Drawing conclusions: Dubai gets a Calligraphy Biennale

Dubai Culture is launching the inaugural Dubai Calligraphy Biennale in October – it runs for the whole month – with exhibitions in more than venues around the city and over 200 artists both local and international highlighting the diversity of the technique from traditional styles to the contemporary.

In that vein, we’re told the exhibitions will include the expected 2D mediums but also jewellery, product design, textiles, and sculpture, with mention of “the intersections of typography and digital art” to add a bit of fashionable gloss. In addition there will be more than 100 workshops and talks “providing a comprehensive educational experience for all attendees”.

The Biennale is a successor to the more-or-less annual Dubai International Arabic Calligraphy Exhibition which ran for ten editions, usually as part of the Dubai Art Season. It celebrated specifically Arabic calligraphy, albeit with the participation of artists from all over the world, and mixed exhibitions (mainly of 2D wall-hung pieces) with a workshop programme.

The revised version clearly offers a broader interpretation of what exactly constitutes calligraphy – it’s not limited to Arabic, for instance, and promises works in five languages – and adds more commercial partners, more venues, and a fancy Italianate name obviously intended to riff on Venice’s own biennial event.

The Biennale’s Project Manager, Fatma Al Qurashi, said she expects the Dubai Calligraphy Biennale to become “a global event that enriches Dubai’s creative scene”.

The list of the Biennale’s partners includes Dubai Expo City, the Mohammed bin Rashid Library, Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Foundation, DIFC Gate Avenue, and a couple of the Gate Avenue galleries – Boccara and AWC Art World Creation. We don’t know exactly what ‘partnership’ involves, though we assume some or all of these will be hosting exhibitions … Otherwise the venues named include Juma Al-Majid Centre, Foundry Downtown, Khawla Art Gallery, Firetti Gallery, and Efie Gallery, as well as Etihad Museum, Al Shindagha Museum, Jalila Cultural Centre, Dubai Design District (d3) and Al Safa Art and Design Library.

Earlier this year there was an open call for participation from “artists and calligraphers from around the world”. We don’t yet have any more details than that, sadly: there’s no website for the event, and we can’t tell you what’s happening where and when.
We do know that the Nigerian-born US-based artist Victor Ekpuk will have a 3D commission in d3; he opens his first solo show in the Middle East at Efie Gallery at the end of September and his work is mainly based on ideographic mark-making from West Africa.

Dubai doesn’t have the only calligraphy biennial in the area, of course – the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial (not Biennale) has been running since 2004. It has a much more traditional brief, though, focussing specifically on Arabic calligraphy and with a distinctly pedagogical bent. The last one ran for nearly two months in 2022 (early October to the end of November) so there should be another one in 2024.

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