The book corner at Alserkal Cultural Foundation

In a rapidly expanding city of modern skyscrapers, the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood in Dubai stands as an enduring reminder of the past. The traditional wind tower houses along the narrow alleyways in this oldest part of the city have been carefully restored and revived as cafes, shops, boutiques and art galleries that attract tourists as well as residents. One of the popular venues in the area is the Alserkal Cultural Foundation (ACF), a non-profit initiative founded by Ahmad Bin Eisa Bin Nasser Alserkal in 2015. This is a cultural hub that hosts various concepts under one roof, with a strong focus on supporting and promoting emerging Emirati and UAE-based artists, designers and other creatives.

The restored heritage building has rooms dedicated to displaying art and products created by UAE-based talents, a book store specialising in books about the Muslim world, a café, and a rooftop majlis. It also hosts art workshops, story-telling sessions, themed events, programmes for university students, cultural tours, art conferences, talks on architecture preservation, and art consultancy and management services.

“I want to give back to my country by developing the Emirati spirit through promoting the nation’s unique heritage and cutting-edge innovations. It is not only our corporate social responsibility, but also our duty,” Alserkal says.

Annamaria Bersani, the Foundation’s director, is a Dubai-based architect and art professional from Italy. “This is a dream project for me because it gives me the opportunity to use my knowledge of architecture and my experience of working at prestigious international galleries to create something that serves the local community,” she says.

Bersani has found innovative ways to create a contemporary multi-functional space while preserving the charm of the heritage building. Every nook and corner has been activated, including the space under the narrow staircase, which serves as a display area for art and furniture. She has also recycled the old furniture and artefacts found in the house, such as the tables in the café that are covered with hand-painted traditional tiles.

Right next to the entrance is the ‘Creativity Corner’ where visitors can find unique souvenirs handmade by UAE-based artists, designers and craftsmen. These include limited edition bags printed with original artworks, natural and organic perfumes, one-of-a-kind scarves, ethically made greeting cards, interesting accessories and artisanal soaps made from camel milk.

The central courtyard has been transformed into the Make Art Café, which serves an eclectic menu of gourmet food and beverages, while the rooms around the courtyard serve as exhibition areas, featuring works by talented young artists from the UAE and the GCC. The blending of history and modernity seen throughout the venue is particularly highlighted in the Barjeel Room, where contemporary pop-art is displayed under a traditional wind tower.

Upstairs, the terrace offers a breathtaking view of wind towers, heritage buildings, and the minarets and domes of one of the oldest mosques in the city. Visitors can enjoy the view from comfortable majlis style seating areas located on two levels.

Also located on the terrace are the Fashion Corner, the Home Corner and the Book Corner. Visitors can find a range of contemporary abayas, kaftans, headscarves, bags and jewelery created by UAE-based designers in the Fashion Corner, and home décor and lifestyle products with a distinct UAE flavour in the Home Corner.

The cosy Book Corner includes a library and a book store featuring a comprehensive collection of books about Islam and the Muslim world, including rare and hard to find publications. It is run by professor Idris Mears, a well-known educational consultant and expert on Islamic culture, theology and the history of the Muslim world. Mears, who is British, grew up in Bahrain, graduated from Oxford University and had a successful career as an educationist and a publisher. He embraced Islam in 1973, and has served as the CEO of the Association of Muslim Schools UK. He has many interesting stories to tell about the region, and about the Al Fahidi neighbourhood itself, and regularly hosts story-telling sessions for children and teenagers in the Book Corner.

“I have tried to assemble a good collection of books, and I try to share my knowledge about this region through my story-telling sessions because we are all shaped by our history and it is important for the younger generation to know about the past so that they can learn from it and chart a better future for themselves,” Mears says.

Another space on the terrace is a well-equipped workshop room, complete with table-tops that can be lifted to become easels. Here ACF hosts various workshops as part of their Heritage Art programme designed to broaden participants’ knowledge about the UAE’s culture and heritage in a fun way. These include painting workshops for children and parents, making of wearable art, painting traditional patterns on ceramic tiles using traditional techniques, and landscape drawing inspired by the view from the terrace.

ACF also runs an Art Business Management Programme for university students, which includes guidance for art students on developing and sustaining a successful career in art, and a series of talks and seminars on architecture preservation run in collaboration with the Dubai Municipality’s Heritage Department.

In partnership with Dubai Culture and the Shaikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, it conducts informative tours of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood for school children, followed by workshops and fun activities inspired by the tour. It also organises conferences for primary and secondary school students to help them understand contemporary art.

The Foundation also works with Belly Art to organise talks, coffee mornings and Arabian themed events for private and corporate groups. It offers the rooftop lounge and workshop space for events such as meetings, team building activities, networking sessions, book launches, photoshoots, fashion shows, product launches and fashion and design pop-ups. It also participates in various art festivals and events around the UAE, giving its artists wider exposure.

ACF’s interior design consultancy manages entire projects ranging from selection and display of artworks and books, and provides a rotational rental service whereby artworks are rented to offices and regularly changed to keep the décor fresh.

“We want to find and promote as many emerging artists and designers from the community as we can, and we are proud to have nurtured over 110 artists so far. But our aim is to go beyond merely exhibiting their work to developing business strategies and guidelines to help them have successful and sustainable careers in art,” Bersani says.

For more information go to www.alserkalculturalfoundation.com