DUBAI: Far from the madding crowd of Dubai - with its glut of sudden skyscrapers, construction cranes and relentless five-lane traffic jams - the historic district of Bastakiya winds through quiet alleyways, old coral stones and traditional wind-tower dwellings laid out close to "the creek" that courses into Bur Dubai. The neighborhood dates back a hundred years - ancient by Dubai's standards - and is the oldest settlement in the area for expatriates originally from Iran.
To get to Bastakiya today one drives past a textile market and a gold souk. The overall urban environment of Bur Dubai hangs low. The scale is palpably human. The area is neither spectacular nor new. Over time it has become utilitarian and working class. The jauntiness of 1970s architecture remains - casual and without pretense as the story of Dubai has moved elsewhere. Compared to the rest of the city, Bur Dubai feels real, less prone to the creation of encased skyward fantasies. From there, intricate Bastakiya opens up with the unexpected thrill of discovery.
Last weekend, Bastakiya played host to the first-ever Creek Contemporary Art Fair, a five-day event staged as an
alternative to the bigger, splashier Gulf Art Fair held in the Madinat Arena. Ten local galleries and five independent artists took over 12 tiny enclaves that have only recently been rehabilitated.
"We were literally screwing in light bulbs the day we opened," says Mona Hauser, the owner and founder of XVA, a contemporary art gallery that opened in Bastakiya in 2003. Splayed out around a central courtyard, XVA has also grown into a hotel and an open-air cafe that serves a mean mint lemonade.
Organizers from the Gulf Art Fair initially approached some of the players in Dubai's fledgling gallery scene - which includes the Third Line and the B21 Progressive Art Gallery, both located in the industrial area of Al-Quoz; XVA; Total Arts; Bagash; the Majlis Gallery; Art Space and the Ave Gallery, soon to open next door to XVA - and suggested they organize themselves into a group effort to run in tandem with the fair.
Only one Dubai-based gallery, the Third Line, participated in both the Gulf Art Fair and the Creek Contemporary Art Fair. The cost of renting out booths in the Madinat Arena was high - upwards of $16,000 for the smallest space available - and far more than the other young galleries could afford in a city whose aggressive business community is only slowly beginning to take cultural initiatives seriously.
The Creek Contemporary Art Fair came about in collaboration with the Dubai Arts Council and the Dubai Municipality, which made the old, cavernous spaces of Bastakiya available to participating artists and galleries for free. The home-grown, street-wise creative agency 9714 pitched in with a catalogue and a flyer, both finalized on the day the fair opened.
The organization of the entire affair was ramshackle and refreshing - no glitz, no glamour, the perfect setting for the kind of cool-hunting and talent-scouting that curators, critics and intrepid art lovers crave.
Hand-painted signs in black fabric with white lettering hung outside doors that one would duck into to find drawings, paintings, photographs and films by unknown artists. Suddenly one would come upon works by better-known figures - images from Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian's "Qajar" series, arch conceptualist Shezad Dawood's "Battle of Algiers Suite," densely layered pieces by the kaleidoscopic Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Egyptian multimedia artist Amal Kenawy's intriguing and unsettling video animations "The Room" and "You Will Be Killed." Then one would stumble into a few outright masterpieces - Abbas Kiarostami's photographs and a collage by Robert Rauschenberg, both on view from the Ave Gallery, which will open at the end of this month with an Kiarostami exhibition entitled "Wind and Rain."
At a panel discussion held during the Global Art Forum, another off-shoot of the Gulf Art Fair, curator Rose Issa admonished the members of her audience to get themselves to Bastakiya without delay. It seems they took her advice.
"It was such an exciting time," says Hauser, who estimated that most of the people who came through Bastakiya were international dealers, representatives from the auction house Sotheby's, museum staff, curators and collectors in town for the Gulf Art Fair. "It was a bit daunting," Hauser adds. "But they were buying and they were loving it. It's been a big boost for Bastakiya," she says, and the percolating contemporary art scene in Dubai. "Before we were in the dark. Now the light is definitely on."
The gallery scene in Dubai remains incredibly young. There are spaces that have yet to develop an aesthetic vision or a credible, consistent stable of artists. There are numerous instances of art as shallow fashion. Business practices and professional standards remain, overall, a bit loose. But the attention that has finally turned to the galleries after the arrival of the auction house Christie's and the advent of the Gulf Art Fair is likely to strong-arm improvements. The galleries will have to get better if they want to hold on to that attention and use it to their advantage.
That said, the fact that some of Dubai's galleries are artist-run gives the scene a dynamic that recalls some of the more interesting moments in the growth of contemporary art in cities that couldn't, at the time, care less. But without a crime wave, a heroin epidemic or a recession, Dubai is unlikely to ever be anything like Soho in the 1970s or the East Village in the 1980s. The flush of so much money in a city that has been an international trade hub since its inception will render any art scene in Dubai unique - and tilt the balance inevitably toward commerce.
"Everything has happened much faster than we expected," says Claudia Cellini, one of the cofounders of the Third Line, which opened in 2005. "We never expected Christie's to start holding sales so quickly." Among Cellini's priorities are proper representation of the artists the Third Line works with and the creation of a viable - and young - collector base.
"We need more galleries, not less," she says. "But forget what people say. Dubai is an expensive place to do business."