There was a sandstorm the day I went to meet Abdelmonem Alserkal. The worst I had ever witnessed, I could barely make out the car in front of me as I made my way to what has become one of the UAE’s premier spaces for art and culture. The atmosphere was similar to that of a sci-fi movie; dust and sand blowing everywhere, clumped together on top of cars and buildings. One would think that local Emiratis who have grown up in the UAE would have seen a storm such as this one, but Abdelmonem Alserkal shook his head with a laugh when I finally reached his office in Alserkal Avenue’s A4 space and said, “No, I have never seen anything like it.” Certainly a historical moment for UAE weather, as I sat there with one of the UAE’s most respected patrons of the arts, this eerie yellow light emanated from the window and into the office. The scene was otherworldly and yet also strangely serene. Alserkal’s office exuded the same industrial elegance as that found in the architectural make-up of Alserkal Avenue itself. Firm concrete lines, sturdy materials and adequate use of space colored in monochrome white and with a few colorful artworks. Filling the space was Abdelmonem’s warm and inviting aura, full of laughs and passion about what he does. I began to forget about the sandstorm.
In March, Alserkal Avenue announced the first 15 new art galleries, cultural organizations and creative businesses to occupy its Al Quoz space in its new expanded area. These include New York’s Leila Heller Gallery; Stephane Custot Gallery; Geneva and Tapei-based MB&F’s MAD Gallery, featuring kinetic art and limited-edition design with a focus on horology; and the Paris-initiated Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, which in partnership with Alserkal Avenue will present European and American post-minimal works from the 1960s through the 1990s as well as host a program of events around Abstract art. The expanded area of Alserkal Avenue has been greatly anticipated by regional and international art lovers. Freshly painted and standing strong and erect, the new warehouses or galleries offer areas in which the dialogue between the UAE and the international art community can continue to grow. And it all began with a vision and a passion for art in a place where but a few decades ago the idea of a gallery was a foreign concept.
Abdelmonem’s passion for art and culture stems back to his father. “My father had a great interest in art,” he says. “I grew up seeing his collection of Islamic art books. He had a huge collection of books on Islamic calligraphy, pottery and metal, etc. He would also collect small sculptures from all over the world during his travels. I also remember a collection of books on art world masterpieces and flipping through them to see works from all over the world. But it was only when I went to the US that I started visiting galleries and museums.” He smiles as he recalls how the first art gallery he remembers in the UAE was a photography gallery with the name of the owner then the word gallery. “I didn’t know how to determine the association between the owner’s name and the word ‘gallery’”, he says. “Why was this photography and why was photography an art gallery?” Abdelmonem understood the terminology when he was lived in the US. “I remember going to a park seeing images by Ansel Adams,” he recalls. “Particularly, one of his most famous works with moon over a village or his photographs of Yosemite.” These experiences made photography and art, for that matter, very real disciplines for him.
When he returned to the UAE, his father had also furthered his own journey of artistic discovery. He had brought over a group of artists from Algeria to create artworks with ceramic, calligraphy and arabesque detailing. A sort of “artists-in-residence” approach, Abdelmonem’s father would commission these artists to work on real estate projects, mosques and other dwellings. “He was a patron of the arts,” says Abdelmonem. “But it wasn’t until 2007 when I starting working on Alserkal Avenue that I really understood what he had done those many years ago.” Real estate projects such as these and also Alserkal Avenue brings art into people’s lives. Diego Riviera’s public murals for the American WPA (Works Progress Administration) pop in my head as we speak. These sorts of progress touch people on a greater scale.
Abdelmonem saw the way industrial areas in London and New York had been transformed into trendy areas for art and culture and he set out to do the same. “I said to myself ‘why can’t we do this in Dubai? And we did from 2007 and now it is finished,’” he smiles. Ayyam Gallery was the first one and then there was Isabelle van den Eynde (formerly B52 Gallery) and then Carbon 12 soon after and Green Art Gallery and the list continues to the more than 20 that has today.
The strength of Alserkal Avenue stems from the fact that it is a commercial enterprise with a social objective. Its aims are two-fold and hence self-sustaining and that’s the beauty of it. “I would not call Alserkal Avenue a real estate project, but rather a community that grows organically,” says Abdelmonem. “It has developed around a self-sustained model that is detached from the word “real estate.” The first galleries that came here took a risk. We explained to them what it would become and then more and more galleries came and that is what has been so incredible to see.” Alserkal Avenue is also a place for creative-minded people – entrepreneurs and self-motivated people with common goals. “The community, in art terminology, is being ‘curated’”, he says passionately. “Entrepreneurs and the best in all creative disciplines are moving here to establish themselves further.”
Alserkal Avenue’s expansion will also strengthen a dialogue that is already present in the Middle Eastern art community. Moreover, the UAE’s artistic development has caused the international art community to view the country in a different light. “Dubai is the perfect platform for this dialogue because of the geography and the infrastructure that exists,” says Abdelmonem. “Sheikh Mohammed’s vision is to put Dubai on the map, whether it be through finance, tourism or art and culture. We are one country that has given the world what we want. Sheikh Mohammed wants to please his people and make them happy. He has a clear vision and this is seen through the numerous events, infrastructure and support for projects like Alserkal Avenue. It doesn’t get more cosmopolitan than Dubai. This is not a closed country.”
Importantly, the expansion is not limited to a physical space. Alserkal Avenue is a place for people to come together and congregate through visual art, dance, theatre and most importantly, ideas. This is a place that fosters a dialogue between East and West through artistic discipline. “You don’t have to talk about politics, you can bring people together through art,” he adds. “The expanded area only adds to what is already here. The homegrown program is to support local artists and encourage them to create art. We want to bring everyone together and create one live-in process for creating the art. We are creating our own curatorial voice and filling in a gap.”