Pumping pride into an entire region each time a Gulf State unveils a new ambitious project or promising initiative, the peninsula has, in recent years, been pushing the dial forward when it comes to showcasing Arab culture, spotlighting our intricate savoir-faire, and boasting our centuries-old expertise.
Not many rivalries can be labeled as somewhat healthy and positive, however, as petrodollar nations are challenging each other in their ongoing quest to become the Middle Eastern capital of arts, the constant mission to outshine the other seems to only bear beneficial outcomes for all parties involved — even those located outside the GCC.
In February, MILLE was invited to attend the fourth edition of Tuwaiq Sculpture: an annual symposium that seeks to transform Riyadh into a “gallery without walls” with more than 1,000 artworks set to be featured across the Kingdom’s central hub. Fast forward to the following month, our team was welcomed to one of the beating hearts of the UAE, Abu Dhabi, to witness firsthand what the Saudi-neighbouring nation has in store in the upcoming weeks. Like always, we were stunned to hear what the Emirate’s plans are for the future.
Industry leaders, members of the press, as well as government officials gathered in the UAE capital last week where authorities unveiled plans for Abu Dhabi’s newest venture aimed at appropriating the streets and public spaces of the capital city by incorporating commissioned artworks of all kinds and nature into the metropolis’ landscape.
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Through heavy investment, Public Art Abu Dhabi, organized in partnership with the emirate’s own Department of Culture and Tourism, vows to promote the accessibility of culture by involving public agents, citizens, inhabitants, and artists in transforming the city some call home into an open-air collection and catalog of trailblazing minds and of their subsequent work.
“Public art is a way for us to celebrate the beauty of our Emirates. This program will create an unforgettable journey for everyone, making Abu Dhabi a recognizable cultural destination with its own identity,” said Saood Abdulaziz Al Hosani, Undersecretary of DCT — Abu Dhabi. “We pride ourselves in our cultural initiatives for every person living in Aub Dhabi and our visitors (…) the strategic impact of this initiative will be profound as we are bringing art to the public and for the public,” he added.
“We will support Emirati talents alongside international artists, with their work reflecting our diverse and multicultural society. Through Public Art, the world’s eyes will be drawn to Abu Dhabi as it continues to be a global center of the arts and all forms of creative expression. We are committed to cementing Abu Dhabi’s position as a capital of culture and destination of creativity with art at every corner and every park,” continued Al Hosani.
Announcing that an annual investment of $35 million will be dedicated to the dissemination of art across the city, the initiative makes use of monetary means to place human interactions at the center of the city’s dynamics. Acknowledging Abu Dhabi’s rich history and heritage, authorities want to look back at where they come from in order to pave a future path that embraces the UAE’s core identity while sharing it with the rest of the international community.
“You might ask why we are launching Public Art Abu Dhabi now. Let us remember that public art has been practiced by various entities across the history of Abu Dhabi. All we’re doing today is to consolidate these efforts and to build on them for the future of our city in this domain,” said Rita Aoun, Executive Director of the Cultural Sector of the Department of Culture and Tourism at the opening ceremony held on March 20. “After all this is what art is, it’s about giving it to the public while telling the story of the place they’re in,” she continued.
The inaugural exhibition of the project was celebrated by the reveal of its first public art installation, a mesmerizing multimedia piece showcased on the exterior wall of the Cultural Foundation’s building, named “Wave”. Created by art collective D’strict, the anamorphic illusion depicts perpetually surging three-dimensional waves and tides, reminiscent of those that can be seen on the city’s shores, marking the beginning of the intended series of yearly art commissions.
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As it turned out, this happened to only be the first axis of a much larger plan as officials also revealed having two other initiatives in-store to bring their vision to full fruition. Amongst some of the exciting news, it was also announced that Abu Dhabi is set to host a new year-long event, called Manar(meaning “lighthouse” in Arabic), which promises to showcase the natural beauty of the city’s landscapes and is slated to launch in November. Expected to feature a variety of breathtaking light projections, sculptures, and performances that are all inspired by the city’s surrounding environments, the myriad of installations will bring a new edge to several landmarks in Abu Dhabi while embarking both viewers and passersby on an immersive water journey that connects all extremities of the emirate.
Hitting two, or should we say three, birds with one stone, it was also announced that the capital city is about to host its own biennale, running every two years starting from November 2024, taking place all over Abu Dhabi with the intent of spotlight the works of regional artists, as well as those that hail from the global south, by showcasing works from over 50 commissioned artists.
“Through both the Public Art Abu Dhabi Biennial and Manar Abu Dhabi, we will insist that works commissioned for these major programs will transform places and resonate with the people in a meaningful way. These artistic projects will become the gateways for our creative community and a way for Abu Dhabi to project forward to the world,” said Reem Fadda, Director of Cultural Foundation and Abu Dhabi Cultural Programmes and Co-curator of Public Art Abu Dhabi Biennial.
The UAE’s undeniably ambitious efforts, combined with similar initiatives throughout the region, offer a glimmer of hope that the Arab world may soon, once again and centuries later, enter a golden era after enduring significant struggles for far too long. While some may view this optimism as naive, the demonstrated efforts to date represent a visionary collective commitment to a brighter future that could position the Arab world at the forefront of global progress.