3 January 2022
Why I Don’t Blame Institutions Anymore
It is easy to blame institutions for our everyday strife . In fact, we do so with such frequency that it has almost become culturally in vogue. But somewhere along the way to blaming institutions—perhaps halfway between parting our lips to pronounce the words “institutions are so exclusive, repressive, and regressive”— we give up every sense of critical agency. Without absolving institutions of blame and responsibility, it is worth considering that in re-uttering these same trite sentences that attribute all liability to something external to the self, we achieve nothing more than shielding ourselves from the responsibility of creating an alternative reality.
As a curator working in Dubai, I have been privy to many conversations about the local art scene and its corresponding institutions. The topic of nascence is never far away from any conversation about the UAE. Heralded for being a fountain of youth, its recent emergence is also conversely used as an explanation for the immaturity of its cultural landscape. One of the most common gripes about its art scene revolves around insufficient institutional support. While I have been no stranger to making this exact statement, I find myself, upon re-examination, wondering if this is really the crux of the issue.
In my year-ish spent making work here, I’ve grown to see that cultural institutions, while few in number, go to great lengths to support young and emerging practitioners. From Jameel Arts Centre’s Youth Assembly to Alserkal's generous programming and commissioning calendar, to Warehouse421’s multiple mentorship programmes and Tashkeel’s Critical Practice Program. There isn’t an arts institution present that hasn’t extended a hand to the local young art community.
Why, then, is such a marked gap of institutional support felt amongst creatives in the UAE? And what can be done to fill that gap?
My answer is threefold.
Install view This lark sips at every pond at maisan15, curated by Sarah Daher. Image courtesy of curator
Educational Programmes and Sustainable Progress
Crucial to progress, is ensuring that an encouraging educational background in which the arts are given equal priority to other disciplines is the minimum acceptable nationwide standard. In a recent conversation, a local friend revealed that he had had to apply as a physics student in order to receive a scholarship to university abroad. He later dropped physics to pursue his originally intended MFA. Today he is a successful artist and curator whose work is paving the way for the next generation.
I became a curator by way of a very privileged educational background. My undergraduate studies at a liberal arts university led into my Masters degree in Curating Contemporary Art from a traditionally respected Western institution. It was in these pedagogic spaces of freedom (not without their own issues, I might add) that I acquired the confidence to unhesitatingly try, experiment, and be ready to fail.
I mention these anecdotes to illustrate the instrumental role of education in kickstarting sustainable progress and cultural change. It is heartening to see the UAE’s art institutions focusing on programming for young children, to see schools broadening their art curricula, and to see cohort after cohort of local BFA and MFA graduates. They are the first answer to the question.
Install view of After the Beep at Satellite, Alserkal Avenue, curated by Sarah Daher and Anna Bernice. Image courtesy of Maria Daher
How Not to Hit the Creative Ceiling
A survey of the institutions in the UAE’s landscape reveals the second answer to the question. While the Emirates has no dearth of schools producing young creatives alongside institutions that, in turn, showcase creative work, the space in between the two is lacking. Because these cultural spaces are so limited, a vast majority of them have developed into highly professionalised, world-renowned, internationally acclaimed venues. This comes as no surprise, given the UAE’s penchant for competitively positioning itself on the global stage. Premier institutions are all well and good for the creative community, but their solitary presence creates an inhospitable terrain for artists hoping to stay here and develop their practices incrementally over a lifetime.
Roughly every month, I hear from one artist, writer, or curator friend who announces their imminent relocation to London, Berlin, Paris, or the United States. They leave for residencies, Masters programs, and exhibition opportunities where they hope to work unfettered, to experiment and grow.
There is no reason why such spaces can’t exist here. In fact, some already do, among them Maisan15 and Satellite on Alserkal Avenue, where I have had the privilege of curating. These spaces, artist-run and deeply unlike the white cube, provide an emerging curator with the crucial liberty to take risks and experiment. I also think about mentorship programmes such as SEAF and the earlier mentioned Tashkeel CPP programme.
The creative ceiling in the UAE, contrary to common presumptions, is just as high as anywhere else. But the ladder spanning the space is missing all but its first and last rungs. I have no doubt that were more of these interstitial spaces to emerge, they would immediately be met with the creation of new work by young creatives trying on and discarding practices as they grow into their full selves. This would be a ripe UAE art scene.
Relying on the Self as Institution
My final answer stems from the need to find a personally actionable solution. I am not an educator, nor do I have the capital at my disposal to set up an experimental art space. What I do possess, though, is the ability to self-institute. It is under this logic that the UAE has seen a recent boon in youth collaborations, collectives, and self-led initiatives.
In one of my favourite recent essays, curator Simon Sheikh speaks about why instituting should not be exclusive to institutions. He writes, “change emerges through the projecting, positing, and implementation, without predeterminations, of other imaginaries of the present, and of the future, than the already socially instituted and repeated political imaginaries.” It is in this spirit and in the spirit of becoming “the infrastructure on and from which our visions can be realised,” to borrow from writer Ntone Edjabe. As intimidating as it might be to think about instituting alone or within a self-built infrastructure, I remind myself of something someone older and certainly wiser than me said recently: “I remember when I was agitatedly planning things around my Dubai kitchen table years ago”.
Sarah Daher is an independent curator and writer based in Dubai.