It’s become a commonplace that centres of art can turn up in rundown neighbourhoods or industrial wastelands, and actually thrive there given the advantages of low rents, large spaces and (eventually) a community of like-minded practitioners.
Tick two of those three boxes for Art Hub Abu Dhabi. It’s in Mussafah, Abu Dhabi’s designated industrial suburb. Unlike Dubai’s Al Quoz, it’s not central; Mussafah is a schlep unless you happen to live or work in the area. And unlike Al Quoz, it hasn’t been able to attract galleries, artists, related artistic ventures like theatres and design studios, associated essentials like hip cafes and bookshops.
But it does have Art Hub Abu Dhabi, now in its fourth year and one of only three locales in the capital that might just about qualify as an arts centre, or at least a centre for art (NYU Abu Dhabi’s actual Arts Center is also well away from the centre of town, as it happens: Warehouse421 in the Mina area is only just developing a programme of activity).
So it’s worth dodging Mussafah’s trucks and overloaded minivans as you negotiate an infinite number of roundabouts. Once you locate the place, you’ll find an interesting building with gallery space, studios for rent, an affable owner and a positive programme.
Since its inception in 2012, the Abu Dhabi Art Hub has been owned and managed by Ahmed Al Yafei, a businessman with the wide spread of interests that characterise UAE enterprises. Property and contracting are the main businesses, and it was a property opportunity that led to the establishment of Abu Dhabi Art Hub – it could have been another industrial shed, but a degree of imagination saw it become something else entirely.
In Ahmed Al Yafei’s estimation, it won’t be long until the Art Hub is one of the leading arts communities in the UAE. And not just in the UAE, but perhaps in other parts of the world.
In part that’s because Al Yafei sees the model as infinitely exportable – industrial area, large warehouse-style space, studios to rent by the hour or the day, 2,500 sq m of gallery space for exhibitions that is rentable as well (AED 6,000 to 15,000 per month, depending on the month), live/work cabins that include studio space with a fully equipped bedsit for artists in residence …
And in part it’s because Ahmed Al Yafei sees himself as the right kind of person promoter, an art lover with a commercial background and an eye for an opportunity.
Al Yafei says he started the Art Hub Abu Dhabi to capitalise on what he saw as the art moment that the city seemed to be having, primarily with the advent of the Saadiyat cultural district and the imminent (though delayed) arrival of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
“Though I didn’t know much about art at the time, I have always been passionate about it,” he says. “I saw something happening in our local art world. Abu Dhabi is becoming an international art destination. Everyone is so excited about the future of the art scene. So I created the Art Hub to be an oasis of creativity – a place where people from all over the world can have art conversations and be immersed in beautiful artwork.”
The world aspect has always been a feature of the Art Hub programme. For a month a group of artists from a particular country are hosted in Art Hub’s live-in studios and invited to produce work based on their experience of Abu Dhabi. At the end of the sojourn there’s a gallery show; currently the exhibition is for a group from Lithuania.
“I carefully select 10 artists per month from a chosen country;” says Ahmed Al Yafei. “We fly them here, give them room and board, and take them on tours of Abu Dhabi. We then ask them to create artwork in any medium that is inspired by what they have seen here.
“The results are amazing and so diverse. They are artists of course, so I never know what they will do, but they always surprise me with their creativity and what they see. It’s worth coming every month to learn about the UAE through the eyes of outside artists. I am from here, and even I have so much to learn.
“The monthly exhibits are about nationalism. They are a tribute to the UAE – the wonderful country that we share, home to people of so many nationalities.”
We tested this on some of the Estonian artists-in-residence who were at Art Hub earlier this year. Raivo Kelomees is a full time digital arts researcher at the Estonian Academy of Arts, but he was working on two paintings simultaneously when we visited – “I am using my time at the Art Hub to refresh my skills and create art that I usually have little time for at work. I am also enjoying the physicality of creating art because it’s so important to your health as well as your intellect.
“It is so quiet here and my studio is so full of light; I am not accustomed to this excellent natural light!”
Kelomees told us he was grateful to have had the brief stay at the Hub “and to see more of this wonderful country. I hope my artwork reflects its beauty.”
Local artist Karine Roche, originally from France, had a month at Art Hub 18 months ago. She applauds Al Yafei and credits the Hub as a nurturing space that helped to launch a now flourishing career.
“I was already a prolific painter when I was selected to come to the Hub during French month, so I used my time there to learn also about the business of art. The gallery was alive with so much creative energy. It was exciting and stressful at times to prepare for the final exhibit at the end of the month, but it was a wonderful experience.”
The Hub also helped her make connections, which led to future exhibits at the Armani Hotel and the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi, opportunities for which she is grateful.
Al Yafei has a vision, and he wants to drive a grassroots evolution in Abu Dhabi – and beyond. He has opened a second Art Hub in Liwa on the edge of the Empty Quarter, though he acknowledges with his signature grin that plan to export his Art hub idea to other countries is “this is a long way off”.
More immediately, there’s Art Hub Dubai. That’s opening this month in d3 Building 2 as a gallery space in one of the shop units.
Says Al Yafei: “I hope that the Art Hub Dubai will be a place where members of the community can explore various components of the arts with which they may be less familiar, such as art therapy, special needs art, and so on, and to get involved.
Why Dubai Design District rather than the more obvious Alserkal Avenue? Ahmed Al Yafei confesses that he would have liked to be part of the Alserkal vibe – “to be honest, I was on to this a bit late, and I missed out on space in Alserkal Avenue. Which is unfortunate” – but he says he couldn’t be more excited about the Design District.
“We have a much larger space than we would have had in Al Quoz. And there is ample parking, which we all know is rare in Dubai.
“I am also excited about the links between art and design to which we will have unique access; this location opens up an art world of possibilities for the Hub.”
As in Abu Dhabi, there will also the exhibition space for rent open to the artists who are interested in using the space. But Al Yafei is committed to the idea of community as well as country – the website at www.arthubdubai.com describes Art Hub Dubai as “an exhibition space for the community where proactive ideas, diverse art forms, artists and audiences can come together to create [a] UAE image through international art”.
Al Yafei himself says: “We plan to offer many workshops and classes to get more people interested in art and connected to the art scene. This is a mission of all Art Hubs in the UAE and beyond.”
Al Yafei may be an unlikely patron of the arts, and the Art Hub is an unlikely splash of colour, culture and imagination in an otherwise bleak industrial townscape. Perhaps this Mussafah’s moment; perhaps this model will indeed be the world’s next great incubator of arts. Check it out – at the very least it needs more footfall.
WORDS Liz Totton