Taking wing

Emirati Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal, the founder of Alserkal Avenue, Dubai’s groundbreaking art district, talks progress, patronage, and making cultural history.

Al Quoz industrial zone is not the first place you’d look for Dubai’s brightest and edgiest arts district. But amid the gritty cacophony of auto-repair shops, grimy factories, storage hangers and concrete plants, that’s exactly what you’ll find. Barely a decade after its launch, Alserkal Avenue has become the urban nerve centre of Dubai’s arts scene: an explosion of galleries, studios, workshops, pop-up projects and more, housed in a dense grid of repurposed warehouses.

It’s a leap, says founder Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal, from the days when the city’s cabs struggled to find it. “At least people can locate it now,” he laughs.

In fact, Alserkal is a testimony to slow, organic growth. In an abrupt departure from the identikit economic clusters that sprung, fully formed, across Dubai in its boom years, it has unfurled gradually as a noisy hub for the city’s creatives.

It was born in 2007, when Abdelmonem – whose family owns the site – began to rent lots to galleries and other cultural enterprises. The purpose was “to give a base to the local artists and mediums that commercial galleries traditionally didn’t support,” he explains; a break with the art scene’s existing, market-orientated dynamic. “We wanted to create a global platform for art in and from the region.”

It’s for this reason that Alserkal’s focus is curatorial rather than commercial. Local lights such as The Third Line sit alongside global heavyweights Waddington Custot, and offbeat upstarts such as TheJamJar, a DIY painting studio. A subsidised rental system means the avenue is one of only a few spots in Dubai where early-stage or fringe artists and nonprofits can gain exposure. 

“I always say we like to take risks on the risk-takers,” says Abdelmonem. “I believe in people who are passionate about what they do. I think the city needed this scene, and this community.”

"What Alserkal offers as a cultural district – there’s nothing comparable in Dubai."

Deborah Najar, director, Jean-Paul Najar Foundation.

“What Alserkal offers as a cultural district – there’s nothing comparable in Dubai. It’s an incredible support,” says Deborah Najar, director of the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, which opened its doors in 2016. “We’ve had the directors of the world’s top five museums visit us here. I don’t think we could have achieved that anywhere else.”

The private museum houses a 500-strong collection of post-1960s European and US abstract art accrued by Najar’s father, and shown in a striking, dual-level space designed by Mario Jossa of Marcel Breuer & Associates. The nonprofit’s aim is three-fold: to showcase its expanding collection, to support its artists, and to converse with a new generation of collectors via shows and public events. Its subsidised rent is “essential” to this mission, says Najar. 

“As a nonprofit foundation, we’re a first mover in a difficult environment,” she explains. 

Abdelmonem is reluctant to be described as a patron of the arts, and his modesty belies his position within one of the UAE’s most prominent families. But private capital and entrepreneurship has underpinned Alserkal’s emergence as an experimental cultural district, blowing open a scene previously dominated by polished galleries and auction houses. 

“As a family present here, we wanted to give something back to the community,” he explains. “With Alserkal, I feel we are doing our part to help write the arts history of the region, and to give that global exposure to local talent.”

And as Alserkal’s profile has risen, so too has the success of its artists. In 2015, the district commissioned a performative talk by Lantian Xie, which appeared as part of the London-hosted Shubbak Festival. Soon after, says Vilma Jurkute, Alserkal’s director, Dubai-based Xie signed with the gallery Grey Noise.

“This is where we come in, by supporting ephemeral, conceptual mediums not easily embraced by the commercial scene,” she says. “I think it is important for artists to develop creatively, but they should also have the means to support themselves commercially.”

This year, the avenue plans to open its first artists’ residency.

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Film fans gather to watch an open-air screening at Alserkal Avenue's Cinema Akil, Dubai's first art-house cinema.

"I hope we are contributing to history in the making."

Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal.

Alserkal’s canvas is still evolving. Last year, courtesy of a disused marble factory, the complex unveiled a 250,000 sq ft expansion, doubling its size. For the 50 units that came online, the hub received more than 1,000 applications. 

“We always joke and say the community demanded an expansion from Abdelmonem,” laughs Jurkute.

New tenants include black box theatre The Junction, New York’s famed Leila Heller Gallery, and the locally conceived Cinema Akil; all speeding Alserkal’s growth from visual arts, on to music, theatre, film and design.

But the jewel is arguably Concrete, a vast events space designed by architects OMA, which opened in March. Hung on the bones of a former warehouse, the venue’s movable walls, huge ceilings and translucent front façade form an art piece in themselves, with endless spatial variations. 

Alserkal’s programming activity has been as bold as its construction, with curated shows, screenings, workshops, talks, performances and commissions. Free to the public, these offer one of few places in Dubai where blue-collar workers and fashion types can cross paths.

“During events, you see the multicultural population of Dubai that meets here and blends together,” says Abdelmonem. “Nothing would matter if the audience wasn’t here. Without them, it would just be buildings.” 

There is also a broader legacy in play. At a time when the Middle East is in thrall to conflict, and when its oldest and most beautiful cities –Damascus, Baghdad – are under attack, preserving and documenting its culture has never been more vital. In this, the Arab world’s artists, filmmakers, storytellers are frontrunners, recalling a region beyond the chaos and helping to craft its future. 

“With the times we are living in, to support the arts and culture scene, to see a brighter future, to contribute to that future of the region – this is why art matters,” says Abdelmonem. “I hope we are contributing to history in the making.” – PA