It has been over a decade since Berlin’s charismatic former mayor Klaus Wowereit coined the slogan “poor but sexy”, but the image of the city as the impoverished but unrivalled capital of cool still lingers.Artists started flocking to the city after the Wall fell in 1989, enticed by its open-mindedness and above all an abundance of affordable spaces to live and work. Although rents have risen precipitously in recent years – raising concerns that artists may be priced out of the city – some 20,000 of them still live here today. The city currently boasts about 200 project spaces and showrooms alongside its 450 commercial art galleries.
Berlin became a contemporary arts hub less by design than by coincidence. By contrast Abu Dhabi owes its meteoric rise as a global art power in large part to a deliberate, government-led strategy that foresees the creation of world-class cultural infrastructure – the most compelling example being Saadiyat Island with its outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim.
Reem Al Ghaith. Held Back Series. Frame 2. 2016. Digital photographic print on canvas. 300 X 200 cm. Photography by Reem Al Ghaith
How these vastly different capital cities are using their cultural assets to create a distinct and sustainable identity was the subject of a panel discussion entitled How Culture Builds Cities: Berlin and Abu Dhabi, which took place in Berlin earlier this month in conjunction with the exhibition ART NOMADS – MADE IN THE EMIRATES. Organised by MOMENTUM Berlin in cooperation with Etihad Modern Art Gallery and the Sovereign Art Prize, the exhibition runs until the 22 December in Berlin’s Kunstquartier Bethanien and presents a cross-section of seventeen established and emerging artists from the UAE. A follow-up exhibition of Berlin-based artists will take place in Abu Dhabi in the spring of 2017.
The exhibition makes apparent just how recently a professional, globally-connected art scene has come into existence in the UAE. Whilst an older generation of artists, represented here by figures such as the painter Abdul Qader Al Rais, is largely self-taught and little known outside the region, the younger generation have for the most part received formal training at one of the UAE’s recently established fine art schools and exhibited internationally.This is the case for instance of Lamya Gargash, who represented the UAE in the country’s first National participation at the Venice Biennale in 2009. On view are a series of photographs from 2005 which document the opulent but strangely dated interiors of various cultural clubs and associations in the Emirates. The deserted halls and parlours point towards a culture of rapid change and accelerated construction which leaves a trail of architectural relics in its wake.
Lamya Gargash: Majlis 1 - The Officers's Club. 2005. C-type print. 70 x 52 cm. Courtesy ofThe Third Line Gallery, Dubai. Photo: Lamya Gargash
Much of the work on display chronicles this seismic transformation of the UAE and reflects the at times uneasy relationship between modernisation and tradition. This ambivalence is apparent in the work of Reem Al Ghaith, whose Held Back Series (2012) juxtapose contrasting images of the UAE landscape. Whilst in the background we make out a skyline of dizzying skyscrapers, the frame in the foreground traces the profile of a woman dressed in the abaya, her hand resting on the etched wooden door panel of a humble, low-rise house.
It is astounding how many of the artists represented here are under the age of 30. This includes Maisoon Al Saleh, whose paintings of skeletons dressed in Emirati attire reference the Calaveras prints of Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Or the 27-year old Maitha Demithan, who uses scanography to create ethereal portraits whose subjects seem suspended in an eternal slumber. Or the young graduate Taqwa Al Naqbi, who recycles her grandmother’s fabrics to create works that subtly attest to a generational shift.
This wave of young artists seem to hold the promise that the journey is only just beginning. Ultimately, if Berlin can offer any lessons it is this: Abu Dhabi’s success in securing its place among the league of cultural capitals will depend as much on its ability to attract and continue developing artists as on its world-class museums and collections.
ART NOMADS – MADE IN THE EMIRATES runs until 22 December at Kunstquartier Bethanien, Mariannenplatz 2, 10999 Berlin