DUBAI, May 5 (Reuters) – A dusty industrial zone in flashy Dubai has become an unlikely home for a flourishing underground art scene that has grown even as the emirateâ€™s fortunes declined, curbing appetites for extravagant pieces.
Al Quoz, home to stark warehouses and a huge cement factory in the shadow of the worldâ€™s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is a far cry from the glitz and glamour that has come to be associated with Dubai.
â€œItâ€™s raw. Itâ€™s a clean plate that we can work on. This is a growing cultural hub, a warehouse district where the ceilings are high and rents are low,â€ said Rami Farook, founder of the Traffic gallery, where Emirati, Iranian and Saudi artists show works ranging from graffiti art to blaring video installations.
Thatâ€™s a far cry from the art scene just a couple of years ago, when upscale galleries hosted champagne-fuelled purchases that reflected big money and status, like the Maseratis and Bentleys cruising along the emirateâ€™s palm-lined streets.
Now, affordability and artistic message seem to carry more weight, and the seemingly underground vibe is drawing in a different crowd.
At Etemad Gallery, a former furniture warehouse in Al Quoz, a beige wax sculpture of a human torso riddled with bullets and shells stands in the shadows. Nearby is a series comparing the iris of the human eye to constellations of dying stars.
â€œThere is a growing confidence in local contemporary artists and also an increase in interest in women artists from the region,â€ said Rory Miller, director of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at Kings College in London.
â€œFollowing the economic downturn which hit Dubai hard, there is a move, especially among the younger age group, to look to art that is grittier, more relevant and reflective of their own lives and recent experiences.â€
Art houses have taken note of shifting local tastes, even as the higher end of the art market sees signs of a rebound on the back of Dubaiâ€™s economic recovery.
â€œWe included a lot more younger artists who are more affordable because we want to increase the depth of participation,â€ said Michael Jeha, managing director of auction house Christieâ€™s Middle East, which recently held a sale focusing on contemporary artists from Saudi Arabia and Iran.
A number of the pieces sold for less than $10,000, Jeha said, with others available for between $2,000 and $3,000.
All of the works in the Traffic gallery priced between $1,000 and $3,000 sold out. â€œThis made me realize that people in Dubai had this passion for the alternative,â€ said Trafficâ€™s Farook. â€œThis is the niche I am trying to tap into.â€
Raj Sehgal, managing director at Credit Suisse Private Banking in the Middle East and Indian Subcontinent, said some of his clients were looking for investments that could deliver future returns.
â€œA trend that is quite evident among many of our clients in Dubai is that they have started buying street art due to its appreciation value over time,â€ Sehgal said.
The political and social upheaval sweeping across the Arab role also appears to be playing a role in the renewed interest in more affordable and urban art.
At Art Dubai, the emirateâ€™s annual contemporary art fair, a number of politically-themed pieces were on display, including one painting that portrayed ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarakâ€™s using icons from Facebook, the social networking site that played a role in uniting street protesters against him.
â€œPossessing a piece of art because of a certain name or status is holding little relevance,â€ said Omer Alvie, creative director at Villa No. 6, which showcases emerging artists from Pakistan and arranges exhibitions of alternative art in Dubai.
â€œNow collectors are interested in the theme of the piece and what the artist is saying. Itâ€™s a record of history.â€