‘‘Al Warqaa 2013’’ by Abdel Abidin is a suspended light-based sculpture that pays homage to students stoned to death by religious extremists in Baghdad last year.
DUBAI — In the center of a large room, the skeletal shape of a bird — an installation of steel and light-emitting diodes — hovers near the ceiling. About four times human size, its strong, light presence dominates the otherwise empty space.
The piece is part of an exhibition in Dubai by the Iraqi artist Adel Abidin. But instead of a gallery in the glitzy Dubai International Financial Center, the show, “Symphony,” has found a home in the Lawrie Shabibi Gallery in Al Quoz, a district of warehouses, dusty garages and trucks that has become Dubai’s alternative arts hub.
The gallery is one of more than 20 that have set up in a cluster of buildings around Al Serkal Avenue in Al Quoz in the past couple of years, attracted by the large spaces available and the neighborhood’s gritty, urban feel.
“In terms of location, it’s not as easy to find as the D.I.F.C., but now we have art lovers who go out of their way to find it, both tourists and Dubai residents,” said William Lawrie, co-founder of the gallery. “As a result, we have much more diversity in the art market, in terms of work and collectors.”
Mr. Abidin is one of many artists and gallery owners who have been drawn to Dubai to escape political turbulence in countries like Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria and Tunisia.
The same dynamic is at work in the annual Art Dubai fair, running here this week. “The new growth areas for Art Dubai are either countries that are going through difficult times, politically, and whose artists use Dubai as a refuge or funnel to the outside world, or those who are looking to extend their sphere of influence with the who’s-who of the art world,” said Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai.
The resulting diversity and growing competition among gallery owners has deepened Dubai’s art market, as has the emerging dichotomy between D.I.F.C.’s elite art scene and Al Quoz’s underground hub.
“Because of what’s happening in Syria, we had to move most of our art and our main headquarters to Dubai this year,” said Khalid Samawi, who co-founded Ayyam Gallery in Damascus in 2006. Ayyam now has a branch in the financial center and another in Al Quoz. “We use the D.I.F.C. space as a vitrine and then encourage interested collectors to look at our gallery in Al Quoz, which is 10 times bigger, for more artwork, ” Mr. Samawi said.
The gallery has other spaces in the Middle East, and in London, but Dubai is the only city where it has two branches, acting as a hub for the region.
Al Serkal Avenue also houses Etemad, a Tehran-based gallery, now showing work from prominent Iranian artists, and the first branch outside Tunisia of Galerie El Marsa, which opened last month.
Another gallery, Art Sawa, first opened a 10,000-square-foot, or 930-square-meter, space in Al Quoz in 2008 before expanding in 2011 with a smaller gallery in the D.I.F.C., “to be closer to its collector base,” said Amel Makkawi, the owner and director.
The increased diversity of the Dubai scene is pulling in foreign buyers: “In the last couple of years, a great percentage of buyers have come from outside Dubai,” Mr. Lawrie said. When Lawrie Shabibi first opened, about 60 percent of buyers were from Dubai; now, that is the percentage of buyers from abroad, he said.
“In 2008, we had a relatively small number of collectors supporting a small number of galleries,” he said. “It’s a different sort of market now, and galleries are working hard to make it sustainable.”
Complementing the gallery scene, several spaces have opened with a focus on art education and cultural identity.
“I can see that a chair has an identifiably Danish design, but what does a Palestinianbuilding look like to a foreigner? What does an Omani house look like?” asked Ahmed bin Shabib, co-founder, with his twin brother Rashid, of The Pavilion, The Shelter, and The Archive, three spaces that operate as cultural cafes, promoting dialogue through art exhibitions, film screenings, and collections of rare books from around the region.
“This is about people from diverse backgrounds learning to identify Jordanian architecture and Emirati contemporary design and finding a way to maintain a relevant cultural identity for future generations of Arabs,” he said.
The Pavilion opened in February 2011 as the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring began to spread across the region. It offers art exhibitions and film screenings free to the public, financed partly by food and beverage sales, partly by renting out space for corporate events, and partly by sponsorship from Dubai’s real estate giant, Emaar.
Following the popularity of The Pavilion, The Archive opened this year with a focus on Middle Eastern art, design and literature. The space is the first library of its kind in the Arab world, displaying rare books in a glass-walled space in the middle of a green park.
“We’re doing this because we have an identity issue in our generation; we are a young country that was hit quickly with globalization,” said Mr. bin Shabib. “If we don’t figure it out, we will all say ‘like’ in the middle of sentences for no reason and be Hollywood-ified.”
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