Vilma Jurkute on Dubai’s Burgeoning Art Ecosystem

The executive director of the arts enterprise Alserkal Initiatives, Dubai, discusses the future of the organization and the role of the city as cultural hub

BY Terence Trouillot in Interviews , Profiles | 15 MAR 23

Terence Trouillot Can you give us a brief overview of the history of Alserkal – the district and the foundation – and when you became involved with the project

Vilma Jurkute The story of Alserkal Initiatives began more than a decade ago, when we began taking a risk on the risk-takers and creating space within the industrial quarter of the city for artistic thought. Together with our founder Abdelmonem Alserkal and a community of creatives we’ve built a blueprint model for a plural institution that continues to evolve. I’ve been the executive director of Alserkal Initiatives since 2011, overseeing Alserkal Avenue, Alserkal Advisory and Alserkal Arts Foundation. Over the last few years we’ve grown and matured into an organization that lives in many forms: a neighbourhood; a place of cultural production; a civic network of pioneering thinkers and disruptors; and a repository of interdisciplinary practices and research. This allows for a dynamic, forward-thinking environment and modular work.

Concrete Exterior. Photograph Credit: Lester Ali
Concrete at Alserkal Initiatives, Dubai. Photograph Credit: Lester Ali

TT Alserkal in some ways is a great reflection of the city of the Dubai, a place in constant flux, continually redeveloping and establishing itself as a burgeoning centre for diversity and culture. Can you speak about this phenomenon in terms of the eclecticism of Alserkal Avenue and the process by which this cultural district has opened its doors to different institutions and galleries.

VJ Alserkal has always been situated between the built environment, culture, and community. Being many things at once means that we speak with a polyphonic voice: we can continuously challenge the conventional through the diverse forums, programmes and narratives that we co-present. Our cultural programming offers alternative learning that is open to everyone, bringing various publics together to discuss, critique and debate the subjects that resonate today. As a result, it stimulates togetherness and a sense of belonging within the city of Dubai. I would also emphasize the importance of collectivity: it’s very important to us that we work closely with our community of artists, practitioners, gallerists, filmmakers, designers and youth-driven grassroots groups.

TT When I visited Dubai last November, the famed Belgian collector and philanthropist Guy Ullens addressed the crowd at the preview of Sterling Ruby’s solo exhibition at Concrete, Alserkal Avenue’s multidisciplinary art space designed by the architecture firm OMA. There, Ullens stated with great confidence that ‘Dubai is the new hub for art in the Arab world.’ Can you speak to this claim a bit further, and perhaps also to how Alserkal has played a vital role in the city’s prominence in the region’s cultural sector.

VJ Dubai has been a conduit for contemporary art in the region for the past decade and only continues to mature and grow. Alserkal has played an important role, as we grew together with the city and the region. Dubai’s art ecosystem used to consist of just a few commercial art galleries, but has grown to become a holistic art scene. We’ve witnessed the development of robust education programmes, not-for-profit spaces with active community programming (e.g. Ishara Foundation, Jameel Arts Centre), and the emergence of new collectives and homegrown concepts within the creative industries, such as Engage101 – a platform that exhibits and supports independent Gulf-based artists. Locally based talent is more eager and able than ever to develop artistic practices in the region now that the infrastructure exists to support them. You can see this in the artistic rosters of our homegrown galleries, which have signed up both local and international talent. Some good examples include both Emirati and locally practicing artist: Lantian Xie (Grey Noise), Vikram Divecha (Gallery IVDE), Sarah Almeheiri (Carbon 12), Sheikha Al Mazrou (Lawrie Shabibi) and Afra Al Daheri (Green Art Gallery), to name a few. Today, Alserkal Avenue galleries’ roster consists of more than 350 artists working in various mediums.

Rana Begum, Dappled Light Exhibition at Concrete, Aserkal Avenue. Photo credit: Mohamed Somji
Rana Begum, ‘Dappled Light’, 2023, exhibition view, Concrete, Aserkal Avenue, Dubai. Photo credit: Mohamed Somji

TT The last time we spoke, you mentioned Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book Provincialising Europe (2000) and his notion of the ‘waiting-room of history,’ or the implication that non-Western cultures and histories are somehow ‘behind’ the West and are sidelined by Eurocentrism and Western hegemony. How do you see Alserkal challenging this presumption and thus creating space for celebrating and learning about the art histories (both old and new) of the Middle East?

VJ When we spoke, it was in reference to our research commitment at the Alserkal Arts Foundation and how the new generation of thinkers and practitioners today have gone beyond this reference. This new claim and positionality in scholarship and beyond is very important. We’ve seen this first hand through the research proposals and residency programmes. The subjects that are being investigated today not only lead to new forms of knowledge, but eventually remap geographies of knowledge.

Our work is grounded in an ethic of care, shared authority, and collective learning where open dialogue and long-term cooperation are built into in our partnerships. At the heart of our approach is our support for a new generation of thinkers, to challenge the conventional and develop new forms of knowledge. The epistemic process as much as the final product are part of our practice. Alserkal was never synonymous with the built environment; on the contrary, as a polyphonic multidisciplinary community, we have always been a platform where diverse voices and stories are presented and represented. As a research-driven platform, today Alserkal Arts Foundation commissions artistic projects, awards research grants, and supports multidisciplinary scholarship and alternative learning. We host residencies and facilitate research at our studios and study spaces at Alserkal Avenue, nurturing critical and intellectually curious projects that impact the cultural sphere in our proximity. We think expansively about our networks, privileging relevance and connectivity over geographic limits or disciplinary boundaries.  

TT A few years back, you received a master’s in sustainable urban development at Oxford. How has this scholarship informed your thinking about the growth and future of Alserkal? Perhaps you can speak about Alserkal Advisory and the institution’s commitment to expansion ‘beyond the built environment’, as you stated in the past.

VJ We launched Alserkal Advisory last year as we restructured following continuous growth. It’s a multidisciplinary practice comprised of Alserkal Initiatives’s founding team in addition to thinkers, researchers, and specialists in diverse fields from multiple geographies. As an independent and privately-owned practice, it works differently to traditional consultancies and agencies, with an approach grounded in an ethos of care and long-term cooperation with the artists, writers, practitioners, partners and clients we work with. While we seek to innovate and re-imagine artistic interventions, we are also mindful of the importance of developing strategies that ensure their longevity. We select projects diligently, ensuring our expertise and clients’ expectations align to produce meaningful, history-making outcomes that reflect our thinking, values, and ethos.

Vilma Jurkute, Photo credit: Sueraya Shaheen, Courtesy: Aslerka
Vilma Jurkute. Photo credit: Sueraya Shaheen, Courtesy: Aslerka

TT What can we look forward to in 2023? What most excites you in Alserkal’s future?

VJ Today, more than ever, we need places for growth, meaning, and community that are inclusive and accessible. The Global Co-commission project by Alserkal Advisory in partnership with the Global Cultural Districts Network (GCDN), an international membership-based network that fosters cooperation and knowledge-sharing between 52 cultural districts, will present multi-city public art interventions across four continents when it is unveiled in Fall 2023.

Each project will stand alone as a site-specific exhibition and will be accompanied by a programme that engages with local communities. The inaugural initiative from Alserkal Advisory is A Feral Commons, the curatorial theme proposes an alternative vision of the commons, which is usually defined as land or resources shared by all people within a community. Instead, this project invites artists to illuminate human and non-human entanglements and explore a more radical understanding of what the commons could mean in a multi-species world. Drawing upon visionary American anthropologist Anna Tsing’s scholarship and writing on open-ended inter-species gatherings and non-human participants in human projects that are described as feral because they participate independently, resisting human control.

Supported by Urban Arts Project (UAP), A Feral Commons will self-audit the environmental impact of the project, attempting to create public artworks across all four continents in the most responsible and conscious way possible. Utilizing UAP’s proprietary tools, specifically Artwork Ingredients List and Public Art 360, the project team will be guided on sustainable practices as well as on how to measure the quantitative and qualitative impact on the environment and the value of public art.

The co-commission project intends to harness the power of cultural districts to respond collectively to urgent global subjects and invites participants to renew their current perspectives. The first cycle (2022-23) will explore how cultural districts can engage in knowledge-sharing and collective action. It acts as an attempt to harmonize and repair our relations with our ecology, as well as recalibrate social and economic dimensions through collective thinking with peer art organizations globally in times of climate change. We hope this will not only lead to more sustainable practices and the formulation of whole-thinking structures within the current global art ecosystem, but will also shine a light on the imperative role cultural districts play in their communities globally.

Main image: Sunset view of Dubai Marina. Photo: Getty

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.