Creating a legacy

Alserkal Avenue, Dubai’s contemporary art hub, is putting down roots through its foundation and charity work.

Recent visitors to Dubai’s vibrant arts district, Alserkal Avenue, may have seen long lines of white tape laid out in zig-zags across the central brick-paved area known as the Yard. This was no act of vandalism or routine maintenance work, however. They were placed there by Tania Ursomarzo, a Canadian-born architect and assistant professor at the American University of Sharjah, as she mapped the space’s light, shadow, wind patterns and soundscapes in preparation for a future installation.

The final work – still to be unveiled – is just one example of the sort of alternative art, research and performance projects made possible by the Alserkal Arts Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Alserkal, a family-backed cultural enterprise that has put Dubai squarely on the global arts map through its local commissions and global collaborations.

To date, there have been nine cycles of residencies funded by the foundation. The last two were held by London-based visual artist and filmmaker, Wilf Speller, and Basel-based duo Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė of the Young Girl Reading Group. Their final work was shared in open studios during Alserkal Art Week in March, as well as during a range of other public programme events.

In parallel with the residencies, the foundation has also introduced research grants – valued at between $5,000 and $15,000 – to support “dynamic individuals and collectives who disrupt conventional models” with their work.

The first cohort of researchers was unveiled last year and more are due to be named in 2022.

Alserkal Art Foundation's 2020 research grantees

The first cohort of Alserkal research grantees, unveiled last year, included Casablanca-based curator Lea Morin, an expert in cinema in the Maghreb; multi-disciplinary designer and artist Manar Moursi from Cairo, who is focusing on typologies of mosque construction in Egypt; and Shabana Rajani and Jeanne Penjan Lassus, who live in Karachi and Bangkok (respectively). Their work examined climate change, ecological disturbances, infrastructural development, and the militarisation of the landscape in the delta regions of Pakistan.

"It’s an engagement, an investment in people, the creative economy, and artistic production."

Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal, founder, Alserkal.

The foundation’s sponsorship of research grants and residencies is, according to Alserkal’s executive director, Vilma Jurkute, rooted in a wish by the district’s founder, Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal, to “support alternative practice and narratives” and build up a “living repository of multi-disciplinary knowledge… that can be shared and exchanged across boundaries”.

Using simpler language, the Emirati businessman says he wants to give back to the UAE and its residents.

“It’s an engagement, an investment in people, the creative economy, artistic production,” he tells Philanthropy Age. “It’s part of legacy building and contributing…of giving residents of Dubai and the UAE a sense of belonging…a community of people that are forward thinking.”

Abdelmonem does not like to be described as a philanthropist. “I’m very hesitant to use the term philanthropy,” he says. “I come from a privileged family but it’s not something I like to brag about.”

True to this, Abdelmonem declines to share the financial value of the family’s contribution to the foundation and he says there is no formalised endowment, but rather a “commitment”.

This commitment dates back to the 2007 launch of Alserkal Avenue by Abdelmonem and his brother Ahmad. Each set up his own foundation, but in 2019, Ahmad’s Alserkal Cultural Foundation came under the umbrella of Abdelmonem’s organisation to create a single entity. At the same time, eight younger members of the family came onto its board.

Connecting with the new generation is important for Abdelmonem, who takes legacy building seriously. “It’s exciting to get them involved, to see them getting their hands on,” he says. “I really like to see them getting engaged, carrying this forward.”

On whether the foundation will formally register as such, Jurkute describes it as more of a “homegrown model”. Explaining, she says: “An art foundation is a very Western construct. We had a long debate about whether we should follow that here and we questioned what that process really meant.

“The idea is that as a foundation, we are able to collaborate with other nonprofits globally, but in terms of the structure, it’s very much a paradigm of its own for this region and for this context,” she adds. “The family is - and has been for some years - committed to supporting artistic production, scholarship and research.”

Like many public spaces around the world, the onset of Covid-19 meant the 70-odd galleries, entrepreneur-led businesses, shops, and public areas within Alserkal Avenue, a grid of warehouses located in the Al Quoz quarter of Dubai, fell quiet. But despite the artists being grounded and the galleries shuttered, the team at Alserkal were busy behind the scenes creating, a new digital space that Jurkute says is about “democratising knowledge and diversity”.

Plans for a new website had been brewing for some time, but delivery was accelerated by the pandemic, when exhibitions that could no longer be attended in person were taken online, and video conferences and essay sharing replaced physical lectures and events.

“We used the new website as a kind of lab to experiment and try out different forms of programmes and engagements and to see how people responded,” explains Jurkute.

“This experience made us completely rethink and re-articulate our website. We realised that what we had previously was basically an inventory of events in our past. We wanted it to be an extension of what happens here and so we completely remapped the way we viewed the space and how we could engage with our wider community.”

The result is a colourful and engaging repository of diverse essays, photography, fiction, lectures, and videos, sitting alongside listings of current exhibitions, events, and local businesses, which are, for the most part, back up and running.

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As part of the Alserkal Pay It Forward initiative, INKED set up a community kitchen to provide meals for people in the Al Quoz area. Photo: Mohamed Somji

In addition to this digital remapping, 2020 was also a moment for Alserkal to connect with its civic heart through various charitable initiatives.

The first example of this was Pay it Forward, when avenue tenants whose income had stopped abruptly due to the pandemic-forced closures, were given a three-month rent freeze in return for providing community services and other support.

Some businesses within the avenue made masks, sanitation kits, meal packs, and donated food vouchers. Some also offered free or discounted services, such as transport, marketing, and other professional assistance, and proceeds from art sales and collections were also donated.

“Community has always been the bedrock of our organisation, and we will always keep this essential value at the heart of everything we do,” Abdelmonem noted at the time.

Just a few months later, the community rallied a second time in response to the devasting explosion in Beirut. Food, clothing, and other items were collected over the course of a month and sent to Lebanon and a special day was earmarked for all proceeds to go to the Beirut response, with the Alserkal family match-funding what was raised.

 “Everyone really embraced their civic role and there was this real sense of collective coming together,” explains Jurkute, adding that the pandemic and the Beirut blast were “an opportunity to rethink circular models” and show how arts can be linked to social transformation.

“What we are in now is a kind of future-forward thinking moment.”

Vilma Jurkute, executive director, Alserkal.

Looking ahead as Dubai - and slowly the rest of the world – continues to open-up post-pandemic, Alserkal is confident about its place and future and continues to punch above its weight given its relative youth.

An example of this is the recent launch of Alserkal Advisory, a for profit arts consultancy, which is already working with private and government clients across the region.

“The fact that this economy has become the blueprint for the region, it is a huge honour and recognition, and we look forward to sharing the knowledge through artistic production and heritage creation,” notes Jurkute.

“We’ve had over a decade of milestones together as a family and with the community,” she says. “What we are in now is a kind of future-forward thinking moment for Alserkal.” - PA