Middle East Art Trip: Dubai

While spending the summer in Beirut, I decided to take advantage of being in the region and travel to some of the Middle East’s most significant art hubs to see what galleries and museums were showcasing that summer. I took a week and half to travel to Dubai, Doha, and Istanbul, three cities in the region with thriving art scenes. Despite the heat, I really enjoyed my time, saw some great art, met very interesting people, and got a better understanding of the galleries and museums of these cities. Some of the most exciting aspects of my trip were my visits to the Mathaf in Doha and the Istanbul Modern. 

In the following features on each city, I will include pictures of my favorite works exhibited at each gallery


I left a humid Beirut early on a July morning and arrived in an even more humid Dubai several hours later. Even though everyone told me Dubai would be too hot to visit in July, it was my only chance to see what galleries there were displaying. As soon as I got off the plane the heat struck me. I had never felt humidity like that before. Barely able to withstand the heat, I immediately flagged down a cab and headed to my hotel room which was conveniently located in Jumeirah, a close hop to all the galleries I planned on visiting. I had been to Dubai often in the past, and the last time I was there was for Art Dubai in March. The change in the cityscape over these past few months was astonishing. Cranes dotted the cityscape, buildings looked taller, and the city’s boundary extended even further into the desert.

I got to the hotel and immediately noticed the absent European tourists and expatriates. The hotel was half full, and most of the guests were from Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf. During the hot summers in Dubai most of the expatriates head home, and tourists stay away to avoid the boiling temperatures.

            I got to the room, unpacked, and was in a cab twenty minutes later. I was only in Dubai for 2 days, and I did not want to waste any time. My first destination was the Al-Qouz district. A former industrial area, it has transformed into Dubai’s art center. The area now houses some of Dubai’s finest galleries within massive blue colored buildings. There is one entrance to the complex, and as I head in, I see signs to some of my favorite galleries. Because it was summer, and galleries were preparing to close down for the annual August hiatus, Al Qouz was deserted.

I started my gallery tour with the Lawrie Shabibi Gallery. The first things I noticed were the sculptures by Turkish artist Yasam Sasmazer. I love her work. The child sculptures portray such emotion and awareness in their gazes that they are almost life-like.

The girl, a balloon in one hand and a pin in the other, has an evil gaze. She looks in complete control of the situation. She is ready to end her childhood fun with that pin.

The second sculpture I liked was that of a child with a pillow over his head, and the shadow of a bear in the background. His fear of this bear is conveyed through his facial expression.

My next stop was the Ayyam Art Center, which was exhibiting a selection of works by various artists. Ayyam’s space was huge! It was also very nicely set up with paintings adorning all four walls and a couch in the very center of the gallery. My two favorite works on display were those of the great Syrian artist Mohannad Orabi. Orabi is one of my favorite artists; his work is unique and the layered texture of his paintings is remarkable.

The next gallery stop was Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde (IVDE). On display were works by Iranian artist Nagress Hashemi, who depicts Persian family life through her works. Whether an elderly lady in the kitchen, or a lavish wedding party, Nagress manages to capture scenes of traditional Iranian family life. Her characters are also distinctly Persian looking.

I then headed to the Green Art Gallery, where they exhibited works by Syrian photographer Jaber Al Azmeh. In this exhibition Jaber Al Azmeh went around Damascus and took pictures of parts of the city that have long been forgotten about, including the now defunct train station. The color contrasts in his photos are amazing.  

I left the Green Art Gallery and went to Art Sawa. The first thing I noticed when I walked in to Art Sawa was its sheer size. Spread over two floors, this warehouse-sized gallery was by far the largest of any Middle Eastern art gallery I had ever been to. Although the space is gigantic, it is not cluttered, which allows people to browse around in a spacious, comfortable environment. Some of my favorite works on display at Art Sawa were works by Karin Roch who effortlessly seems to blend oil painting, photography, and tissue to create beautiful cityscapes. These great works juxtapose nature (flowers) with high-rises.

I also liked Zena Assi’s ‘Stop Light #2’, as well as another one of her works on display. There is a lot of depth to her layered works, and a lot of emotion in her characters.

I left the Al Qouz district and headed to the Ara Gallery, one of Dubai’s newest gallery fixtures. I liked several pieces exhibited here. One of the works (by Hamdan Buti Al Shamisi) I loved blended colorful calligraphy with a traditional Emirati desert scene.  Another piece I really liked was a boat made out of calligraphic text by Nawal Khoury.

Besides the Al Qouz district, another growing art hub in Dubai is within the DIFC. Set amongst huge glass office towers, many galleries have decided to open up here, forming a gallery district. It is important for a city to have a gallery district. Just as NYC now has Chelsea and the Lower East Side, Dubai now has Al Qouz and the DIFC. Galleries are stronger when closer to each other. It is important because when people want to check out the local art scene they head to one area and walk around and therefore have an easier time of seeing more work and more galleries. It is also important because DIFC is one of, if not the most, important financial hubs in Dubai, where thousands of employees head to work every day. It is important for galleries to have a presence in busy areas, where people are surrounded by art each day. It will expand interest amongst people who might otherwise not take time to head out to a gallery.

                As I headed to the gallery section in the DIFC I was caught by surprise when I saw Ayman Baalbaki’s ‘Destination X.’ I love this work! It represents how Lebanese were constantly on the move throughout the Civil War. This depicted scene played over thousands of times throughout the Civil War, where families piled up all their belongings on top of their car and headed to the mountains or to safer neighborhoods. This work is now part of the Farjam collection. This work is a true masterpiece, with important historical connotations.

                 The first gallery I visited was Cuadro Fine Art. Some of my favorite works exhibited includes a piece by Chen Jiao, titled ‘Overcast.’

Another one of the works I liked was by Gita Meh. In this work, a classic portrait-like figure is filled with calligraphic text. It is an interesting fusion of Western and Eastern art.

Cuadro is also very large, and as I walked to one part of the gallery, I noticed an elderly gentleman sitting on a chair. Upon closer inspection I couldn’t believe that this was a sculpture! The sculpture was so well done, the attention to detail so profound, that from far it looked like an actual person. The details including the watch, the wrinkles, and the posture all added to this very realist sculpture.

Another piece I liked was by Sacha Jafri. A busy painting full of color, it gives off a happy, positive vibe .

I continued walking and found yet another realistic sculpture. Take a look at the details on the sculpture’s arms!

            The Ayyam Gallery in the DIFC was displaying work by several of its artists. I really liked Ammar Al Beik’s works, which combine colorful photography with black and white photos. Safwan Dahoul had a couple of beautiful pieces as well.






      Art Space, right next door to Ayyam, also had some beautiful art on display. I really liked Hussein Madi’s works, both of which are paintings of women lying down. As usual with Madi, the women in his paintings are very curvy and the shapes of their body parts are very pronounced.  


The XVA Gallery had a beautiful work by Hussein Al Mohasen titled ‘Oil for food’. These colorful panels, with their deep political connotation, were beautifully painted.



I also noticed that Art Dubai and Christie’s have their headquarters in DIFC. Art Sawa is also opening in the DIFC. This district is truly emerging into Dubai’s leading art hub.


I really enjoyed my time in Dubai. The professionalism and expertise of Dubai’s galleries is an assuring sign that the city’s art scene can easily compete in the global art market. I also think it is very significant that galleries in Dubai have clustered together to make two distinct art hubs, where people can go and browse. It is testament to the direction of the region’s art scene that all these gallery owners have committed great amounts of time and money to make their galleries amongst some of the most beautiful in the world. The works exhibited were also very strong, and were by some of the region’s finest artists. I encourage people to come and see this great city’s art scene for themselves!

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