Considering the recent financial difficulties, few would have predicted making a sizable investment in culture and the arts would be high on any government’s agenda. However, major Middle East economies including the UAE have been working to regain momentum by spending billions of dollars in the creative industry to boost tourism and spur growth. This includes creative districts, museums, art galleries and heritage sites.
His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, unveiled a 10-year National Strategy for the Cultural and Creative Industries in 2021 with the goal of increasing the two sectors’ GDP share from 2.6 per cent at the end of 2020 to 5 per cent during the next ten years. This plan is the first of its kind in the Arab world and aims to grow the two industries so they rank among the top 10 most important economic sectors.
Culture is now a key sector for the UAE's socioeconomic growth... our cultural and creative industries are key drivers for our economy's diversification
Speaking exclusively to GN Focus, Noura Al Kaabi, UAE Minister of Culture and Youth, says, “The UAE has been aggressively pushing this agenda to make culture a key sector in its socioeconomic growth. Diversification of the economy is an ongoing process in our endeavour to have a thriving creative economy. Our cultural and creative industries have been key drivers for the diversification of our economy.”
She adds: “We are now implementing a nationwide strategy launched by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum to boost the cultural and creative industries and build on creativity and innovation as key national assets. There have been initiatives earlier, on an emirate level, but this is a first-of-its-kind national strategy in the region that is dedicated to the cultural and creative sector. This strategy underlines the UAE’s focus on this sector and adopts a comprehensive approach to formalise the creative economy and drive more investment towards it.
"Preservation of cultural and natural heritage as well as customs and traditions are a focus area of this strategy which also covers books and press, performing arts and celebration, audiovisual and interactive media, visual arts and crafts and design and creative services, as well as more than 25 sub-sectors across 90 plus domains.”
The idea is to transform the UAE into a creative economy hub by 2025. Even while it may seem unduly ambitious, curators, gallerists, and art historians all concur that the UAE is on course to meet this objective. Lisa Ball-Lechgar, deputy director at the UAE based art facility, Tashkeel states: “Currently, the UAE’s creative sector contributes over $17.5 billion to the fields of art, design, museums, destinations, publishing, and media, according to the UAE Ministry of Culture.
"Within the broader cultural sector of the UAE, Tashkeel serves as a creative hub in its own right. As a result, we are experiencing growth annually in our membership of professional artists and designers, in participation in our programmes, audience attendance, and general demand for Tashkeel’s consultancy and educational services.”
The UAE is already, in many ways, a centre for the creative economy, according to Antonia Carver, Director of Art Jameel and former Director of Art Dubai. She says: “At Jameel Arts Centre, we welcome international arts industry figures, cultural tourists from all over the globe, and local communities alike. There is a collective will and determined commitment here—by both government and the private sector—to building sustainable infrastructures, all while inspiring and informing the next generation of cultural enthusiasts and professionals. The arts scene is crucial to this endeavour.
"Typically, the visual arts are at the heart of any broader creative industries strategy. With Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai now has its own contemporary museum-for-all to complement the commercial galleries and art fairs, as well as the encyclopaedic state-run museums of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.”
Conquering the digital realm
According to Anastasia Kopijevski, founder of Dubai-based boutique art consultancy Skaya Art Agency, the UAE is increasingly becoming a prime location to showcase diverse forms of art. “From traditional galleries, a combination of digital and physical displays, developing traditional Islamic art, promotion of locally-based artists and (the advent of) tech-based NFTs are helping the nation craft a unique global position for creative expression,” she opines.
NFTs are a highway paving the way to not only future-thinking and future-facing applications but a way to mould the present creative environment, says Lisa Ray, co-founder of The Upside Space, a curator-led NFT marketplace spotlighting art and artists from Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. “Contextualising blockchain for a mainstream audience is both a challenge and an opportunity for players at the digital frontier, in the burgeoning field of NFTs,” she states.
“It’s the responsibility of those building this future to ground this disruptive tech by embracing the values of humanity and ethics. This is what will generate the trust and confidence for mass adoption. When we were building The Upside Space, we realised the importance of introducing the concepts and tenets of web3 to both artists and buyers alike.”
Why NFT will endure
The UAE’s first NFT artist, Amrita Sethi, feels NFTs, web3, the metaverse and AI (artificial intelligence) are transforming the art world by putting the creator in focus. “By equipping the creator with digital tools and technology there are now no limits to what people can create – they are only limited by their own imagination.
"In future, we will be able to rewrite how people not only see and experience art but also how we create new images and stories. It will change the game forever. Interactive tech elements like AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) not only create new layers of dimension but also a new digital real estate between the physical and digital worlds that provide artists and brands a bigger canvas to play with to communicate their story.”
Sethi, an award-winning creator of the cutting-edge multimedia art genre known as SoundBYTE, believes NFT will endure. “Being the first NFT artist in the UAE, I have been around since when no one knew what they were, to then witnessing the massive hype and curiosity they created after Beeple sold his NFT for $69 million. Since then, we have seen the NFT bubble pop with a lot of NFT projects losing even up to 90 per cent of their value.
“However, I firmly believe that NFTs will integrate themselves into the mainstream soon. We are going to see a few more stages in their development. Currently, people are still struggling to wrap their heads around how art can only exist in a digital format.
“I think the immediate future will be how we integrate a digital experience into a physical world, whether it be through physical art, NFTs, or even fashion. People still want to have a physical representation of their art and then layer on a digital experience such as augmented reality, virtual reality, or connect to metaverse and gaming. Going forward, I think NFTs will provide great platforms for people to connect with their favourite brands and form new communities that were not easily accessible, get rewarded in new ways and layering the benefits of blockchain on well-known concepts like concert tickets and loyalty programmes."
Revealing her immediate plans in the NFT space, Sethi says, “My augmented reality SoundBYTE collection will be launched this months across three mediums - tangible art, NFTs and fashion. For this project, I created the artwork and then layered on the augmented reality experience that will bring the art to life and tell its story of how a word is worth a thousand pictures.
"Purchasers of the “Dubai” SoundBYTE will have a choice between the three media of physical art, NFTs and fashion. This is very relevant today given that people have different preferences and levels of technological understanding. I want to transform how people see and experience things. The only thing that is constant in life is change, so I want to inspire people to change the way they think, the way they interact with their surroundings, and the way they live their lives in general, especially how they view technology in the future.”
Reaching a diverse audience
“This year the UAE invested in metaverse development which will aid in strengthening the creative economy,” states Daria Prodaevich, Managing Director of the Theatre of Digital Arts in Dubai (TODA). “The number of UAE-based digital artists we deal with is growing along with the number of creative initiatives and communities in the area. TODA provides an accessible platform for musicians and content creators to showcase their talents and reach a diverse audience. This year we also launched an open call for digital artists for our very first NFT collection that was showcased in our exhibition and is available at our gallery in the metaverse.”
Even as the Covid-19 pandemic forced artists and art institutions to develop innovative ways to showcase their work, the New York University of Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Art Gallery took its baby steps into the digital realm.
NYUAD Art Gallery and the University’s Chief Curator, Maya Allison, says: “In 2021 we hosted our first-ever virtual exhibition, not in, of, along, or relating to a line. In this exhibition of “born digital” work, artists conveyed both the restrictions and the freedoms that a digital landscape offers, while responding to the pandemic’s role in our technological lives. The exhibition, which the audience was able to view through a purpose-built app, was a successful and timely investigation into technology’s promise of liberation and also threat of suffocation.”
Advent of body art
Stepping up support to regional artists through its ‘creator platform’, Le Inka is a home-grown plant-based temporary body art concept that converts original artworks into temporary body art, or tattoos. Artists are invited to showcase their creations on the portal, which will then be transformed into temporary plant-based tattoos. Customers can choose to purchase an artwork of their choice for this purpose, with the artist receiving a percentage of the sales, as well as up to 20 per cent in royalties. The artists’ work will be showcased on a dedicated profile page.
“We have received interest from over 1,000 artists across the world as well as within the GCC,”says Le Inka Founder, Ishrath Hasmin. “We have gone live with the initial bunch and are currently screening the rest. Popular artists on Le Inka’s platform include Nassim Nasr, a renowned veteran Lebanese artist in the UAE, and Emirati manga artist, Asma Al-Remiethi.”
Speaking to GN Focus, Asma says, “This is an amazing and fun platform extended to our artist community. I believe this will be instrumental for many who are seeking global reach in enhancing their profile.”
Hasmin is gung-ho about Le Inka’s reach. “We anticipate the marketplace to grow fast and expect the annual royalty payout to exceed US$ 1mn in the future.”
The future of art
The post-pandemic world has been characterised by a fusion of offline and online, and the art sector is no exception, feels Véronique Bezou, Founder and Executive Producer, Creadora Media Production. “From virtual tours and virtual exhibitions to just selling art online, more and more artists are showcasing their work online. Some of my works were bought in France from my website, some others are being sold exclusively in an online gallery in Australia,” says Bezou.
“Another trend is going beyond exhibiting art to an experience related to art. That was one of the reasons why my third exhibition (and first in Dubai) was a multisensory experience combining photography, music/sound design and light. Just showing art is not enough anymore to tell our story and pass our message. Dubai is well placed to be the capital of digital art which has been truly booming here since last year.”
Internationally-known NFT artist, Vesa, felt that the UAE art market is emerging and evolving, whilst still drawing influence from key European and American trends. He says, “Interestingly, the UAE art market closely resembles that of the NFT fine art scene. Both offer vast potential and promise but require strong maker, collector, and collaborator support to keep evolving. Many national fairs and exhibitions, such as Art Dubai, the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival, and Abu Dhabi Art, do a wonderful job of supporting home-grown talent while bringing global trends to regional audiences. There is a wealth of local talent here waiting to be unleashed.”
Ray feels that the UAE can certainly lead the way in the global NFT movement as long as the fundamentals are solid and take precedence. “Tech is neutral. It is the intent behind NFTs that we need to keep examining and putting into action. While the NFT market is maturing, the UAE can lead the global conversation and mould the direction,” she concludes.