Oil, pearls and roundabouts: shaping Dubai for tomorrow

Global Art Forum 10

The tenth edition of the Global Art Forum (GAF), the art conference that runs in association with Art Dubai—the dynamic, commercial art event that takes place in March in the Gulf—also reflects local life and cultural production best. Entitled The Future Was, this year’s GAF was compiled by Bangladeshi-born, UK-raised writer Shumon Basar and is co-directed by Amal Khalaf and Uzma Rizvi. All are based outside Dubai but have strong regional associations: Basar has been associated with GAF since 2012; Khalaf is a commissioning editor for online platform Ibraaz and a founding member of artist collective GCC; and Rizvi is a visiting scholar in the department of international studies at the American University of Sharjah.

The Qatari-American artist Sophia Al Maria, who features in GAF10 as well as in Qatar’s Art for Tomorrow conference, has led the regional artistic discussion about the possible futures of Gulf cities through her Sci-Fi Wahabi project and Gulf Futurism movement. These propose that the idealised past and promised future are more solid than the shifting present, concepts that GAF10 threads through its programme in an emphatically localised form.

For example, the session The Future was a Roundabout, with Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the president of the Sharjah Art Foundation and director of the Sharjah Biennial, and Murtaza Vali, a critic, curator, editor and visiting instructor at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, focuses on Sharjah’s flying saucer roundabout as an exemplar of how roundabouts have become contemporary symbols of Gulf-city urban planning and rapid change, and as the starting point of a debate on a very regional combination of nostalgia, heritage and the future. The structure at the heart of the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain was removed following the 2011 Arab Spring protests to prevent it becoming a monument to dissent. The recent removal of roundabouts in Doha, part of an attempt to improve traffic flow, resulted in art, oral history and documentation projects responding to them as nostalgic sites of memory.

Another local concern, the pearling and oil industries that have shaped the Gulf’s past, present and future, appear in the Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri’s performance piece The Colour of Polycarbonates, again addressing questions of time and nostalgia. Dystopian associations with oil have already featured in Al Qadiri’s work, such as Behind the Sun (2013), an apocalyptic film of the oil-well fires that burned in Kuwait for a year after the Iraqi occupation (1990-91), and in her essay, Choreography with Alien Technology (2015).

GAF10 promises insights into the contemporary urban experience that are more relevant than the Western-centric debates on urban creativity offered by the Art for Tomorrow conference in neighbouring Doha, and the Art Dubai fair continues to gain credibility by association with GAF’s provision of a deep cultural context, while providing a platform with a growing international reputation, where regional concerns are presented to the world.

Global Art Forum 10, 16-18 March, 3pm-7pm, at Art Dubai, Madinat Jumeirah, Al Sufouh Road, Umm Suqeim, Dubai