Fun times in Ajman

It’s starting to look as though an arts festival of some kind is a must-have for the image-conscious emirate – even the smallest. Ajman Tourism Development Department is to run the Al Murabbaa Arts Festival for ten days from the end of October in the Ajman Heritage District around Ajman Museum, and this could be one of the best such events – a kind of Sikka Arts Festival with overtones of Dubai Design Week’s activations and a family/community vibe.

The dates are 28 October to 6 November (which, as it happens, is just before Dubai Design Week – 8 to 13 November).

The theme is “Inspired by Yesterday to Imagine Tomorrow”, which could just about sum up the ambitions of any of the emirates’ tourism development authorities: historical authenticity viewed through a modern lens, matching the past to the future for the economic benefit of the relevant emirate. It’s a goal to which anyone in tourism development for an emirate would subscribe.

Otherwise the details of the festival are sketchy, to say the least, and the launch press conference a few days ago didn’t really help much (we weren’t invited, but we had a helpful mole in the audience). So we’ve pieced together some information from the PR, the website, the Instagram feed, and a promotional brochure.

First, the good news. The festival has a professional director; it’s being run by Annamaria Bersani, an established figure in the UAE art and culture scene thanks to her stints as GM of DIFC’s Opera Gallery and then for some years director of Alserkal Cultural Foundation (that’s the bit of the Alserkal family empire that provides support for UAE-based artists and craftspeople, not the organisation responsible for Alserkal Avenue).

In 2020 Bersani joined the Ajman Government Department of Art and Culture, a newly created arm of Ajman’s Ministry of Tourism, specifically to raise the emirate’s profile in the cultural economy business. The festival represents the first tangible fruits of her endeavours.

Then there’s the venue. The area outside the museum looks perfect for this kind of event. It’s right in the centre of town, there are wide open spaces for pop-up festival structures in a hard-landscaped square, and parking is ok.

The initial plans show a good mix of activities, too. There will be a main stage for “concerts, fashion shows, speakers, readings and movies”. A fun-sounding hands-on Art Room will let individuals participate in creating an ad hoc “collective art piece”. There’s a design “booth” and a fashion “booth” (could be exhibit spaces, could be retail ops). There’s certainly a retail area with ‘boutique’ booths for “local arts and craft brands”. We’re promised workshops and presentations from “local artists, creative entrepreneurs and local art market leaders … sessions will include workshops on art history, design masterclasses, contemporary art and more”. A photo-op area offers arabesque backdrops for your instagrammable snaps.

Of course there’s the inevitable pop-up food court, but in addition there’s a separate ‘food art’ area “engaging our local community of f&b suppliers to reflect the cuisine and culture of Ajman”.

Art for all

And there will be lots of art, most of it aiming to be fun and accessible – not least to artists and creatives, because there’s a no-fee open call for “the widest spectrum of creative arts, including artworks, design and workshops, literary works, performance arts, and film”.

These seems to be organised into eight groups:

  • Large ‘art frames’ – a double-sided display panel 2.5m wide and 1.5m high. You have to submit two works here; the art would be for sale (the festival doesn’t seem to be taking any commission, so the money is all yours). We couldn’t figure out how many of these art frames are available.
  • Medium art frames – as above, but the panels are 1.2m wide by 1.5m high.
  • Mural frame – a single-sided 6×3m panel obviously aimed at street artists.
  • “Instagrammable installation/sculpture spaces” – these are 2m cubes in which to display and sell 3D work. No, we’re not sure why these are particularly Instagrammable.
  • Literature, music, performance, film – Submit a proposal for something that can be watched by an audience.
  • Workshops – Submit a proposal for some kind of workshop activity that you will run during the festival.
  • Tree installations – there are some trees in the festival area and you’re invited to submit ideas for dressing one or more of them.
  • Arts and crafts area – as mentioned, there’s a small section of booths for local arts and craft brands.

According to the press conference, the successful applicants for these will each get AED 5,000 to deliver their work. (We assume that actually doesn’t apply to the arts and crafts booths.) AED 5,000 seems a rather bald catch-all; it might sound a decent sum, but not if you have to buy a lump of corten steel or take a couple of months to develop a play for performance. Producing a film would usually require more than that, too. And it seems a bit hard on those who will be contributing to the festival but not with something that they can also sell there.

There’s no formal entry form, no FAQ, no statement of criteria. Just a request that “all proposals are to be submitted to Ajman Tourism Development Department via email to artists@ajmantourism.ae” and “the [festival] committee will select the lucky participants”. The deadline for applications is 12 August.

Who does what

There is a list of partners for the Al Murabbaa Arts Festival – the Municipality and Planning Department in Ajman and Ajman Media City Free Zone from the civic management side, Ajman’s best hotel the Fairmont Ajman, and a clutch of worthy creative-industry representatives in the shape of the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award (the world’s biggest money prize for photography), Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, and Tashkeel.

There are also two outliers whose potential contribution seems less obvious: the FAD Institute of Luxury Fashion & Style (professional-level courses in fashion, based in Dubai Knowledge Village); and Simone Micheli Architects, an Italian architecture and design studio with outposts in Dubai as well as Morocco and South Korea (we think it’s the design side that involved, the engagingly named Simone Micheli Architectural Hero).

At the arts festival’s launch there was little clarity about what involvement the partners will have. Hani Asfour, dean of DIDI, spoke about the need to develop “future-oriented designers” and promised to present “a collection of innovative artworks that reflect the potentials of the new generation of innovators in the UAE”, which at least sounds like he’s committing to put on an exhibition as part of the festival. Presumably that will be the design mini-pavilion.

Rendering of the design pavilion. The fashion area is similar

Salvatore Leggiero, partner at Simone Micheli Architects, also implied that SMA would be providing some content. “Our participation in this festival reflects our interest in developing creative communities and sponsoring young local talents within the global arts movement by showcasing art design pieces, integrating educational programmes for universities, and organising talks, discussion panels, and workshops.” So maybe they’ll be contributing some of the main-stage talks.

Shivang Dhurva from FAD Dubai offered little more detail: “We are partnering with the Al Murabbaa Arts Festival to scout for regional talents, and give them visibility and support through our combined efforts with Ajman Tourism Development Department.” So they’re running the fashion pavilion maybe?

On the other hand HIPA’s secretary general Ali Khalifa bin Thalith came out with a completely generic statement: “We are pleased with our partnership with the Al Murabbaa Arts Festival, and we appreciate the inclusive artistic spirit that shaped the pillars of this event and transformed it into a diverse space that pleases the mind and the eye, proud of its heritage and traditions, and lays the groundwork for futuristic modernisation”. There again, entries for the 10th season of HIPA closed in January this year so it may be that some or all of the shortlist for winners will be on display at the festival …

We’ll let you know more when we know more.

Incidentally, don’t get this confused with the Al Murabbaa Heritage Festival. That’s in Al Ain and is the UAE’s only festival for a police force (Abu Dhabi’s in this case, obviously). It usually includes a vintage and classic car exhibit, the police marching band, and displays by the K9 police dog squad. None of which are expected to feature in Ajman.


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