Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi’s Mina Zayed area has been running for a couple of years now – it opened in November 2015 – and it’s starting to build an identity as a broad-spectrum arts centre.
The official line is that Warehouse421 is “committed to showcasing the work of local and regional creative professionals and to being a place where creatives formally and informally convene”. The showcasing has been successful, with more than half the covered space inside the former warehouse given over to exhibition-type areas.
The convening has been less in evidence, though there are some useful rooms and a decent open-air cinema/performance space outside; there are occasional talks under the Wednesdays at the Warehouse label (like a very good Barber & Osgerby design masterclass a couple of months ago); and a few workshops are run – the interesting Indonesian artist Iabadiou Piko has a painting workshop “for those looking to break into the craft” on 21 February.
What there hasn’t been so much of is actual studio space. Accessible, affordable, appropriate places to do art are in short supply in Abu Dhabi (indeed, in the UAE generally). In March, though, Warehouse421 will be adding some. Not too many, and not for public access – just three new studios that will be occupied by three international fine artists as part of a partnership with Art Dubai’s Residents programme. Piko is one of them; the others are Kristina Alisauskaite from Lithuania and Faris Alosaimi from Saudi Arabia.
The artists will occupy the studios for up to eight weeks. It’s not clear what happens to these studios after they depart; indeed, it’s our understanding that the decision has not yet been taken. But at least Faisal Al Hassan, Warehouse421’s operations manager, appears to recognise the need: “We know that creative people need spaces to work, think and engage with others in the field, and this fuels our drive to develop Warehouse421, both in terms of facilities and programming, to become an important hub for the UAE’s artists and designers”.
We know that creative people need spaces to work, think and engage with others …
Also new is the arrival at Warehouse21 of Nagwa Design Studio. The studio, which specialises in product design “inspired by the people, places and stories of the United Arab Emirates”, emerged last year at Abu Dhabi Art and was involved with the Lest We Forget exhibition at Warehouse421. Nagwa sells its own branded products and also provides design services to others; by implication, it will provide something of a design hub within Warehouse421 – so it will be interesting to see whether this develops into a more public and less commercial resource.
There will be more happening at Warehouse421, too. An enhanced monthly programme will see more workshops and film screenings – as well as the regular Cinema Akil programming, the Zayed University Middle East Film Festival (ZUMEFF) is being hosted on 26-28 February – plus the return of the Galleries Week art market during Abu Dhabi Art.
The next big exhibition will be in the Spring, when the UAE will see for the first time the country’s exhibitions from the Venice Biennale’s 2016 Architecture Exhibition (Yasser Elsheshtawy’s meditation on the standard Emirati National House model of the 1970s) and 2017 Contemporary Art Exhibition (Hammad Nasar curated five artists under the theme Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play). We can probably look forward to more Venice shows in the future; the UAE National Pavilion at the Biennale is funded by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, which also runs Warehouse421 (among several other projects in arts, culture, heritage and education.
Warehouse421 says it sees itself as a hub for creativity and an active participant in Abu Dhabi’s creative ecosystem. It could do with a decent café cum networking space to provide creatives with somewhere they’re likely to meet like-minded people – ever since the Space at twofour54 closed down there’s been nothing similar in town, certainly nothing like the A4 Space in Alserkal Avenue. And ramping up the events programme to make the place feel permanently busy wouldn’t hurt; the al fresco films are good and successful (being free already helps) but a greater sense of participation would come from more masterclasses, more Q&A presentations (is pechakucha irremediably unfashionable now?), more debate and discussion. An adjacent warehouse full of small low-cost rentable studios would be handy, too, but that’s less likely to happen.
Still, we have to applaud Warehouse421’s ambition and the delivery to date. It’s always a good sign when you think things can get better – and you suspect that they probably will.