The Dubai Collection makes its public debut

Amine El-Bacha (Lebanon, 1932-2019): Méditerranée (2004). Oil on canvas. From the private collection of HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum

The Dubai Collection – an interesting exercise in persuading private and corporate entities to loan works from their art collections for public view – makes its first public appearance next month in the form of an exhibition titled When Images Speak: Highlights from the Dubai Collection at the Etihad Museum.

Curated by Dr Nada Shabout, the exhibition aims to provide a historical survey of Arab modernism and its progression into contemporary art. As Dr Shabout puts it: “When Images Speak will feature some of the most influential and progressive artists, all of whom played a pivotal role in shaping the modern movements in the region and reflect the socio-cultural dynamics of their time.

“The 20th century was one of major shifts that resulted in founding the different countries of the Arab World, following periods of colonisation and struggles for independence. In forming national identities and iconography, those artists played a vital role that further aided in the construction of the national consciousness.”

This is definitely Dr Shabout’s field, and there are few curators who are as well qualified for it. In addition to her role as Professor of Art History and the coordinator of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative at the University of North Texas, she is the founding president of the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art from the Arab World, Iran and Turkey (AMCA) and founding director of Modern Art Iraq Archive (MAIA). Her numerous publications and curated exhibitions focus on modern Arab art, particularity in Iraq.

Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who chairs both Dubai Culture and the Dubai Collection’s Steering Committee, called the opening “an important milestone in the Dubai Collection’s trajectory … the actualisation of an innovative initiative conceptualised right here in Dubai”. Picking our way through the thickets of the marketing thesaurus, there’s obviously a degree of satisfaction that the Dubai Collection has lift-off a full year after it was announced.

The exhibition will include “approximately 70” works, most of them from the private collections of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum. Sheikh Mohammed is the patron of the Dubai Collection and has been collecting art from the Arabic world for some time. He has obviously been getting some good advice about what to buy; from what we’ve seen, the works on show would appear to be a spectacular survey of regional art from the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

We’re told the exhibition will also feature works from “a number of private collections”, notably the A.R.M. Holding Art Collection. A.R.M is the first corporate patron of Dubai Collection to be named, and apparently contributed 19 of the first 87 works to be selected for the Collection.

The sponsor of both Dubai Design Week and Art Dubai, and partnering with Art Dubai Group on several other initiatives, A.R.M. Holdings happens to be chaired by Sheikh Mohammed’s younger brother Sheikh Ahmed, so the Dubai Collection is looking like something of a family affair at this stage of its development …

Dr Shabout has organised the exhibition into three thematic ‘chapters’, positioning the artworks as archival records of their time while allowing the groupings to overlap. The first is titled Abstract Variations and includes works by the likes of Dia al-Azzawi and Omar El Nagdi to survey the sometimes heated topic of abstraction in modern Arab art. For some, abstraction was seen as a way to move towards the future, but also a way of reconnecting with the past; for others it was just too abstract, too far removed from daily life, and so militated against art playing a more direct role in national education at a time when national identities were being forged. Dr Shabout’s commentary in the accompanying digital catalogue – which promises to be a highlight of the show – should have some pertinent comments on this.

The second chapter, Societies in Transition, has works by artists such as Baya Mahieddine, Naziha Selim, and Asaad Arabi which articulate an understanding of societal relationships as well as local struggles for independence and the formation of nations in a global context. These artists replaced the Western-imposed Orientalist narrative with work that represented their own realities and people; their art speaks to resilience and creativity in the face of struggle. At the same time it is also broader and more internationalist in feel, for instance connecting to movements in art outside the Middle East.

Evoking the Environment, the third and final chapter, should be equally interesting. Through works by Fateh Moudarres, Abdul Qader Al Rais, and Nejib Belkhodja, among others, it suggests how nations could develop a modern identity through the transformation of small towns and villages into cities – and how painting cities became a method of documenting the ideal of the nation.

The Dubai Collection was originally announced in October 2020. It has been developed in collaboration with and is run by the Art Dubai Group, the company responsible for Dubai Design Week as well as the eponymous art fair. The Dubai Collection’s partners loan their works while retaining legal ownership, and depending on the way it operates the project looks like a clever way to create an impressive (and important) publicly accessible collection, albeit one with a multi-layered narrative – about art from the region and how and why it developed, about the significance of Dubai as a pivot in the art ecosystem, about the farsightedness and generosity of the Collection’s patrons. Apparently they also benefit from expert advice to support the growth of their collections, and while we couldn’t find out exactly what this means it seems reasonable to assume that one aim might be to increase the value as well as the quality of those collections.

There was originally talk of a dedicated digital museum, to be launched this year. Maybe the catalogue for When Images Speak will provide the basis for this.

Incidentally, Dr Shabout is a member of the Dubai Collection’s independent Curatorial Committee, along with a panel of arts notables that includes Munira Al Sayegh, Antonia Carver, Maryam Al Dabbagh, Venetia Porter and Catherine David. Maryam Al Dabbagh has been quoted as saying “the Collection takes a non-linear approach, not only in recognising the contemporaneity of modern work from the region, but also in considering the rich contributions of regional and international artists to the local art scene that has grown alongside the development of Dubai city in the last 50 years”. That bodes well.

When Images Speak will open at the Etihad Museum on 6 November. The museum is open daily from 10am to 8pm; access to the exhibition is included in the general admission ticket (AED 25 plus VAT).

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