Fringed by the dhow harbour, where traditional wooden fishing boats are moored in a shimmer of heat haze, sprawls Al Mina, Abu Dhabi’s waterfront district that links the city’s commercial and coastal histories.

Peppered with residences, offices, and marketplaces, Al Mina is also home to a constellation of industrial warehouses that have been repurposed as exhibition spaces and cultural hubs. Among them nestles the 421 art campus, its fluid and functional layout featuring a sequence of courtyards with native vegetation, art galleries, co-working spaces, a library, a cafe, and an outdoor plaza for film screenings, performances, and art installations.

Image : 421 art campus

Founded in 2015, this unique cultural destination has emerged as the city’s foremost venue showcasing the region’s art, design, creative scenes, and cutting-edge culture. It also nurtures and promotes artists from across the world and the Global South through partnerships and residency programmes. Many Indian creatives have benefitted from collaborations with 421 such as curator Ritika Biswas, who worked on the project ‘Nine Nodes of Non-Being’ last year. Additionally, the New Delhi-based artist duo BaRiya showcased their works here earlier this year as part of the Network Culture exhibition and found the experience ‘enriching and powerful’.

Art works at a local gallery
Art works at a local gallery

The ongoing exhibition by Palestinian artist Mona Ayyash – The Clock Doesn’t Care – followed by animated interactions with American sculptor Christopher Joshua Benton; Palestinian designer Jumaanah Alhashemi, and Lithuanian artist Auguste Nomeikaite, among others— all of whom are part of this year’s residency programme at 421. In that sense, the organisation is a veritable mini United Nations with global artists and visitors coming together to share, experiment, create their own art, discover exhibitions, exchange ideas, or listen to talks.

"We support the development of emerging artists and creative practitioners in the UAE and from across the world by providing a nurturing environment for those who want to harness the arts as an agent for social inquiry and transformation. Many of our programmes are organised in collaboration with local, regional, and international partners to develop artistic and creative skills while bolstering the growth of the UAE’s creative ecosystem," informs 421’s head, Faisal Al Hassan.

Sculptor Chrisptoher Joshua Benton with his works at 421 art campus
Sculptor Chrisptoher Joshua Benton with his works at 421 art campus

Art as a Growth Driver

Economists say this approach can usher in other benefits too. “A vibrant arts sector is an economic asset that stimulates business activity, attracts tourism, and expands a state's work force and tax base. The arts have also demonstrated a successful and sustainable strategy for revitalising rural areas, cities and populations struggling with poverty,” explains Mumbai-based economist Shankar Das, former Professor at Mumbai University.

Colombia, for instance, has had an “Orange Economy” policy since 2018—an economic movement that encourages the private sector to invest in the arts, crafts, festivals, heritage, music, publishing, and fashion, adds the expert. Overall , the creative economy is expected to reach a global valuation of $985 billion by 2023, and is likely to constitute 10% of global GDP before 2030, according to the think tank G20 Insights.

Cultural Renaissance

With many such projects underway, it’s hard to miss the exciting cultural renaissance underway in Abu Dhabi. A dynamic, vibrant and diverse art scene is unfolding, with mushrooming art galleries and art collectives attracting footfalls from big collectors and internationally reputed galleries. Barely 10 minutes from 421 is the eye-popping Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. Swathed in an intricate, 7,850-piece jigsaw of perforated aluminium and stainless-steel panels, its 23 galleries are divided by narrow alleyways and plazas to evoke the look and feel of a medina. The multi-tiered museum, it's architecture, Arabian-inspired interiors, and staggering artworks displayed in temporary exhibitions as well as permanent collections induce awe.

There’s also a frisson of excitement in the city about the opening of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by American architect Frank Gehry. Set to open next year, and located on Saadiyat Island, just off the coast, it will house more than 600 works of modern and contemporary art by established names, such as Louise Bourgeois, as well as new Emirati artists and emerging talents from across Asia and Africa.

Also rising from Saadiyat’s dun-coloured landscape is the multi-faith cultural centre called the Abrahamic Family House, designed by David Adjaye, the British architect who helmed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. The Zayed National Museum and two more cultural institutions will be unveiled next year.

In fact Saadiyat Cultural District has shaped up as a unique conglomeration of museums, cultural institutions, collections, and public programming that celebrate the achievements of the United Arab Emirates, the region, and the world. It also hosts Berklee Abu Dhabi and the upcoming Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi and team Lab Phenomena Abu Dhabi.

Manarat Al Saadiyat — Arabic for 'a place of enlightenment' – is where art lovers congregate for the annual Abu Dhabi Art fair. The premises also hosts three galleries for temporary exhibits, a photography studio, an art studio and a 250-seat auditorium. Also part of the city’s arty constellation is the New York University’s NYUAD Art Gallery. Public programming and guided tours complement exhibitions by international and local artists on New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus.

Inclusive Society

With the city in the throes of a cultural revolution, a visitor is led to wonder why there’s such an intense focus on art. The answer is indeed enlightening. As a Saadiyat spokesperson put it, “We want to tell stories of the UAE, the world, and the connections that have shaped our creativity and innovation throughout history. We want to build a global public space where people can come together and engage in intercultural and intellectual exchange, reinforcing Abu Dhabi’s vision of an inclusive city."

Indeed, these developments lie at the heart of a $12-billion programme that the State hopes will transform the largest and most oil-rich of the region’s sheikhdoms into a global centre for the arts. It also ties in with the UAE’s larger cultural policy to position art and culture as key drivers of economic development.

And it’s all coming along nicely. Indeed, it’s difficult to believe that just a few decades back, Abu Dhabi was a scrubby, arid land populated by the nomadic Bedouins and fishermen. At a macro level, this frenetic development also underpins Abu Dhabi’s strengthened presence on the international arts scene reflecting a transformative and maturing art landscape. The platforming of non-Western art narratives which challenges the Western-centric paradigm in the art world, as well as global exchanges and decentralisation from major art trade hubs like New York, London, and Paris further propel this ambition.

All these ventures also mark a paradigm shift from the time when the UAE was infamously known for importing everything – technology, human resource, art works – while producing or manufacturing little that was homegrown. The new focus is on nurturing homegrown artists, putting in place a supporting cultural infrastructure, initiating outreaches to the outside world, and creating a template for an inclusive cultural ecosystem.

As 421’s Hassan put it, "We started as a gallery but have now grown into a global community with creatives, institutes, and organisations joining us along the way on our journey, which has been deeply fulfilling and enriching."

Indeed, it’s a template the world could well adopt, given the current volatile geopolitical climate, when the world seems to have forgotten that art and culture are the true bedrocks of a modern, progressive society.

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