In November 2015, Abu Dhabi’s Mina Zayed industrial area acquired its first creative hub, housed in two converted warehouses redesigned by the BIG studio.
Since then Warehouse421 has hosted exhibitions, shown the work of more than 400 artists and designers (most of them local, all of them regional), and run a range of cultural programmes including performances, talks, outdoor film screenings with Cinema Akil, and more than 60 hands-on workshops.
Faisal Al Hassan, manager of Warehouse421, has been with Warehouse421 since the beginning. “It’s both a thrilling and humbling experience to look back on our achievements over the past three years,” he said. “I’d like to extend my gratitude to all of the organisations, galleries, and artists we have partnered with throughout our journey.”
We invited him to reflect on that journey.
magpie: Looking back over the last three years, what do you regard as Warehouse421’s most significant contribution to the cultural scene in Abu Dhabi and the UAE? And what are you personally most proud of?
Faisal Al Hassan: Since launching in November 2015, we are proud to have delivered 18 individual exhibitions, together with an array of public programs that have showcased the talents of more than 400 artists and designers from the UAE and beyond. Our workshops have covered a wide range of disciplines, from traditional arts and crafts to painting, photography, filmmaking, poetry and sculpture.
We pride ourselves on offering an inclusive and welcoming community space, where people of all abilities can come together, explore their creativity and learn new skills. Warehouse421 has begun to carve out a niche for itself as a place where visitors can gather, exchange ideas, and be moved and inspired by the power of art and culture. This year, we also undertook a substantial diversification of our activities to support creative learning and the making, exhibiting and selling of artwork.
Personally, I am most proud of the progression of our space, which has been maturing and developing in line with the needs of the local creative scene. With the opening of our first commissioned exhibition, Architecture of Loneliness, we are marking the next chapter in Warehouse421’s ongoing evolution.
magpie: Do you see your prime focus as Abu Dhabi or the country more generally – is Warehouse421 an Abu Dhabi institution, existing for the people of Abu Dhabi; or does it have a broader role in promoting the artistic status of the Emirates and/or the Gulf and/or the wider Middle East?
FH: Our programming highlights themes relevant to the UAE and the Middle East at large. Each exhibition is carefully planned and selected for the space, and, together with our partners, we aim to develop narratives that enhance the understanding of creative production from multiple perspectives.
Warehouse421 explores a full spectrum of disciplines, from traditional arts and crafts to cutting-edge digital production methods. Understanding history is a vital part of our story at Warehouse421, we connect the notion of the past to the present by supporting and encouraging creatives based in the Emirates. By creating an inclusive space for community discourse, engagement and creative development, we aim to reinforce the UAE’s creative community and support artists and designers from the region and beyond.
Originally, our space was used mostly for exhibitions. However, since the beginning of the year, we have expanded to take a more active role in all aspects of the creative process by offering more learning opportunities, collaborating with galleries and institutions to showcase emerging artists from the region that are available for sale. We envision Warehouse421 as a destination for creatives to be inspired, for networks to be built, and for conversations to be had. Warehouse421 is a place that extends itself to the wider community to further learning, and further the wider narrative of arts and culture.
magpie: In terms of Warehouse421’s audience, are you getting the numbers and types of people through the doors that you want? Are there any particular groups that you feel Warehouse421 could/should appeal to more effectively, or do you think the mix is about right?
FH: It’s been a humbling experience to see so many members of the community from diverse backgrounds embrace the concept of Warehouse421 and pursue their passions through our activities, whether they are exploring our exhibitions, learning new skills in our workshops, or attending film screenings and cultural events. Diversity is a key factor in the development of the cultural narrative that naturally exists in Abu Dhabi, and Warehouse421 embodies and reflects that nature in the mix of its audience.
magpie: What plans do you have for Warehouse421’s immediate future? What can we look forward to in the coming year or so?
FH: From the beginning, we have relied on the creativity and professionalism of our partners to deliver exhibitions and public programming of the highest standards to the people of Abu Dhabi and the UAE. We believe that our calendar of events remains one of the most diverse in the local arts and cultural scene.
In the immediate future, we are excited to present two commissioned exhibitions. We’ve been working closely with Gulf Photo Plus to develop our first commissioned exhibition for almost a year, and are looking forward to seeing this project come to life. Architecture of Loneliness will be on show from 15 December to 17 February.
The exhibition is accompanied by the publication of an art book highlighting the commissioned photographs, together with a collection of reflective essays and two poems.
We will be announcing details on our second commissioned exhibition in the spring of 2019.
Also, we have been introducing more immersive creative workshops than we have offered in the past. This month (December) we are hosting a five-day painting course and an in-depth workshop exploring the subtle nuances of the language of film and film-making. We will continue to seek out innovative programming ideas that offer opportunities for the Abu Dhabi community to engage with art and culture on a deeper level, as the nation’s creative landscape continues to evolve.
magpie: The collaboration with GPP obviously suggests one area for development, in the form of collaborations with other entities (commercial entities, in this case) and jointly commissioned exhibitions; is this will we see more of this?
FH: Aside from all the exhibitions we have hosted over the past three years, we have collaborated with Abu Dhabi Art to successfully present Galleries Week – a series of curated exhibitions featuring artworks for sale from regional and local galleries – for the past two years. Recently we hosted the Table Tales book launch. The book celebrates Abu Dhabi’s rich and diverse population through food; Table Tales invites you into the fabric of the nation, and its evolution through recipes and stories.
magpie: How about more ‘touring’ shows, like the 100/100 Hundred Best Arabic Posters exhibition – do you see Warehouse421 becoming a regular stop on the circuit for exhibitions that visit multiple locations?
FH: This year, we presented the biannual 100/100 Hundred Best Arabic Posters exhibition for the second time. It’s been a pleasure to welcome the 2018 edition, which highlights the diverse forms of expression through graphic design in the Arab world.
As part of our ongoing remit to nurture creative professionals from the UAE and the region, we’re constantly on the lookout for high-quality exhibitions that reflect our values and enhance our programming.
We would certainly be open to hosting more travelling exhibitions that are in line with our core aims.
magpie: In terms of fostering an environment for committed artists, Abu Dhabi lacks low-cost and flexible studio space outside the facilities provided by higher education and similar institutions. Warehouse421 has run many short courses and workshops for the public, but do you see it as part of Warehouse421’s role to provide studio facilities for artists’ use – facilities that can be used by individuals and without a tutor?
FH: This has always been one of our goals. In fact, last year we hosted three international artists at our space, who were selected for the inaugural edition of Art Dubai Residencies program. The artists made good use of our studio space, and embraced this exciting opportunity to immerse themselves in the local culture. It was very interesting to see how local influences manifested themselves in the works they produced for the fair.
Also, this year, we offered access to self-service studio space as part of our Summer Club program. Painters of all skill levels were able to purchase a blank canvas and were provided with an unlimited array of acrylic paint in different colours, allowing them the freedom to explore their creativity in a professional studio space.
Overall, these were highly successful undertakings and we hope to explore further opportunities of this nature in the future.
magpie: Warehouse421 and the SEAF studios have become established in the area, but are you disappointed that the Mina has not become a larger cultural hub? Does Warehouse421 itself have any plans (or funds) for expansion in terms of adding new galleries or workshops?
FH: Warehouse421 aspires to continue growing and developing as a multi-purpose hub for professional creatives through our programming, educational workshops, and community building. The milestones that have aided our growth in 2018 are the inclusion of creative spaces, satellite art galleries and expanded programming to respond directly to the evolving needs of local creatives. This allows us to cater to increasing creative production, offer more professionally-oriented programming, and engage in commercial activities.
magpie: Have you any regrets about the progress of Warehouse421? Any opportunities you feel you could have taken but didn’t? Any mistakes in programming or presentation?
FH: The past three years have been a tremendously exciting journey with huge learning curves that have aided in the development of our space. As our space continues to mature and develop each new day brings with it fresh learning experiences. Overall, I’m very happy with how things have been going so far, and look forward to many more creative years ahead!
magpie: And finally … given the experience you have built up in the last three years, can you sum up your view of Warehouse421 today in just three words?
FH: That’s an interesting challenge! I would say “culture, creativity, community”.
More information on the Warehouse421 schedule is here.