Beyond the fact that both cities have a Louvre, there seems little to connect 1920s Paris with present-day Abu Dhabi, the capital of a nation founded in 1971. But American art historian Maya Allison, the founding director of the art gallery at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), sees things differently.

‘Early in my life I read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s book about Paris in the 1920s,’ she says. ‘And I’ve always been captivated by the idea of artists, writers and philosophers coming together and talking about their work, of communities of creative spirits supporting and sparking off each other’s practice and ideas.’

The notion of a creative community had resonated with Allison when she was curator at the influential Rhode Island School of Design in the USA. ‘The town of Providence has a really active underground scene,’ she says. ‘Many artists, even those who drop out of university, stay there and set up these groups.’ In 2002, five of them had work in the Whitney Biennial; another group has a cult following in Japan.

Maya Allison photographed at the Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi

The UAE’s avant-garde art scene

To her surprise, Allison found something similar when she came to Abu Dhabi in 2012. There had been, she says, a ‘significant avant-garde art scene’ in the UAE since the 1980s, which had produced a number of important artists. But until the turn of the century, those artists were not well known outside the Gulf. ‘Very few scholars were studying the UAE’s historical art scene. And there were few accurate records, in English at least, so I decided to do an exhibition telling the history of avant-garde art in the Emirates.’

The result was the 2017 exhibition, But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community, 1988–2008, and several of the artists it featured — most famously Hassan Sharif, his brother Hussain, and several of his students, among them Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Abdullah Al Saadi, Ebtisam Abdulaziz and Mohammed Kazem — had, in the 1990s, congregated in a place they called the ‘Sand Palace’, out in the desert on the border between Ajman and Sharjah.

‘It wasn’t a café on a rainy night,’ says Allison, referring to Hemingway’s Paris. ‘It was a dune, because we’re in the Arabian desert. And if a bonfire was going, you knew that the artists were gathering.’

The Sand Palace also drew writers and poets: the community included artists in the broadest sense. ‘There wasn’t a formal art school, and there weren’t many spaces for exhibitions. So this network emerged, and the artists helped each other to survive. They were basically creating their own salon culture; they were aware of what they were doing, because they knew they needed each other to flourish. I like this thread of human ingenuity, of finding your kin creatively.’

Installation view at the Library at NYU Abu Dhabi

The Louvre Abu Dhabi

When Maya Allison arrived in Abu Dhabi eight years ago, the local population was not, she says, ‘in the habit of going to exhibitions’. But in November 2017, the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi changed all that, drawing more than a million visitors in its first year.

‘It’s been wonderful,’ says Allison. ‘It has really set a precedent that, yes, exhibition-going is a fun, exciting thing to do. Before, nobody quite understood what [the NYUAD Art Gallery] was doing, which was fine. It’s part of my job to bring experimental new exhibitions to life. But the Louvre Abu Dhabi really upped the ante in the sense of both artistic synergy and audience synergy.

And now, with the NYUAD Arts Center presenting a range of performing arts, the area feels like a creative hub. We do totally different things from the Louvre. But people pour from one to the other. It has multiplied our audience.’

abu dhabi art

Said to be the most expensive museum ever built, the Louvre Abu Dhabi was intended, in the words of its director Manuel Rabaté, to ‘tell the story of humanity from its earliest days to the present, because all the world’s cultures have something in common’.

The name is slightly misleading: although the new museum has paid the Louvre a reported $525 million for a 30-year licence to use the name, and almost the same again for loans and other services, only about half of the objects and paintings in the inaugural exhibition actually came from France (from the Louvre itself and other institutions, including the Musée d’Orsay, the Pompidou Centre, Quai Branly Museum, Versailles and Fontainebleau) and further afield (the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth).

‘Abu Dhabi is having its own moment, in the way that Hemingway’s Paris was too’

The majority belong to the emirate itself, which, under guidance from the Louvre, has amassed more than 650 important works since 2009, when it successfully bid for Piet Mondrian’s 1922 Composition avec bleu, rouge, jaune et noir  at the Christie’s sale of objects and works of art belonging to Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent (who used it as the inspiration for his 1965 collection of sack dresses). The price, with fees, was €21.6 million, and the museum acquired a stool by Pierre Legrain at the same sale. Over the past decade, the collection has continued to grow, and its acquisitions now span a dozen millennia.

Designed by Jean Nouvel, the museum is configured as a sort of stylised medina of 55 low, white buildings: there are 12 galleries containing 8,600 square metres of exhibition space; a dedicated children’s museum; a 200-seat auditorium; and a restaurant, café and shop. Not just a landmark, but a beacon of learning and a radiant symbol of enlightenment.

The art fair: Abu Dhabi Art

Dyala Nusseibeh, director of the emirate’s major art fair, Abu Dhabi Art, describes the show as ‘groundbreaking’, adding that Allison was one of the first to start ‘building up a timeline and mapping out’ the arts in the region, proving that it had had a thriving art scene for some time.

Although, as Allison says, ‘the biggest misunderstanding is the idea that the Emirati art scene is exclusively Emirati artists. Much like in New York City, the scene here reflects the actual population, which is densely diverse, with a concentration from South Asia, the Arab world, Africa and Europe.’

The art Nusseibeh collects reflects this, too. Her London home is filled with works she has bought at Abu Dhabi Art — by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, the Jordanian artist Mona Saudi, and an affecting piece by the British-Lebanese artist Aya Haidar (from her Soleless series, made during a residency working with Syrian refugees, it consists of abandoned shoes, the soles of which were embroidered by Haidar).

Dyala Nusseibeh, director of the emirate’s major art fair Abu Dhabi Art

‘It’s a very cosmopolitan place,’ says Nusseibeh of Abu Dhabi. ‘The number-one visitor group is now Chinese. A significant effort has been made to establish meaningful partnerships with China, and culture and art are central to that.’ (Last summer, the UAE signed 13 bilateral agreements with China, and decided that 200 schools would start teaching Chinese.)

Certainly, Abu Dhabi Art — which, unlike most fairs, is a government initiative, overseen by the Department of Culture and Tourism — attracts a wide range of visitors. Hence Nusseibeh’s commitment to involving curators and artists from beyond the Gulf.

For the 2019 edition, for example, she invited the Italian curator and artist Paolo Colombo to consider archaeological and heritage objects from Abu Dhabi’s Al Ain National Museum (the first museum to open in the UAE, in 1971), in the context of new works by artists such as Lamya Gargash, Alaa Edris and Nima Nabavi, and existing ones by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Hamra Abbas, Kamrooz Aram and Kiki Smith, among others.

The British artist Oliver Beer was also commissioned, to make an installation for the Al Jahili Fort and Qasr Al Hosn watchtower, as was Leandro Erlich, whose immense cloud sculpture, The Heart of Water, stood in the Al Qattara Oasis, a Unesco World Heritage Site an hour’s drive outside the city, ‘where people from Abu Dhabi would traditionally go in the summer because it’s a few degrees cooler’.

art fair abu dhabi art

In the three years she has been in charge of Abu Dhabi Art (having previously worked at London’s Saatchi Gallery, then run Art International in Istanbul), Nusseibeh has been instrumental in creating a host of art initiatives across the emirate.

To nurture new collectors, she has added a second, smaller, more local fair to the calendar, which is held in March and features 10 galleries selling works costing less than 10,000 dirham (about US$2,700). ‘They might be works on paper, or by emerging artists,’ she says.

Public art on the island of Al Reem

She is also a champion of public art, having recently commissioned Etel Adnan, Nadim Karam, Noh Jun, Wael Shawky, Pascale Marthine Tayou and Mehmet Ali Uysal to commemorate last year’s Special Olympics World Summer Games, and local artists Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian to make work for the skate park in Reem Central Park.

‘It looks amazing,’ she says of the areas they have painted, next to which are what she describes as ‘five monumentally big walls’ painted by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, ‘with symbols that form a sort of language, like five chapters in a book that can be read from either end’.

All that is to be found on the island of Al Reem, but the best-known of Abu Dhabi’s islands is Saadiyat, a previously uninhabited triangle of land 500 metres off shore, linked to the mainland by a bridge. Saadiyat is home not just to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and NYUAD, but to the forthcoming Zayed National Museum and the emirate’s planned branch of the Guggenheim.

NYUAD campus

As well as its art gallery, NYUAD also has a separate project space for smaller exhibitions, and a growing collection of public artworks by the likes of Hassan Sharif, Etel Adnan and Wael Shawky. ‘Alice Aycock has made one of her tornado sculptures, Whirlabout (Dynamo),’ says Allison. ‘And Tomás Saraceno has done a major installation for the ceiling of our library.’

Titled On Cosmic Clouds, it consists of clusters of skeletal polyhedrons inspired by the Weaire-Phelan structures of aggregating soap bubbles, suspended from a huge spider’s web. As anyone who saw the artist’s work at last year’s Venice Biennale might have read, these works are, in the artist’s words, a ‘post fossil-fuel emergent cloudscape’.

A commitment to education and culture

But then Abu Dhabi’s commitment to education and culture has been inspired, in part, by the need to build a knowledge economy and a tourist destination lest its resources begin to dwindle, and as demand for fossil fuels is supplanted by renewables.

‘People sometimes think technology is one thing and creativity another, but they often combine,’ says Nusseibeh, who read anthropology at Cambridge. ‘At Abu Dhabi Art, for example, we run an artist’s residency at the leading technology university, Khalifa, which enables artists to work with engineering students. It brings home the idea that creativity is in everything.’

Artists are keen to collaborate with other bright minds, she says. Hence Bait 15, a shared studio and gallery space set up two years ago by Afra Al Dhaheri, Hashel Al Lamki and Maitha Abdalla: a more practical, permanent place than the Sand Palace was a generation ago, but nevertheless a base where artists support each other.

I mention Allison’s comment about Hemingway, and Nusseibeh pauses to consider it. ‘Abu Dhabi is having its own moment in the way that Hemingway’s Paris was having a moment too,’ she agrees. Like Paris at the dawn of modernism, Abu Dhabi is cosmopolitan and forward-looking, and art is at the very heart of that.