Whether in the form of striking sculptures or colourful murals, the varied and vast public spaces across the UAE provide the perfect canvas for artists to showcase their creativity. For centuries, it seemed the only way an artist could gain recognition for their work was to have their creations displayed in galleries, curated by collectors or housed in museums. But this all began to change during the 1970s when a prevalent graffiti community began adorning streets around the world, often without permission, with stencil art. While initially looked upon in a negative fashion, this form of expression has not only become acceptable, but is now revered.
British graffiti artist Banksy has become a global phenomenon, with reproductions of his iconic images being sold by leading auction houses around the world. Most recently, one of his paintings sold for US$1.4 million at Sotheby’s, yet instead of the price tag making headlines, it was the fact that the piece was set to self-destruct, shredding in front of shocked onlookers.
The stunt, orchestrated by the artist himself, turned the auction into a work of live art, with the anonymous artist later quoting Picasso in an Instagram post: “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge”. This further highlighted the popularity of his work, with the shredded image now said to be even more valuable.
While Banksy may be the most prominent name attached to this art form, he is just one of the hundreds of artists using public spaces to showcase their work. Thankfully, the UAE has fully embraced this creative practice and now street art in all its various guises can be found throughout the country.
Local developer Meraas was one of the first companies to seek out artists in an effort to transform high-profile destinations within Dubai. As part of the Dubai Walls initiative, 15 of the best street artists from all over the world were invited to create an enticing element to the City Walk expansion. Here you’ll find small stencil works from Blek Le Rat, evocative portraits by Australian artist RONE and colourful murals by New Yorker Beau Stanton.
Bright murals can also be found throughout Jumeirah Beach Residence, with many created by Dubai-based street artist Fathima Mohiuddin, also known as Fats. Mohiuddinʼs work features her signature style of bold, angular and abstract elements that combine to create striking pieces, often with a subtle nod to the emirate she calls home.
In recent years ‘old Dubai’ has also undergone a major transformation. Once known for its budget shopping and authentic Indian and Pakistani restaurants, the buildings in Karama became a blank canvas for a host of international artists. Much of the work took place in 2016 when eight prominent street artists were invited to paint 24 murals on the side of 12 apartment buildings and shops. Many of the creations reflect the history of the UAE, with incredibly detailed paintings of falcons and even a nod to the emirate’s rich pearling history.
Abu Dhabi has been equally captivated when it comes to street art, with the most notable piece situated between Al Raha Mall and Al Bandar. This 600-metre stretch features a range of murals from a team of multinational artists who spent five weeks working on the impressive project. Tasked with capturing the spirit of Emirati culture, you’ll find symbols such as Arabic lanterns and coffee pots, as well as a painting of a young boy walking a camel.
While graffiti tends to feature bold colours and eye-catching designs, another form of art that can be found throughout the UAE is often more understated. As you navigate the bustling attractions of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, numerous sculptures can be found dotted throughout the emirates, many of which can be found in prime locations, much like The Dubai Mall’s Human Waterfall.
Perhaps the most striking of all is Together by Syrian artist Lutfi Romhein. Found in the shadow of Burj Khalifa, these two stylised sculptures feature a male figure carved from marble and a female made of black granite. Far from the only artwork in Downtown Dubai, the area is also home to a 1.5-tonne bronze sculpture of a horse created by Colombian figurative artist Fernando Botero.
On the outskirts of the district, there is another striking monument which was created by Korean sculptor Jaehyo Lee. The Chorus sculpture uses 3.4 tonnes of steel and 7.6 tonnes of wood and was inspired by the flow and movement of a gathering in Gwanghwamun Square in South Korea.
Abu Dhabi has also embraced this form of art, with Umm Al Emarat Park home to five life-size bronze sculptures of iconic UAE wildlife. Collectively known as Jewels of Abu Dhabi, they include the dugong, Arabian oryx, greater flamingo, Hawksbill turtle and Saker falcon, and are permanently on show to help raise public awareness as all of these animals are threatened or endangered species.
More to appreciate
Not content with the current offering in Dubai, a partnership between Brand Dubai, the creative arm of the Government of Dubai Media Office, and the Roads and Transport Authority, has announced the Metro Murals Project. Part of an initiative to turn the city into an open-air museum that celebrates art and creativity, metro pillars between DIFC and Emirates Towers stations will be adorned with stunning murals.
Daniel Cortez from Peru and Miami-based artist Elio Mercado, also known as Evocal, have already started working on their designs, one of which will feature large floating jellyfish and another a huge blue whale. This is also set to be just the start of the transformation process, with bridges, tunnels, walking tracks, and bus stops all set for an artistic makeover.
Fathima Mohiuddin will also be adding to her collection of work in Dubai after teaming up with property developers Emaar. The prolific street artist will transform a number of properties in Downtown Dubai to celebrate UAE National Day and is currently finishing up numerous pieces in Souk Al Bahar, including a huge falcon boasting her signature bold angles and chrome colours.
The work is being completed in conjunction with Art Emaar, which acts as a platform for ambitious art initiatives in various forms across the UAE. Providing artists with an urban canvas, it includes a 142-metre long art installation of the UAE Flag in The Dubai Mall which was installed last month.
Art Emaar is set to unveil a host of new installations in the coming year as it bids to attract world-renowned talent while also championing artists from within the UAE.