The Saturday Tour at Al Serkal Avenue, Dubai

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Ever since I began reading up on Dubai’s vibrant art scene, I’ve wanted to visit Al Serkal Avenue. I held back because I couldn’t quite figure out how to reach the district – which is deep in Al Quoz, an industrial area – and what exactly to do once I got there. How sprawling was the area? Which galleries should I visit? What exhibits should I see?

When I saw an invitation for one of their Saturday Tours on Facebook, I jumped at the chance have these decisions taken out of my hands, and it turned out to be a good call.

Prepping a blank canvas

To begin with, getting to the Avenue was easier than I thought – I took a taxi from Noor Bank metro station, taking care to roll the R on Al Serkal as I directed the cabbie.  The Avenue is actually a gated complex, full of warehouses, many of which have been converted into galleries, studios and cafés.

There were over 20 people gathered at the assembly point, aspiring artists, art enthusiasts, insiders, and I’m sure, novice art lovers like me. The tour was conducted by Victoria, who’s involved in the district’s external affairs, and Luay, who’s part of the programming team.

img_3940Victoria setting a brisk pace on the gallery tour.

Before taking us around the galleries, the duo explained how Al Serkal Avenue came into being and what it attempts to achieve. They told us then, and over the course of the tour, that the area was originally home to a marble factory (the stones being imported from Carrara, no less), how the family had slowly given out the spaces to galleries, how some of the warehouses still went about their regular, non-artsy business, giving the district a true and authentic vibe. There were 12 galleries in the district, as well as many studios, cafés and a theatre.

Filling in the colours

The introduction done, it was time to see some actual art. We covered four galleries in the one hour, and two studios.

We started with Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde which featured the works of two Iranian brothers Ramin and Rokin Haerizadeh. There were video installations, tapestries and all manner of beautiful things.

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The same gallery also had the works of the renowned Emirati artist, Hassan Sharif, who had passed away earlier in the year. As Victoria put it, Hassan Sharif was the best name to throw around to prove Dubai’s credentials as an art hub. She showed us his work that had been featured in the Guggenheim and elsewhere.

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I also loved this clever little sculpture by a Belgian artist, whose name I didn’t catch, sadly. (Diligent googling revealed that it was possibly Fred Eerdekens.) I noticed that quite a few of my tour companions were taken by it too, and all the smartphones were out and clicking away. The squiggles say ‘Forever these words unsteadily will live’.

We then moved on to Gallery Lawrie Shabibi, where the main draw was Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas’ Kaaba-inspired installations and art. In the centre of the room was an acrylic (?) installation, which consisted of blown-up versions of the souvenirs typical to pilgrimage sites, such as Mecca. It took me back to my visits to the many temple towns in India, where after praying, we’d browse through the shiny plastic mementos and jewellery.

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Hamra Abbas’ exhibit inspired by souvenirs she picked up on Umrah. 

There were other exhibits too, so I’ve linked to the gallery page that explains the entire collection here.

Our third visit was to a gallery called Showcase, where the works of Emirati artist Ahmed Al Faresi were on display. Titled ‘We are but one thread’ the exhibition traced the links between native American and nomadic Bedouin cultures.

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This was my favourite exhibit of the entire tour, partly because I’m not as fond of abstract art. The simple colour palette, the cleanness of the work, the theme and the connection to the region could not fail to appeal to me.

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This work by Ahmed Al Faresi had a pelt of fur at the bottom.

Our fourth and final gallery for the evening was Leila Heller, a branch of a New York based gallery. There were several artists on display but I focused on the big canvases by Gordon Cheung.

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Victoria pointed out that the cowboys on bucking broncos referred to the financial markets, and drew our attention to the fact that they were painted over stock listings from the Financial Times.

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A close-up of the work, which shows the stock listings over which it has been painted.

Looking up Gordon Cheung, similar bull-and-bear inspired paintings seem to have been created in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008.

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We were told that this Chinese vase with its drooping flowers, was meant to be a memento mori.

The whole collection was very interesting, and featured many more canvases that I haven’t shown – do read more on it here.

Adding those beautiful flourishes

The tour wasn’t just galleries however, which was good since I was already suffering from something of a sensory overload. We were also taken to two studios. The first of these, Satellite, is the stomping ground of art collector Rami Farook, and is not strictly a studio, but more of an art storehouse and hang out – or so I understood it.

The second was the studio of El Seed, a French-Tunisian graffiti artist, who showed us a video of his amazing project ‘Perception’. The project involved painting Arabic graffiti on the walls of a poor neighbourhood in Cairo, which is also known as ‘Trash City’ for its huge piles of garbage. The graffiti was finally lit up, and it reads ‘Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly, needs to wipe his eyes first’ – a quote from a third century Coptic priest. The project is fascinating, and there are more details on his website.

El Seed mentioned that growing up in Paris, he did not learn to write Arabic until much later. He spoke of how he suffered from an identity crisis when he turned 16. He is a genuinely world-renowned artist but came off as extremely humble and invested in his art.  Which, incidentally sums up Al Serkal Avenue for me. It was one of the most genuine experiences I’ve had since moving here.

The final touches

All through the tour, cafés were pointed out to us. These were housed in huge loft-like spaces, full of light and epitomizing industrial chic.

The icing, or rather the ganache on the cake, was our visit to a chocolate factory, which produces Mirzam, a UAE-only label of artisanal chocolate.

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A geography lesson in cocoa beans.

Mirzam produces single-origin chocolates made from Ghanaian, Indian, Cuban and Madagascarian (I think I may have made up a word) cocoa beans, as well as other interesting variants. The plant smelled heavenly, with the scent of chocolate wafting out of the door into the street. We also sampled chocolate tea, which was surprisingly good.

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I got myself this one. How gorgeous is the packaging? I love that it references travel, and the word itself is the name of a star.

On that sweet note, the tour came to an end. As I walked back in the fading light, I was already looking forward to my next visit to Al Serkal Avenue, to seeing more of the best art Dubai and the world have to offer.

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