While better known for oil and opulence over art, Abu Dhabi is starting to be the buzz among art enthusiasts as final preparations are made on the Jean Nouvel-designed art space that will be home to the Louvre Abu Dhabi when it opens in 2017.
The Louvre’s Abu Dhabi outpost is just one element of what is to become an entire cultural district that, once complete, will also include a Guggenheim, a performing arts center, as well as museums dedicated to Abu Dhabi’s maritime heritage and history.
Yet, Abu Dhabi already enjoys a flourishing art scene that flies under the radar of most visitors. With a range of cool art spaces, galleries and small private museum-quality collections, these creative venues place an emphasis on the traditions, history and heritage of the region, while building an arts community that’s well worth checking out.
Christine Hinz is a freelance travel writer from New York City, currently living in and exploring Abu Dhabi.
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1. Etihad Modern Art Gallery
A leading force in Abu Dhabi's developing art scene, Etihad Modern Art Gallery showcases some of the best Emirati and Middle Eastern talents in the region. The gallery, located in a villa in Abu Dhabi's upscale Al Bateen neighborhood, features contemporary work by painters, photographers, sculptors and Arabic calligraphers. Each room is carefully curated and features a range of works that hold Arabic traditions as well as local cultural and historic references in high esteem. Adjacent to the gallery is The Art House Café, with shaded indoor and outdoor space and furnishings made of reclaimed materials. A gift shop offers prints from gallery artists, small sculptures, and other items with local artistic flair. Next door at the Etihad Antique Gallery, visitors are welcome to wade through a fascinating collection of high-quality regional treasures that include swords and carpets from the Ottoman Empire, Orientalist paintings and Islamic and European art objects.
Photo courtesy of Etihad Modern Art Gallery
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Warehouse421 is a recently-opened arts space located in an industrial warehouse in the Mina Zayed fishing port section of the city. Its ongoing schedule of exhibitions, workshops, films and other cultural events celebrates Arab and Middle Eastern arts. Recent shows include Lest We Forget: Emirati Family Photographs 1950-1999, with rare personal photographs of Emirati families that offer insights into the nation's Bedouin past. Workshops explore techniques used by exhibiting artists, such as relief printing, casting and even boat building. Screenings of Middle Eastern film features include the Oscar-nominated film Theeb. Take time to explore the nearby fish market, where visitors can purchase fresh hammour (grouper) or other seafood, and have it grilled on the spot to enjoy at one of the simple outdoor tables. Or, check out the working wooden dhow fishing boats that are docked nearby after bringing in the day's catch.
Photo courtesy of Warehouse421
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3. N2N Gallery
N2N Gallery has quickly established itself as a major art destination within the United Arab Emirates for serious collectors. Specializing in classic and contemporary paintings, graphics, sculptures and enamel works by Eastern European artists, the gallery also hosts a number of master classes with top talents from the Ukraine, who are highly trained in the various techniques of fine art painting. Recently added workshops teach Arabic calligraphy, a prominent element of contemporary regional art and a perfect introduction to Arabic art for visitors to the city. The N2N Gallery is located in the high-end Nation Towers Galleria, and fits in well with the luxury boutiques, sophisticated cafes and coffee shops, not to mention the Lamborghini showroom also within the mall. The Galleria is adjacent to the St. Regis Abu Dhabi, across the street from the famed Abu Dhabi Corniche, one of the best spots for a beach stroll and people-watching within the Emirate.
Photo courtesy of N2N Gallery
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4. Miraj Islamic Art Centre
Part museum, part gallery and part boutique, the Miraj Islamic Art Centre is located within the five-star Hilton Abu Dhabi Capital Grand Hotel. On display is an impressive collection of significant Islamic works of art and craftsmanship such as jeweled tapestries, carpets, silver swords, ceramics and other items collected from Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq and beyond. A wide range of beautifully hand-knotted silk carpets and wool kilims are on view and for sale at fair market prices, as are Arabic wall hangings set with semi-precious stones such as cat's eye, garnet, agate and turquoise, all which are believed to bring good luck and good fortune to the owner in whose home it hangs. It's easy to relax in the traditionally majlis-style showroom, where details of items are provided along with each piece's provenance. The Centre's boutique is filled with hip, modest fashions, high-quality silk pashmina and wool scarves, as well as artisan-crafted Arabic housewares.
Photo by Christine Hinz
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5. Abu Dhabi Art Hub
The first artist community in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi Art Hub has a vision to provide international artists with space to create, live, and exhibit their works, while providing a platform for cultural exchange among visitors. Its series of artist-in-residence programs has brought more than 200 international artists to its urban Abu Dhabi and desert Liwa outposts. At the city locale in Abu Dhabi's industrial section of Mussafah, Art Hub is home to a contemporary art museum, exhibition space and resident studios, as well as a popular cafe where artists and enthusiasts regularly congregate. In Liwa (pictured), located on the edge of the massive desert region known as the Empty Quarter, visitors can stop by to see art on exhibit and works in progress, attend an exhibition opening under the stars, or even spend an overnight in residence with a guided sunrise walk and breakfast in the dunes the following morning.
Photo by Christine Hinz