Saadiyat Island, art and culture in Abu Dhabi Featured

How the city is is using culture as a unique selling point in order to attract luxury tourism
by 02 September 2010

Dubai has been able to exploit its status as a very modern urban luxury hub to develop a reputation as a privileged location for contemporary arts. Art Dubai is the largest international contemporary art fair in the region, and it includes the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, an annual prize granted to artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, who are required to submit proposals rather than completed works of art. Possibly the most important date on the UAE's artistic calendar is the Sharjah Art Biennial, with invited artists from the Gulf states, the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Abu Dhabi has perhaps been slower to develop as a luxury tourism destination, but this has been changed by the Abu Dhabi 2030 strategy, designed specifically to attract global tourism. Particularly interesting in this regard is the Saadiyat Island project, which includes some highly ambitious cultural projects intended to develop the area into an "island of art." Saadiyat Island is a 27 kilometre natural island 500 metres offshore from Abu Dhabi island. It will be the location for the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums, along with many other cultural developments. The Abu Dhabi Tourism Development & Investment Company presented designs commissioned from architects including Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando and Zaha Hadid for iconic museums and a performing arts centre. The ambition is not only to make Saadiyat Island a world-class cultural location, but also to differentiate Abu Dhabi, giving it a high-end focus in the tourist market. In fact, TDIC estimates that Saadiyat Island will attract 2.7 million visitors a year by 2012, and it will also develop a 160,000-strong resident community. Initial work has begun, with land reclamation completed in May 2009, and the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge linking the island to the mainland finished in October 2009.

Abu Dhabi clearly wishes to repeat the enormous success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, with its iconic design by Frank Gehry. The UAE version of the Guggenheim will also be designed by Gehry, and, with a total floor space of 320,000 square feet, it will be the world's largest Guggenheim Museum. The modern and contemporary art will have a specific focus on Arabian, Islamic and other Middle Eastern art. Gehry's design enhances certain characteristics of the location, such as the coastal desert location and the intense natural light. A four-storey structure of central core galleries will be arranged around a courtyard, with two more rings of galleries ranging out from the core. The third ring will encourage art made on site, on a scale that would be impossible in conventional museums in other locations.

British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid is designing the Performing Arts Centre, a 62-metre-high building with five theatres: music hall, concert hall, opera house, drama theatre, and multi-purpose theatre. Hadid's design for this complex is extraordinarily organic, and she describes it as "a sculptural form that emerges from a linear intersection of pedestrian paths within the cultural district, gradually developing into a growing organism that sprouts a network of successive branches. As it winds through the site, the architecture increases in complexity, building up height and depth and achieving multiple summits in the bodies housing the performance spaces, which spring from the structure like fruits on a vine and face westward, toward the water." The biological analogy actually stemmed from growth-stimulation processes that were used to develop the design by means of repeated cycles. The building will offer panoramic views to the sea and the skyline of Abu Dhabi. The total seating capacity will be 6,300.
Abu Dhabi was notably successful in securing a Louvre franchise for the first time in the history of the French gallery. The plan dates back to 2007, when Nicolas Sarkozy signed a 30-year cultural agreement with Abu Dhabi, including the Louvre development. It will present artworks from all over the world, targeted to people living in or visiting the Emirates. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is on track with construction, following groundbreaking in May 2009 and piling operations commencing in February 2010.

The other two major museum structures being developed on Saadiyat island are Tadao Ando's Maritime Museum, dedicated to the maritime heritage of the Arabian Gulf, and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, celebrating the life and values of the late founder and president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The British Museum will be a consulting partner for this institution, and Foster + Partners are currently working on design.

While awaiting the positive benefits from these projects, the Emirates' private galleries continue in their work of promoting contemporary Middle Eastern art and artists. The Third Line (Al Quoz 3, Dubai, Tel. +9714 341 1367, open Sat-Thurs, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.) begins the fall season with two solo exhibitions by important female artists, Golnaz Fathi (September 22-October 21, 2010) and Hayv Kahraman (October 28-December 1, 2010). Fathi studied calligraphy for six years at the Calligraphy Association of Iran, practicing the technique for over seven hours a day. Though she became the first woman to win an award for the Ketabat calligraphy genre, she soon tired of the rigid rules inherent in this artform, and developed a new form of expression, an imaginary language. Her paintings thus carry traces of meaning for which there is no coded alphabet.

Iraqi artist Kahraman also began from a calligraphic background, but moved in another direction, towards images with flat, patterned areas that contrast with expressionless faces. Her subject matter focuses on oppression, with regard to the ways that women are perceived in society. This will be her first solo exhibition in the UAE.

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