Digital Art Experiences in the UAE

Sep 22, 2021 by: Yevgeniya Tsatsenko

In recent decades, the UAE’s art market has been constantly expanding and transforming. In the countries in the Middle East, art is beginning to perform various functions, it’s becoming an instrument of self-identification for entire nations.

Its boundaries are blurring – the chasm between the worlds of physical and digital art is becoming less tangible; the latter allows local talent, in particular women, to express themselves internationally. The history of the emergence of digital art in the UAE is exciting, but let’s start from the beginning.

The state of the art market in the UAE

The United Arab Emirates, which are so well located between the cultures of the East and West, assert their status of an important world art center with growing confidence every year. And although in the 20th century Cairo and Tehran were the leading cultural capitals of the Middle East over the course of the 21st the UAE has emerged as a cultural leader.

The special federal political system in the UAE pushes a number of semi-autonomous cities to healthy rivalry for the status of the cultural capital, which ultimately leads to the harmonious and effective development of the entire art market in the country. In recent decades, numerous art initiatives, institutes, galleries, auction houses have begun to develop rapidly in the UAE, and the annual art fair and biennale have gained international recognition. And yet, this does not mean that there was no art market in the country before its recent ascent as a regional leader.

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The first significant date for the artistic life of the UAE is 1969, when Al Ain National Museum was founded. This event set off a chain reaction: in the 1970s and 90s initiatives such as the Emirates Fine Arts Society, the Biennale of Arts and the Sharjah Museum have sprung up in the country. The 2000s became a particularly productive period when the country experienced quite intensive artistic and cultural development.

In 2005, Christie’s opened an office in Dubai and a year later they held the first contemporary art auction in the Middle East. Around the same time, the art district Alserkal Avenue opened in Dubai, which soon became the city’s most famous cultural center, bringing together more than 60 art, design and creative venues.

Cultural district Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, UAE

Several powerful cultural emirates now serve different missions – Dubai turned into a center for commercial art, and Abu Dhabi and Sharjah have become non-profit art centers, forging links between local artists and the international art community. The UAE has created an attractive artistic environment and has a lot to offer, from world-class festivals to contemporary exhibition spaces. But the Emirati art market is also facing some difficulties.

The unfavorable geopolitical situation, conflicts in the Middle East, in particular the Arab Spring, forced the governments of many countries to reduce investment in culture. In addition, due to the strengthening of sanctions against Iran, Iranian artists began to disappear from the UAE art scene. Difficulties in transporting items across the Persian Gulf, the civil war in Syria, tensions with Turkey, the financial and economic crisis in Lebanon have all significantly affected the state of the art market in the UAE.

A big problem for the UAE remains a strong attachment to European art. Large galleries and museums continue to prioritize investing in Western over regional physical or digital art. Equally problematic is the fact that most art institutions see the Emirati and Western communities as their target audience, while South Asians, who make up more than half of the country’s population, are overlooked.

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True, the UAE art market also contributes to the fulfillment of many important missions. In particular, governments in the Middle East are initiating regional art acquisition programs to reconstruct national identity and strengthen the local artistic environment. For example, the UAE Art Archive was recently created, which is an open archive of various digitized artifacts associated with Emirati art from the past 35 years. The creation of national art collections also strengthens the position of the countries of the Middle East in opposition to traditional art centers – Paris, London, New York.

Digitization of the UAE

If we move to a broader context and look at the pace at which the country is digitizing as a whole, the development of the digital art market in the UAE will seem quite natural. The UAE is the most digital Arab country. In the Emirates, in fact, the digital infrastructure is very developed: public services are provided through digital platforms, blockchain is actively used in logistics, and artificial intelligence processes large amounts of information and creates forecasts in various fields.

One of the important areas of use of digital technologies in the UAE is art. In general, the process of transformation and digitalization of the art market in the UAE is not much different from the transformations of other industries: it expands the audience of connoisseurs, creates additional opportunities for collectors and artists and offers new tools for creative expression.

The UAE invests large sums in the development of the digital art industry, as it is closely linked to the country’s economic diversification policy. In addition, the authorities in the UAE are making an effort to foster innovation in various fields, art in particular. An important role is played by the active digitization of art artifacts, which contributes to the creation of large-scale digital archives of local art, available to both local and foreign communities.

“Technology has always been in the lead in the UAE and is becoming pervasive throughout our society. In particular, digital art has influenced the ways in which we create and appreciate art. There has been institutional adoption: Shaikhah Latifa bint Mohammad, for example has recently opened the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) largest immersive digital art center – Infinity des Lumieres – and other galleries are engaging artists employing digital tools more than ever before,” says digital artist Sundus Alibrahim based in Dubai.

Digital Art Gallery Infinity des Lumieres in Dubai, UAE

“Art for Art’s sake” is clearly not a principle followed by the Emirati government. Since its inception, digital art has been actively used to address social and political issues. In particular, digital art has become an effective tool for destroying negative and stereotyped perceptions of refugees from the Middle East; in recent years, several initiatives have emerged that use digital art to humanize refugees and improve their status.

Paradoxically, digital art also draws attention to the problem of lack of human interaction at a time when we are becoming increasingly dependent on the virtual world and communication. Emirati digital artists make us think about this issue, creating various images of an isolated person. Digital works, focusing on ordinary aspects of Arab life and depicting the breakdown of the family and lack of communication, have also become quite common among Emirati artists.

Digital art in the UAE has also become an industry that contributes to overcoming gender inequality in two respects.

First, a large number of Emirati artists have entered this field, because digital art implies easy access to the market and greater freedom of expression, which is not inherent in traditional art to such an extent; Thanks to the digital art industry, the digital and digitized works of Emirati women have become much more prominent in the international arena. Second, it is digital artists who have begun to reflect on the position of women in modern Emirati society, raising issues of gender discrimination and women’s rights; the discourse that means so much to the female part of the entire Arab population has taken on a new form.

In addition, digital art in the UAE helps to preserve the national consciousness of the population and strengthen the sense of belonging to the national community.

Artist Sundus Alibrahim also points to several features of the digital art scene in the UAE: “What distinguishes virtual art in the Emirates from the rest of the world is the diversity of races and societies in the Emirates, which increases the richness of the work displayed in the art scene… The advantages that I see as an artist living in the UAE include the constant stimulus of technology from the external environment as well as Dubai’s efforts towards high-tech which make me look forward to dealing with art in an advanced way. The environment is the biggest motivator.”

Places and events

Although the UAE art market made a name for itself in the 1970s, the active emergence of art institutions and initiatives, especially those related to digital art or digital format, began not so long ago. Interestingly, most of the Emirati art initiatives of the last two decades can be divided into several categories: certain ones seek to maintain tolerance and cover the activities of women in art whereas others demonstrate Arab culture, its artists and tell the history of the region.

Although the institutional contribution to the development of the Emirati art scene is difficult to overestimate, behind the rapid development of the art industry in the UAE are a lot of people guided by individual initiative. For example, the large-scale Barjeel Art Foundation was founded by collector Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi. As for digital art platforms, they are even more dependent on private initiatives; this field, accessible to almost everyone, attracts many talented people with their artistic startups, which became especially noticeable during the pandemic.

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So, the new organization that everyone has probably heard about is the Digital Art Theater (ToDA) in Dubai. The unique initiative, which has no analogues in the Persian Gulf, focuses on several digital areas – multimedia exhibitions, installations, art in virtual reality and interactive children’s exhibitions, and its main goal is to find effective ways to apply technology in art and culture. ToDA’s activity balances well on the edge between the latest technologies and traditional art forms.

Digital Art Theater in Dubai, UAE

The Behnoode Foundation plans to launch the Behnoode Art, the first digital Islamic NFT agency in history to modernize works by Arab artists and make them more accessible to collectors from around the world.

Another interesting digital initiative founded by Emirati sisters Manar and Sharifah Alhinai is the Khaleeji Art Museum, which serves as an accessible platform for the presentation of art by Arab female artists and seeks to minimize gender inequality in the region. The museum team, by the way, also consists exclusively of women.

Founders of the Digital Khaleeji Art Museum Manar and Sharifah Alhinai

We also recommend visiting Emergeast – an online gallery selling works of art by Arab artists at affordable prices.

Don’t miss Halo Zine, a digital periodical that promotes underrepresented art by artists from the Greater Middle East. Its founder, Dara Ghanem, also founded the Middle East Archive, a crowdsourcing digital archive that collects the personal stories of people from the Middle East.

As for the exhibits,it is worth mentioning the Age of You at the Jameel Arts Center, as well as the exhibition at the City Center Al Zahia. The first tells the story of the transformation of modern man and brings together more than 70 visual artists working with photos, videos, artificial intelligence and other latest technologies. The second exhibition, which opened in June this year, focuses on the phenomenon of digital art, showing works by more than 10 international digital artists.

Names worth noting

There are many artists operating on the UAE digital art scene, who, although they entered the industry under completely different circumstances, made a joint effort to develop it. In the beginning it is worth mentioning the group of conceptual artists “Five”, which included Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Mohammed Kazem, Abdullah Al Saadi, Hassan Sharif and Hussain Sharif. They became pioneers not only of digital, but also of modern art in the UAE in principle: in their works, each reflected on the present, using digital tools in particular.

Artist Jalal Lukman in the 1970s became one of the first in the entire Arab world to use digital technology artistically. His passion for cinematography and special effects pushed the artist towards the digital medium. The artist took his own digitized artworks as a basis and applied about 15 layers of digital manipulation to them.

In one of his interviews, he said that the main difficulty of working with digital art at the beginning was to prove the right of this direction to be called art in the first place. As a recognized artist with extensive experience in traditional art, he pointed out similarities and parallels between his sculptures, canvases and digital works to demonstrate that the latter is the result of his artistic skill and not mere computer-generated randomness.

Jalal Lukman

Sundus Alibrahim, whose exhibition “Enigmatic sojourns” you can visit on the V-Art website or mobile app, began her career as a classical porcelain painter, but later, after becoming acquainted with the artistic life of New York, she began to turn to digital art.

“As for me personally, I am always pro technology in all aspects, and have been waiting for the moment to combine art and technology as time is going fast! Now I can feel that tech gives art new means and mediums to express thoughts and experiences – this intersection has surged in popularity over the past few decades. I believe it’s the new Renaissance,” she says.

Another digital artist, Al Suwaidi, began her passion for digital art in the 1990s. In the 2000s she started her exhibition activity and since then her works have been in both domestic and foreign galleries. Ashwaq Abdullah portrays the lives of Emirati women with digital art tools, while multidisciplinary artist Maysoun Al Saleh addresses the theme of UAE history, greatly changing our perception of memory and history in general.

Digital artists Gigi Gorlova and Kristel Bechara went even further, becoming one of the first women in the UAE to sell their art as NFT.

The UAE is rapidly becoming a smart country. Digitalization in the Emirates is an important and well thought-out component of the national economic development, and not a forced step taken under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the economic strategies UAE Vision 2021 and UAE Centennial mainly focus on digital transformation and technological innovation.

Digital art is a new industry for everyone, regardless of geography, but in some countries, for example, in the UAE, it is consolidating much faster than in others. The Emirates embraced digital art with open arms. Thanks to strong institutional support and the emergence of a large number of cultural institutions associated with digital art, this phenomenon spread evenly throughout the country, was gradually communicated with the population, and underrepresented social groups, such as women, received a new and affordable tool for self-expression and articulation of socially important topics.

Sep 22, 2021 by: Yevgeniya Tsatsenko

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