Turning Dubai’s urban sprawl into an open-air museum

Sunday 12/03/2017
Street art. Graffiti by muralist Ashwaq Abdullah pays homage to UAE founders, sheikhs Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum and Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, on a wall in Dubai. (AFP)

Dubai - The streets of Dubai may be known for architectural superlatives such as Burj Khalifa, the highest of the world’s high-rises, and the Middle East’s largest shopping cen­tre, Dubai Mall.
Street artists also want to turn the concrete walls of a fast-growing ur­ban sprawl into an open-air museum that celebrates Emirati heritage and speaks to everyone in the multicul­tural city.
From poetry painted in intricate Arabic calligraphy to a portrait of an old man rowing a wooden boat, the art of the government-funded Dubai Street Museum is bringing new life to the city.
The project features the work of 16 mural and graffiti artists of different genres and nationalities, including four Emiratis. They include Malay­sia-based Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who has been likened to British graffiti artist Banksy, and Tu­nisian street artist the Inkman.
Each brings his own interpretation of a curated theme — The Past — to the 2nd of December Street in the heart of Satwa, one of the older quar­ters of Dubai.
“Dubai has everything, from fi­nance to tourism,” said project direc­tor Shaima al-Soueidi. “Tourists can see our history at the museums but we want everyone to be able to see that history everywhere, even in the streets.”
Urban art is a growing trend in the Middle East, a region dotted with cities carrying complex — and fre­quently crisis-ridden — histories.
While graffiti in older cities such as Tunis and Beirut often acts as a form of resistance against contemporary politics, the art form takes on a more conciliatory tone in Dubai.
Satwa, originally home to Emi­rati Bedouins, is a working-class neighbourhood largely inhabited by labourers from the Philippines. Known locally as “mini Manila”, Satwa is a bustling residential area dotted with late-night restaurants and shops selling everything from car parts to Chantilly lace.
Satwa’s unique social make-up caught the eye of those behind the Dubai Street Museum, who hope to see the project spread further across the city.
“We were on the hunt for a way to turn Dubai into an open(-air) mu­seum,” Soueidi said. “Because of its history and its position in the city, we landed on the 2nd of December Street as the ideal site.”
The first mural in the neighbour­hood is that of a man in his abra, a narrow boat carved out of wood tra­ditionally used for travel and trade across the Dubai Creek.
Further down the street, an image of the national white-and-gold fal­con stands three storeys high, while a building façade is covered in white, red and green patterns that echo the weave in traditional garments.
Emirati muralist Ashwaq Abdul­lah is among the artists to bring their vision to the walls and parking lots of Dubai. Her mural pays hom­age to founders of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan.
“Mural art speaks to everyone in all segments of society and it gen­erally focuses on the past, the her­itage, of the place,” Abdullah said. “For me this is a chance to express my love for my country. The hope is that it spills over into streets all across Dubai.” (Agence France-Presse)