Long strands of blood-red yarn interlace each other in a complex criss-cross network stretching from the floor to the ceiling and across walls filling up the entire space of a sprawling room, creating an immersive web-like ambience. Where does it start? Where does it end? You never can tell; so intricately interconnected are these threads of wool.

In the centre of this stunning tangled composition is a traditional dhow, split in two, and attached to the vermilion-red strings that engulf the room. As you walk around this web-like labyrinthine mesh — a creative output emanating from 2,500 rolls of yarn, it conjures up a haunting vision of time, travel, interconnectedness, universal experiences and human emotions. Despite its entangled complexity, there is an innate sense of belonging as you see yourself connected at some point along its fiery red path that symbolises our journey of life.

It is at the six-month-old Jameel Arts Centre located at the tip of the Jaddaf Waterfront on the Dubai Creek that we stand mesmerised before this dramatic, immersive piece by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota.

Typical of the Osaka born, Berlin-based artist’s seminal large-scale installations where she uses ordinary objects such as shoes, keys, boats, suitcases, and many more in combination with thread or organic material to create vast networks of human experiences and emotions, this work, titled Departure, is a site-specific installation commissioned by The Jameel for its opening in November last year.

The dhow featured in the installation has been sourced from the dhow yards at Jaddaf in Dubai, and represents the artist’s connection to the city she is exhibiting in. It also references the maritime traditions of Dubai and the city’s identity as a meeting point of people, goods and ideas.

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‘I often use local or metal boats because for me, ships have always expressed life,’ explains the artist in a statement. ‘They can carry time and people — past, present and future generations together.’

Installed by the artist over a 10-day period with a team of volunteers, Departure is part of the Artist’s Rooms. Drawn largely from the Art Jameel collection, the rooms are a series of solo exhibitions by influential, innovative artists with a particular focus on those from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, explains Sareh Faraj, communications manager at Jameel Arts Centre, as she leads us around the multiple gallery spaces of Dubai’s first contemporary arts institution.

In complete contrast to the towering glitzy skyscrapers that dot the skyline of Dubai or its popular artisanal spaces, Jameel Arts Centre is a picture of understated elegance with its low-lying design that harks back to the rich, regional architectural traditions of yore.

Spanning 10,000 square metres and surrounded by the shimmering waters of the Dubai Creek, it draws inspiration from the early single-storey Emirati Sha’abi homes that featured a series of rooms circling communal square courtyards, explains Sareh.

This three-storey, multidisciplinary space designed by UK-based Serie Architects, with Dubai-based ibda design as consultant architects, has also drawn on the traditional Madinat style of urban planning characterised by an accumulation of houses with courtyards, she explains.

‘The architecture has been designed to respond to the surrounding urban landscape and create a sense of openness and inclusivity,’ she says, as we make our way to the large, airy lobby where floor-to-ceiling windows open out to spectacular views of the Creek along the waterfront promenade.

The arts centre is the first non-commercial, non-governmental contemporary arts institution of its kind in the Gulf
Stefan Lindeque

Forming part of the Jaddaf development and nestled between Business Bay Bridge and Garhoud Bridge on the Bur Dubai bank of the Dubai Creek, the Centre’s design clearly emphasises a connection with its surroundings. Art and landscape intersect to form an integral experience, continually evoking a dialogue between the inside and outside, as galleries and other spaces at the Centre are huddled around courtyard gardens and also offer framed views of the waterfront.

‘The gardens, which feature a collection of sculptural plants native to the world’s deserts, reflect specific local and global desert biomes,’ explains Sareh.

Designed by landscape architect Anouk Vogel, the gardens punctuate the architecture in a series of seven, sustainable, open-air courtyards. With striking vegetal textures, subtle mineral hues and unusual paving, each garden has an individualistic design and character. They funnel light into the Centre and each represent a distinct desert environment named after a country, region or particular species: Namibian, Socotran, Australian, Arabian, Chihuahuan desert of Mexico, and Sonoran desert of North America as well as the Spiny Forest of Madagascar.

‘The individual gardens, inspired by the world’s major deserts, also allude to the Centre’s thrust on diversity and inclusivity and on building open, connected communities,’ says Sareh.

The Jameel, she adds, is an independent organisation that supports arts, education and heritage in the Middle East and is the first non-commercial, non-governmental contemporary arts institution of its kind in the Gulf. ‘Founded and supported by the organisation Art Jameel, it presents curated solo and group exhibitions, drawn both from the Art Jameel Collection or produced in collaboration with regional and international art institutions.’

There are no permanent exhibitions here, she elaborates. ‘And apart from the ongoing exhibitions, we also feature installations by local and international artists that interact with the building itself.’

In complete contrast to the towering glitzy skyscrapers that dot the skyline of Dubai, Jameel Arts Centre is a picture of understated elegance with its low-lying design
Stefan Lindeque

One such example is the Artist’s Garden located on the Creekside between galleries 2 and 3 where Shaikha Al Mazrou’s sculptural Green house: Interior yet Exterior, Manmade yet Natural plays on the dichotomies of interior/exterior and man-made/natural and is also a commentary on sustainability and agriculture with a minimalist gesture.

Leading us up to the roof terrace, Sareh introduces us to Contrary Life: A Botanical Light Garden Devoted to Trees by Kuwait-based artists Alia Farid and Aseel AlYaqoub. ‘Exploring our relationship with the natural and nocturnal worlds, this site-specific installation acts as a community botanical garden, albeit one made up of artificial, hybrid trees and flora created with artificial lights,’ she says. Composed using concrete, steel, plastic and light-emitting diodes, Contrary Life reflects on the role of light in a dynamic, nocturnal city such as Dubai.

The lobby sports a playful, interactive installation by Lara Favaretto featuring a set of three outsized, automated carwash brushes, spinning against metal plates. This commissioned piece, titled Blue Velvet, is a charged commentary on modern life and has a note of transience as the continuous movement of the brushes will gradually wear themselves out over time.

On the ground floor are three galleries or Artist’s Rooms where three artists through different forms and medium have set out to explore the concept of transformative change in society, materials or the built environment. It is the breathtaking collaborative work between artist Seher Shah and photographer Randhir Singh that we first encounter where, in the central piece, the duo explore notions of space, landscape, objects and aesthetics through overlapping ideas in architecture, photography, drawing and printmaking.

A series of cyanotype prints - a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print - builds on these overlaps as it delves into concepts of architectural scale and sculptural intent. Focusing on four unique buildings in New Delhi, India; Tokyo, Japan and London, UK; the artist-photographer duo has framed the aesthetic, architectural components of these buildings through photographic images.

Our perceptions of Dubai and the UAE are redefined as we enter the gallery where Farah Al Qasimi’s recent lens-based works featuring intimate domestic spaces and vibrant public places of leisure and consumption throw up a personal, fractured and hallucinatory view of life in the UAE. Many of these images were taken in and around the halls of Dragon Mart well known for its consumer commodities. Through her work, this New York-based Emirati artist seeks to disrupt the easy reading of images, particularly those on or about Dubai and the wider UAE.

It is the ‘in-between’ or ‘transitory’ spaces that multidisciplinary artist Hemali Bhuta investigates using materials and processes that seem robust and ageless, but are in fact susceptible to decay and disintegration over time. The multi-sensory room incorporates textiles dyed with the concentrated extract of 200 bags of ashoka, almond, frangipani, rain and rubber trees; hand-carded Indian wool and handspun silk; 18-carat gold recycled from old jewellery; reworked carpets; henna and spices; among others. Some of her works cascade off the wall or lie on the floor while others embrace and even tend to destabilise the space.

On the first floor, we are introduced to the works of the eight finalists of Jameel Prize 5, organised by the Victoria & Albert Museum in the UK in partnership with Art Jameel. Sareh informs us that the biennial Prize, now in its 10th year, ‘recognises contemporary artists and designers who explore traditional Islamic influences through contemporary art’. The body of work presented here in galleries 4 to 8 showcases eight exceptional artists and designers from a varied range of practices. These include innovative multi-media installations, paintings inspired by Arabic illustrated manuscripts, architecture, fashion design that transforms traditional work wear to wearable art and clever geometric abstraction.

Moroccan artist Younes Rahmoun’s Hat-light features 77 knitted hats used by Moroccan men that are usually regarded as the symbol of an observant Muslim. The hats are connected to electrical wires, all linked together to one cable — representing the idea of one faith shared by all believers.

Lamenting that the original meaning of Islamic art is lost when they are placed in western Modernist museum settings as purely decorative pieces, Iranian Kamrooz Aram encourages us to re-evaluate the objects on their own terms to rediscover the potential of the art objects to convey meaning. He thus alerts us to the way exhibition design shapes our understanding of museum objects.

Joint winners of the Jameel Prize 5, Mehdi Moutashar’s obsession with geometric abstraction and minimalism is reflected in four bold works of minimalist abstraction rooted in Islamic geometry, while Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum was chosen for her visionary Bait ur Rouf mosque built in 2012 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Challenging the notions of what a mosque should look like, and devoid of a dome, minaret or mihrab, Tabassum focused instead on the sense of spirituality to create a building with perforated brickwork that allows light to flit across the floor of the prayer room.

The exhibit also displays the works of other shortlisted artists and designers including Hayv Kahraman from Iraq who explores gender roles and the lives of migrants drawing on her experience as an Iraqi refugee; Bahrain’s Hala Kaiksow who incorporates traditional hand weaving with diversified materials and textures; Pakistani Wardha Shabbir who specialises in techniques of traditional miniature painting and has extended the boundaries of the art by drawing directly on the walls of the gallery; and naqsh collective founded by sisters Nermeen and Nisreen Abudail in Jordan who create unique pieces of art inspired by both contemporary and traditional Arabic aesthetics.

Our final stop is at Gallery 9 which, explains Sareh, features a rotating programme of regional and international video and film works.

‘The galleries at Jameel Arts Centre have been deliberately designed in a variety of sizes and volumetric proportions to allow a flexible range of settings for exhibitions, site-specific installations and new commissions,’ points out Sareh. ‘These adaptable spaces also reflect Art Jameel’s commitment to diverse programming across mediums and nurturing artist careers.’

The Jameel is more than just an exhibition space, she reiterates. ‘It is a cultural destination where we hold events, workshops, discussions and tours that are open to the public.’

Your visit to the Jameel is not complete until you make a beeline to one of its most sacred spaces — the Jameel Library. Free and open to all, the library is a treasure trove of books, journals, catalogues, theses, artists’ files and ephemera in both English and Arabic. ‘This specialised bilingual library is dedicated to the cultural histories of the Gulf and its neighbouring regions.’

Don’t forget to step outdoors and wander around the Jaddaf Waterfront Sculpture Park where the combination of garden and art continues. This open-air art park serves as a bridge between the public corniche circling Jaddaf Waterfront and Jameel Arts Centre. Among the several large-scale installations positioned in the Park include works by Helaine Blumenfeld, Talin Hazbar and Latifa Saeed, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, David Nash, and Desert Cast. Quite literally a feast for art lovers.