Yes – Dubai has an art scene. I should not have been surprised by this. After all, the city itself is a lesson in unique architecture. It is clear that when it comes to buildings at least, form and design are just as important as function. So, I decided to learn more about Dubai’s emerging art scene by taking the Dubai by Foot Art Tour.
I found Dubai by Foot to be unique in that they offer walking tours within different areas of the city which also provide historical perspectives. Their Art Tour explores the area around Alserkal Ave. in the Al Quoz warehouse district. Inspired by the transformation of the meatpacking district in New York City, the warehouses in Al Quoz have undergone similar changes.The spaces are now in high demand as galleries, artisanal craft shops and trendy cafes. Though walking through the streets of this area, it can be hard to believe that behind the plain gunmetal grey exteriors lie modern, colorful and creative spaces.
Taking a taxi from my downtown hotel to the location indicated in my pre trip e-mail, I met my guide for the morning, Pri, and the one other participant on our tour. Before we even stepped foot inside a warehouse, Pri points to a sign on top of one of the buildings. “WHEN DID YOU ARRIVE” and its partner sign, “WHEN WILL YOU RETURN” are by conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll, and are not a reference to our visit to Alserkal Ave. Instead they refer to the common questions often asked of Dubai residents. With less than 20% of the Dubai population being Emirate, most everyone else is here from somewhere else. In fact, even before taking the art tour, I had already gotten into the habit of asking my taxi drivers where they were form.
As we walked around the district, I started noticing other creative examples around the otherwise featureless warehouse exteriors. A sitting area decorated with tire seats and greenery. A brightly colored restored antique car. A large LED arrow pointing the way. All quirky hints of the artistry that lies behind these nondescript corrugated steel walls.
Before heading to the galleries, we poked our head into City Makers, the government office that manages the space and utilities in this warehouse area. No boring cubicles here. Instead, this was a bright, interesting, open concept space designed with a variety of quirky details.
Next, we moved on to investigate the businesses that inhabit these warehouse. We started with a quick stop at Ayyam Gallery. Just one of many galleries in the neighborhood, Ayyam was the first gallery to move into this area in 2008. Syrian owned, it represents and shows the works of about 25 artists of middle eastern origin. The gallery was in transition on this day as they were getting ready for the Dubai Art Week events that would be starting the following week.
The Jewel Teller
The following stop was the boutique jewelry shop, The Jewel Teller. This is truly a boutique enterprise by every definition of the word. Marcela, the lead designer, took us on a personal tour of the facility. Here, a unique piece of jewelry goes from create, to make, to sell, all under one roof. The process starts with a 3D printer making a plastic prototype which is then used to make a mold for the metal pieces. Skilled craftsmen take the process through each step, patiently and meticulously preparing each piece by hand.
Whereas the items in the Gold Souk looked ostentatious, the jewelry produced here is decidedly more delicate and upscale. Macela modeled a hand bracelet that she designed with gold and diamonds. The Emirate women, covered in their black abayas, like to adorn their hands with jewelry such as this.
At MB&F M.A.D Gallery I felt like I had found a kindred spirit. Blending science and art, the gallery features kinetic sculptures – that is, art that moves. There were a variety of fascinating time pieces. One amazing piece in particular caught my eye. Called CLOCKCLOCK 24 by Humans, it was made up of 24 cutout circles with small moving black bars. At each minute, the bars lined up to show the time. In between, the bars moved in semi-unison until the next minute when they showed the time again.
But most intriguing were the levitating art sculptures. Discs covered in antique watch gears floated effortlessly over wooden bases. Working light bulbs just floated in space with no visible means of support. So cool! If my pocketbook could have afforded it, I would definitely have walked out of there with one of their sculptures – but the hard part would have been deciding which one.
Our next stop was a brief visit to Chi-ka. For a quick moment I thought I was back in Japan. The owner-artists take handmade Japanese kimonos and custom make one of a kind abaya designs for the local Emirate women. This kimono-abaya hybrid is mostly black with painted and embroidered Japanese themed patterns decorating the hem of the garment. The pieces on display were absolutely stunning.
Mirzam Chocolate Makers
Pri left the best stop for last – Mirzam Chocolate Makers. This is a true artisanal chocolate shop to which we were given a first hand tour by Vi, one of the managers. At the front of the shop, bags and bags of burlap filled with cocoa beans were stacked high, waiting to be hand sorted. The cocoa beans are sole sourced directly from the farmers in seven countries: India, Madagascar, Cuba, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Ghana and Indonesia. The beans are hand sorted for size and then roasted on site – low and slow. Once nibs are separated from the husks, they are ground in small batches using granite stones. The rest of the ingredients are then added and the mixture is conched for seven days in small, 30 kg batches. The batch is then aged for 6 weeks to bring out the flavors, before a final temper, molding and packaging.
The best part was that we could taste the different varieties of chocolate that they make. There were bars made from single sourced beans so that you could taste the difference between chocolate made from a Vietnamese bean versus chocolate made from a Cuban bean. There was also a Spiced Bar collection with flavors combinations such as orange and cinnamon or coffee and cardamon (this was the collection I ultimately bought to take home).
Besides the chocolate bars, Mirzam also makes and sells a selection of lovely looking truffles. We wrapped up this part of the tour with a cocoa tea and chocolate truffle break, before heading off to check out Dubai’s new Design District.
From Alserkal Ave. we Ubered to the new Dubai Design District, or D3. This area is being built as a think tank for the creative community and will showcase all aspects of creative design. As with many buildings in Dubai, the D3 buildings also make a design statement.
While I don’t often take tours, it would have been difficult to get the same understanding and appreciation of Dubai’s developing art and design scene without the Dubai by Foot Art Tour. The tour effectively presented the diversity of creativity in the Alserkal Arts district. It also provided contextual information at each of the locations we visited, which also would have been difficult to experience on my own. The tour cost me $71 and lasted about 3.5 hours – well worth the investment in time and money.
For up to date information on Dubai by Foot tours, including their Art Tour, please visit https://freetoursbyfoot.com/dubai-tours/
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