past, present and future. Located on Saadiyat Island, surrounded by the tranquil waters of the Arabian Gulf, Louvre Abu Dhabi is an island of awe and art. The intricate 590-foot-wide dome shaped museum was born out of a partnership between the UAE and France and houses some 600 masterpieces in its four wings. From adorned Egyptian sarcophagus from 900BC through to Basquiat’s Cabra, the Louvre Abu Dhabi illustrates how the Middle East is intrinsically connected to the world.
Do not expect to see too many billboards on the buses or tube inviting you to ‘Discover Sharjah’ (the emirate has one of the strictest decency laws in the UAE and alcohol is almost entirely forbidden), but for the culture loving traveler, a day trip to the emirate is worth skipping happy hour for. Sharjah is the third largest of the seven emirates, bordering Dubai it is approximately 20 minutes drive from Dubai International Airport. The emirate has established a reputation for its commitment to art, culture and history – Sharjah was recognised as the UNESCO cultural capital of the Arab World in 1998 and has hosted the Sharjah Biennial since 1993.
Sharjah’s historic Art and Heritage Areas houses the Sharjah Art foundation (SAF), the artistic centre fo Sharjah. Book a ticket to the Rain Room (main image) and wander through an immersive installation that invites you to walk through a dark shower of continuous rain without getting wet, exploring our relationship with nature and technology.
Dubai’s art scene may not be as obvious as its glittering skyline but seeking it out will paint the city in a different light.
Author: Benita Adesuyan
Benita Adesuyan is a Londoner living in Dubai where she has been delving into the city’s cultural scene for over six years. She is a freelance writer and PR professional with over 10 years of experience and has crafted features for Time Out Dubai, Women’s Health and the Sunday Express Magazine. Benita is also a certified personal development coach working with professionals to turn their talents into strengths. When she’s not travelling, writing or helping businesses develop their people and their content, you can find her sweating it out at a pilates class or on the hunt for the city’s best G&T. Follow her on Twitter @BAdesuyan