Taking a Rizq?

From RAi's opening show: Ameen Khaleel, Balancing on Unreal Surface (2022)

It’s always a pleasure to report the arrival of a new gallery, particularly one that looks sufficiently well funded and well organised to suggest a professional and long-lived addition to the UAE’s art scene.

This one – Rizq Art Initiative, RAi – has the added advantage of location: it’s in Abu Dhabi, hitherto (with a couple of honourable exceptions) a relative desert for commercial galleries. Which has been a bit surprising, given the presence of two of the UAE’s significant nonprofit institutions of the art ecosystem, Louvre Abu Dhabi and The Art Gallery at NYUAD.

Abu Dhabi also has Abu Dhabi Art, of course, and while the art fair has in the past had something of a reputation for being an extended private view aimed at collectors from the Royal family, it does seem to be getting established with a broader (if still local) market.

RAi is piggybacking on this year’s Abu Dhabi Art to launch, with the gallery space on Reem Island opening on the same day as the fair and a panel discussion hosted on Abu Dhabi Art’s sidelines in the Manarat al Saadiyat again on 23 November.

The gallery occupies 700m2 of Leaf Tower, one of the high-rises close to Al Maryah Island and not far from the luxe shopping of Galleria. It’s some distance from any other art venue, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And if the opening show is an example of what we can expect, it will be a well-stocked option for the collector. It has around 60 works in a variety of media from 27 artists, all from India.

Says RAi’s founder and executive director Shafeena Yusuff Ali (right): “The richness of art from the Global South deserves a global stage, and RAi is committed to providing just that in the heart of Abu Dhabi. Our vision is to weave these diverse artistic threads into the cultural fabric of the UAE, enriching it with new textures and colours …”

Presumably this manifests as a continuing focus on the subcontinent, and certainly that’s the provenance of the gallery’s leaders. Shafeena Yusuff Ali is a businesswoman (as well as an art enthusiast) who is the CEO of Tablez Food Company, an Abu Dhabi based F&B business that runs a couple of franchises (Grimaldis, Famous Dave’s) and its own Bloomsbury’s ‘artisan bakery’ brand. She’s also a director of the hospitality investment arm of Abu Dhabi’s LuLu Group; her father is Lulu International Group chairman M.A. Yusuff Ali, No.27 in Forbes’ list of India’s richest people and in the top 500 of the world’s.

Her entrepreneurial credentials are not in doubt, and doubtless the extensive network of contacts that she has acquired in her business and associated philanthropic dealings will stand RAi in good stead.

The academic and curatorial heft comes from curator and creative director Meena Vari (right), who has long been associated with Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology – latterly as Dean of Contemporary Art and Curatorial Practice. She too will have a great contacts book, this time for artists rather than buyers. She has regularly consulted for private art organisations and curated contemporary Indian art many times; she’s worked with and for art and educational institutions around the world; and her bulging addressbook includes a global network of artists dedicated to addressing contemporary ecological challenges (Soil Assembly, which she conceived for this year’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale).

We understand she will be Rai’s chief curator going forward but will continue to work on curatorial projects with other organisations (which will presumably include Srishti).

RAi has ambitions to be more than a commercial gallery. It says it’s “deeply committed to promoting cultural exchange, nurturing artists, exhibiting art, and sparking a new era of creativity in the UAE”, which sounds pretty comprehensive – especially as “RAi will provide unstinting support to emerging and established artists, curators, researchers, and other creative practitioners from this region to reflect and position their practice within a global discourse”.

Or as Meena Vari puts it, “At RAi, we’re not just curating contemporary art; we’re crafting a dialogue that intertwines the unique voices of the Global South with the UAE’s vibrant cultural tapestry. This alignment of international and local artistry promises to enhance the cultural conversation in Abu Dhabi, making it an even more dynamic and inclusive artistic hub”.

As well as exhibitions, this ambitious aspiration means presentations, talks, workshops and “teaching-learning modules” (sounds like something carried over from Meena Vari’s academic background). There will be a “strong focus” on engagement with private and corporate sponsors to fund “a variety of year-round initiatives” to expose new audiences to contemporary art. There will be “trans-disciplinary collaborations, learning, and long-term networking” that leverage RAi’s contact with culture and educational institutions elsewhere. And there will be practical support for individual artists in the form of residencies and studios.

There are few details about these. “RAi is home to studios that provide a peaceful space for artists to create, learn and experiment with ideas and techniques” says the press release, which implies these studios actually exist at the moment. There’s no word as to where they are, or how you might apply for one.

It could be the studios are part of the RAI Residency Awards which provide “opportunities for artists, curators, and writers to develop their practice, network, and connect and expand their creative practice through research and collaborations with communities and institutions. We provide residency artists with a platform to incubate their ideas, research opportunities, visits, workshops, and presentation opportunities in colleges and other creative venues …”

We’re told the first residency programmes will be announced in the next month or so.

Also trailed but without details is an experimental concept called Labs, which that immerses artists in an unfamiliar environment, “places that are not typically associated with the creation of art”, to create in response to their time there. It sounds something like the Abu Dhabi Art Hub idea from a few years ago, where a group of Europeans were flown into Abu Dhabi for a month or so to find inspiration from local sites and nearby desert with distinctly uneven results.

As described, the value of the RAi exercise may lie in introducing more local buyers into the art world, rather than fostering more local artists; but we like the idea of more options and opportunities for the local art ecosystem, and we’re happy to applaud anything that contributes to it.

From the opening show at RAi: George Martin, A Garden of Earthly Delights (2023)

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