Avenue of ideas - Dubai's colourful arts district

A concentration of eclectic galleries, design studios, art cafes and artisans workshops have set up shop in Dubai, bringing creativity and colour to a former industrial neighbourhood. Known as Alserkal Avenue, the area hosts a myriad of exhibitions, pop-ups and performances, making it a must-visit for lovers of contemporary arts and culture.

Avenue of ideas - Dubai's colourful arts district

It’s known for its cutting-edge architecture but few people realize that a vibrant contemporary arts scene has been quietly taking hold in Dubai over the last few years. Hidden behind the sky-scraping corridor of Sheikh Zayed Road in a dusty grid of corrugated warehouses, Alserkal Avenue has become the base for a diverse and proactive arts community that has created a wonderful world of colour and creativity around it.

Similar to semi-industrial East London and New York’s Chelsea when they were first taken over by artists, Dubai’s paper mills and marble factories have been transformed into dozens of exciting art spaces, galleries, design studios and cafes. There are events spanning the whole creative spectrum from eclectic exhibitions, installations and fairs to performances, cinema and food pop-ups. It’s a must-visit for culture vultures, and it’s fast becoming an art and design hub for the entire Gulf region.

Hot galleries

The cavernous interiors of Al Quoz’s disused factories provide ideal arts spaces, and Alserkal Avenue has colonized row-after-row of them linked by a network of quiet lanes. Most places are free for the public to drop in, so push open a door and you might discover a colourful design studio or installation from a world-renowned artist. Sculptures regularly crop up outdoors, and there are often pop-up performances inside the studios. The seamless rotation of shows and events at the galleries means there’s always lots to see.

Hosting more than six separate exhibitions a year, Carbon 12 is one such gallery with regularly changing shows from international contemporary artists. Another exhibition space, Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, is usually filled with interesting installations, sculptural artworks and videos too.

Ayyam Gallery is one of the area’s most prominent with a portfolio of emerging and established artists whose canvasses decorate its walls. The atmospheric Grey Noise space is worth looking into for its moody lighting and film installations, Mojo Gallery specializes in multi-media art forms, while 1x1 Gallery is a huge space dedicated to modern and contemporary Indian art.

As the neighbourhood has grown, purpose-built galleries and architecturally-interesting structures have recently been added to the mix. The first building to be completed in the UAE by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Concrete opened in March 2017. Inside the giant silver-clad box, the multidisciplinary arts space hosts museum-grade exhibitions as well as events across art, design, fashion and the performing arts. It recently hosted an installation by Palestinian artists commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum for London Design Week.

Alongside galleries gaining an international reputation and collaborations with the world’s top arts institutions, some of the neighbourhood’s art spaces act as platforms to showcase budding local artists and contemporary art from the Gulf and Middle East. Green Art Gallery, which has a long legacy promoting modern Arab art, and The Third Line, which represents contemporary Middle Eastern artists, are two of the very best. Another established name in the region, Elmarsa, opened its gallery on the avenue in 2015 with the mission to generate interest in Arab art from North Africa, specializing in both modern and contemporary practice.

Arts hub

At the centre of the Alserkal Avenue community is the Jamjar arts space and events venue with an active programme of workshops, film nights, performances, pop-up plays and talks. Unusual workshops open to the public include paper ceramics-making, concrete design, traditional weaving in contemporary patterns, and painting seascapes. As part of its Art in the City project it hosts DIY painting sessions in a studio equipped with easels, paints, art supplies, plus a coffee bar and music, providing a complete creative experience. There’s also an Art Bus that takes visitors around Dubai’s chief arts spots.

Elsewhere, several spaces such as Warehouse 68 have become the backdrop for independent cinema almost every week, while The Junction is a fully-functioning theatre hosting plays, comedy, music and dance shows. There are also regular live shows from emerging musicians and artists at The Fridge – look out for The Fridge Concert Series, and the new Sima Performing Arts studio offers a year-round programme of unique dance and theatrical performances.

The little network of lanes linking Alserkal’s various venues are utilized for events in the cooler months, with art fairs spilling into the street, open-air markets, and skilled artisans demonstrating their crafts. Check for the latest goings-on.

Design and artisan products

An eclectic mix of design collections and workshops are dotted throughout the neighbourhood offering plenty of surprises. You can get hands on, learn new art-forms, create your own products and find inspiration at a variety of spots. Gulf Photo Plus celebrates all things photography-related with shows, special events, state-of-the-art facilities and workshops. Alserkal even has a warehouse crammed with an impressive collection of classic cars that’s open to the public.

There are colourful design shops full of covetable objects – Ikonhouse offers crafted and cutting-edge furniture, lighting, audio visual and home automation technology. You can find interior inspiration at The Odd Piece, an emporium of vintage statement pieces, quirky antiques and restored objects sourced from souks and flea markets around the world and put together to form a furniture gallery.

Fans of bright shiny things will love the Jewel Teller where jewellery is hand-crafted, as well as displayed and sold. You can see the fascinating workshop and design studio and visit a gallery of glittering pieces from important design movements.

But visitors can find the ultimate treat in Warehouse 70 – home to Mirzam Chocolate Makers. At the small chocolate factory, you can see the good stuff being made from roasting the cocoa beans to moulding the bars, before sampling some for yourself at the end.

Cafe culture

A few light and airy cafes have opened in the district where the emphasis is on modern aesthetics and healthy home-made food. Wild and the Moon is a delightful place for lunch or a snack stop where green, organic and raw are the buzzwords and the fresh foliage and pared-back decor reflect the ethos.

HAPI has a similar hipster vibe, with organic bone broth and home-made ice-cream served in a stripped back Scandinavian-style dining room with an open kitchen. Alongside the cafe, it offers classes in pakour, capoeira, dance and yoga. For some simple time-out, Alserkal Avenue’s A4 Space is ideal for collapsing on its comfy beanbags or reading a book in its chilled loft area with a cup of coffee and snack from the little cafe.

Completing the gamut of creative spaces on the avenue, a dedicated venue for foodie events – Inked – is worth checking out for its immersive food experiences, conceptual dinners and chef’s pop-ups. Inventive cooking workshops, tastings and talks are also hosted at the space.

Sasha Wood

Sasha Wood

The wordy wanderer

An incorrigible scribbler with an incurable case of wanderlust, my curiosity for Arabia piqued as a...

32 Articles

Related blog posts in Dubai in a nutshell