In Arts + Entertainment

An Art Lover’s Guide To The United Arab Emirates

From modern museum marvels to hidden gallery spaces tucked away in nondescript neighbourhoods, these are the top spots for arts and culture in the UAE.

Considering the United Arab Emirates’ geographical location between Europe and Asia, and the fact that it’s home to some 200 nationalities, it’s unsurprising that the country is one of the Middle East’s most buzzing hubs of arts and culture.

Yes, beyond the five-stars-and-counting hotels and larger-than-life architectural icons lie artistic enclaves that celebrate the UAE’s history, diversity and aspirations, as told by local and international names in art.

From modern museum marvels to hidden gallery spaces tucked away in nondescript neighbourhoods, these are the main hubs to visit for true arts and culture fix in the UAE.

The Louvre, Abu Dhabi

Almost two years on since opening its doors, Louvre Abu Dhabi has firmly established itself as an icon of the local arts scene.

The permanent collection comprises antiquities from the ancient civilisations of the Middle East and North Africa, through to works from European names like Bellini, Manet and Mondrian, which are displayed alongside pieces from regional artists.

The museum also rotates its exhibition collections four times a year with pieces borrowed from its Parisian sibling, as well as 12 other French museum partners.

And just like its Parisian counterpart, the building is a destination in itself. Take some time during your visit to walk along the water channels that surround the museum and behold Jean Nouveau’s shimmering dome that encases the main gallery spaces, its pattern of some 8,000 geometric stars filtering a ‘rain of light’ throughout the day. 

Alserkal Avenue, Dubai

art in the uae

Alserkal Avenue is tucked away among bare warehouses, far from Dubai’s mega malls. Credit: Angelo Aguilar

It’s said that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – and nor, it seems, galleries by their exterior.

Tucked away in a nondescript location among the bare warehouses of the Al Quoz neighbourhood – a far cry from Dubai’s mega malls and glitzy hotels – Alserkal Avenue is considered the OG arts district of the emirate.

Established in 2008, the Avenue is now a vibrant, thriving community comprising galleries, cafes, coworking hubs, creative offices and performance spaces. The 15-plus gallery spaces in the district cover everything from sculpture to paintings, photography, music and classic cars.

Ayyam Gallery was one of the first established in the area and is a must-visit to get an education on some of the regions emerging and established artists. If mixed media is more your thing, Mojo Gallery is the place to get your fix. Perhaps one of the biggest names on the Avenue is eLSeed – the French-Tunisian ‘caligrafitti’ artist has his studio here, with visits by appointment.

Dubai Design District, Dubai

Dubai Design District – or d3 as it’s known – is a rare chance to see an artistic enclave evolve from its infancy. The purpose-built area broke ground in 2015 as a place to foster the talents of the region’s emerging designers and creative professionals, and as such, is a place where fashion, art, design and performance intersect.

Start your tour at Citizen E Art Gallery, which specialises in contemporary art from new and emerging names across the region. Right next door is AR Gallery, which acts as a platform for global emerging artists to showcase sculptures and mixed-media works to break out onto the scene.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Dubai without a little sparkle, right? The Swarovski Creative Center is a space that celebrates fashion, jewellery, art and film. While the collection of crystals is definitely impressive, the real thrill is the chance to see some of the region’s most promising design talents in action in the communal workshop space.

Sharjah Art Area, Sharjah

Sharjah may be a relative unknown compared to the Emirates’ heavyweights, but it’s the only UAE city to be named Cultural Capital of the Arab world, and is home to a buzzing arts and culture district just a half an hour’s drive from Downtown Dubai.

Sharjah Art Area is flanked by the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Rain Room on one side and the Sharjah Heritage Museum on the other, with myriad galleries and a beautifully restored historic district in between.

While the historic buildings-turned-galleries of the Sharjah Art Foundation house all manner of photography, sculpture, drawings and videos from regional artists, it’s Random International’s Rain Room (2012) that draws the crowds. This interactive installation allows visitors to walk through a continuous downpour of rain that responds to your movements.

If you’re limited on time, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation is a sight to behold inside and out. The museum is actually housed in a traditional ‘souk’ or marketplace, and it’s where you can check out more than 5,000 priceless Islamic artefacts, from ceramics to manuscripts, coins and paintings.

(Lead image: The Louvre, Abu Dhabi, image: © Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi Photo by Hufton+Crow 3)

Published 12 March, 2019