It may seem counter-intuitive to come to sunny, beach-filled Dubai and spend an afternoon on an industrial estate, but behind the close-mouthed concrete facade of a cluster of warehouses in Al Quoz, you’ll discover Alserkal Avenue, the heart of Dubai’s budding art scene.
From opening the first gallery back in 2007, Alserkal Avenue has grown exponentially, engulfing more warehouses and attracting world-class talent to its fold, including statement-making French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed, whose studio attracts investors with a keen eye on his trademark calligraphy, dubbed ‘calligraffiti’.
Wherever artists settle, others follow, and now Alserkal Avenue is a hub not only for the arts, but also for artisan eateries, diverse fashion and homeware stores, a vintage car showroom and even a fitness studio. A day well spent at Alserkal Avenue includes a spot of gallery-hopping and shopping, maybe a crafts workshop, an early dinner and an arthouse film or show. Build your perfect itinerary from our highlights below.
What to see
Imposing polycarbonate-clad Concrete, the first building to be completed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in the United Arab Emirates, presents exhibitions from prestigious establishments, such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Hayward Gallery, free of charge. Inside, multiple space configurations accommodate art of all dimensions, and when the full-height doors are retracted, the interior merges with the outdoor courtyard, to dramatic effect. Prominent patron of the arts Malini Gulrajani showcases compelling contemporary Indian collections in her 1X1 Gallery. Expect modern installations that provide narrative on the human condition, such as Mumbai sculptor Sunil Gawde’s elephant balancing on an egg, titled Still Alive III, a composition that recalls life’s awkward moments and the ongoing struggle for balance.
Alserkal’s most famous artist in residence, eL Seed, rose to prominence following projects such as Perception in which his ‘calligraffiti’ daubed across 50 buildings in a rundown Cairo neighbourhood of unofficial garbage collectors drew attention to misconceptions about the community. His eponymous Alserkal studio is stocked with smaller works suited to home hanging and welcomes buyers by appointment. Get a handle on Middle Eastern art at The Third Line, housing two galleries dedicated to promoting Arab talent. Past exhibitions prove that the genre extends far beyond calligraphy, with the botanical installations of Iranian visual artist Abbas Akhavan and the vividly monochrome photography of Libyan-Canadian photographer Arwa Abouon thoughtfully examining the role of Muslim women in Western society.
Improv, stand-up, plays and dance productions are all at home on the stage at The Junction, a theatre that aims to provide a platform for local performers. As such, programming is diverse, with a magic show in the spotlight some nights, while on others hard-hitting tales unfold, such as George Orwell’s big brother epic 1984. A talent agency with its own warehouse theatre, The Fridge uses its stage to showcase new talent recruited to its books. Catch live local bands in The Fridge Concert Series and get an ear-full of the UAE music scene at its best.
Cinema Akil is the UAE’s only arthouse cinema, complete with fat armchairs and retro theatre seating retrieved from Dubai’s last old-school picture house before it was razed. Films screened tend to be foreign-language paeans to the human spirit and Palme d’Or winners, but the venue also hosts some frivolous singalongs to cult musicals such as Grease. It’s got groove, it’s got meaning, what more could you ask for?
Where to shop
Marrying Japanese and Emirati national dress for women, Chi-Ka is a gallery-boutique specialising in traditionally printed kimono-abayas displayed like canvases on the walls of this typically minimalist Far East-inspired atelier. User-friendly maps stocked at info points are complemented by a scale model of Alserkal Avenue at A4 Space, an area designed for coworking. Come here for free wi-fi, a book from the trust library, a bathroom break, coffee and pop-up shopping. Previous guest vendors include Dubai-based British designer Deborah Henning, famed for crisp, androgynous tailoring, and affordable jewellery sourced by local retailers Vice.
As well as stocking choice vinyl from around the world, The Flip Side, Dubai’s only independent record shop screens music documentaries, and hosts talks and the occasional block party in Alserkal’s communal outdoor space called The Yard. Sports footwear devotees worship at The Good Life, a gallery-like space dedicated to designer kicks. If you’re in the market for the latest Yeezys or a rare Cortez Kenny house shoe, you might get lucky here. Passionate about furnishings, the Saudi founder of The Odd Piece, Arwa Hafiz, and her team of experts scour souqs and antique markets around the world in search of eclectic items to restore and resell at this quirky gallery of collectables.
Where to eat
Plant-based restaurant Wild & The Moon recently opened a second venue in Paris, such is the popularity of its smoothies, vitamin-loaded juice shots and palette of lattes that includes golden (turmeric-infused), green (matcha) and black (charcoal), all made with vegan ‘mylk’ produced in house. Enjoy these achingly on-trend tipples beneath a veritable garden of hanging plants while mulling over an Instagrammable bowl of acai or Moon porridge laced with organic maple syrup. Set up by a boutique bean supplier, Nightjar serves coffee short, long, black, flat, white, slow drip and more. Cherry- or maple-infused nitro coffees are among the chilled options. Comfort food includes spuds with sour cream, polenta mash with gravy and hot-buttered sourdough toast, but for a taste of the UAE, try the Dibba Bay buttie with oysters farmed in the emirate of Fujairah.
No matter where you dine in Alserkal Avenue, dessert is best enjoyed at artisan chocolatier Mirzam, where the factory’s aromatic production process is seductively visible. There’s a cafe in the back, but not everyone makes it that far because there are tables loaded with delicious and unlimited Mirzam chocolate samples in front of it. A superb souvenir for cocoa connoisseurs, the beautifully packaged Emirati collection includes the Khabeesa bar made with dark chocolate, finely chopped dates, cardamom, cinnamon and crumbled biscuits, and the Halwa bar, filled with almonds, pistachios, dates and saffron- and rose-infused caramel brittle.
What to do
Develop a deeper appreciation of art by creating it yourself. At thejamjar, workshops cover a wide range of mediums, often focusing on each genre’s heroes. You may learn how to make the paper-thin balloon-shaped porcelain bowls of Belgian ceramicist Guy Van Leemput or model colourful abstract 3D dancers in the style of French-American sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle. Every creation makes a unique souvenir to take home.
When to go
The last weekend in January each year plays host to Quoz Arts Fest, a street art party with food stalls, live performances, DJ sets and open-air film screenings. In March, Art Week at Alserkal Avenue is a prime time for new exhibitions and gallery openings. Every September, galleries increase the opening hours for a programme of exhibitions with late-night viewings known as Alserkal Lates, and in November there is a month of programming designed to tie in with Dubai Design Week, a city-wide event to promote design and creativity, and the four-day Abu Dhabi Art fair.