Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Art Dubai’s Hala Khayat

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 that was dedicated to the art scene in the UAE in which we unravel the threads of unity by exploring the perspectives of various stakeholders within the UAE’s art community. Through insightful interviews with galleries, art institutions, and auction houses, a vivid mosaic emerged, depicting how unity has been woven into the fabric of the art scene.

Rima Nasser: Hala, your extensive expertise in Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary art was integral to your role at your previous job at Christie’s Dubai. Can you share your experiences and insights into how the art scene in the UAE has evolved and developed?

Hala Khayat: I think the best way for me to answer this question is by focusing on the excitement surrounding the UAE art scene in the present moment. There are three key words that come to my mind: ‘stability’, ‘continuity’ and ‘growth’, which are in line with the government’s commitment and support for the creative industries here.

The truth is the UAE art scene has evolved considerably since the early 2000s. With the UAE being located geographically at the crossroads between the East and West, combined with the region’s openness to doing business, it has solidified its position on the global cultural map. A brilliant example of this is the success of ArtDubai, which will hold its 17th edition in 2024. The fair’s modus operandi is to showcase art and artists which have been historically underrepresented on the global art stage, through its rich programme consisting of four main sections: Bawwaba, Art Dubai Digital, Art Dubai Modern and the main contemporary section. Art Dubai has been contributing to the internationalisation of many artists from the global south, who were first discovered and presented to international audiences in the UAE.

Another example is the ever-growing local gallery scene and the maturing of the collector and institutional scenes, and the number of diverse art businesses that sustain active, year-long programmes. Right now, there is a Calligraphy Biennale in Dubai and the city has big plans for a series of public art commissions that will be unveiled in the coming months.

RN: As someone who has played a key role in the expansion and globalisation of the Middle East’s art market, could you highlight some milestones or key moments that stand out in your journey of contributing to the growth of the art scene in the UAE?

Art Dubai 2023. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

HK: In my time working in the Middle Eastern art market I have experienced many personal milestones, but there are a few which stand out – for example, I was the head of sales for the first ever international auction to offer works by UAE artists. It was also important to shed light on the region’s younger generation of artists, many of whom had no gallery representation at that stage. I recall speaking to prominent collectors and asking them to lend works just for the sake of creating awareness of the scene. Back in 2011, I introduced, for the first time, a small section at the auction which included works by Lamya Gargash, Saeed Khalifa, Lateefa Bint Maktoom, Noor Al Suwaidi and Meera Huraiz. Happily, by that stage, there was a collective desire to promote them by both the collectors and the international auction houses.

Another important milestone was launching Noor Dubai, an initiative of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, which comprised a series of charitable auctions entitled Art 4 Sight, where the proceeds went to support the prevention of blindness globally. I curated the auctions for Noor Dubai, with a focus on UAE artists, and it was great to introduce them to the wider arts community in the UAE. I must also mention being at the opening of the first UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale back in 2011 – it was a defining moment, as it was the first time any country from the Gulf had ever participated.

In recent times, being part of the amazing team at Art Dubai, the only fair to take place in 2021 midway through the Covid-19 pandemic, proved how the UAE helped sustain the cultural economy at the time and develop public trust in the region as a safe destination to experience and enjoy cultural events.

Last but by no means least, witnessing the introduction of Art Dubai’s pioneering digital section in 2022 was a real highlight. It was like stepping into the future.

RN: Your work at Christie’s involved working closely with collectors on an international scale and overseeing the production of catalogues. Can you share any memorable experiences or collaborations with collectors that have made a significant impact on the local art community in Dubai and the UAE?

HK: What a timely question! I’m currently an advisor to the Dubai Collection, Dubai’s first institutional art collection, and this requires me to liaise with regional collectors to select works that we feel are worthy of belonging to this institutional collection and digital museum. I love rediscovering pieces I first came across many years ago, some of which have changed hands since.

RN: You’ve been an advocate for Syria’s art community and founded SAFIR in 2014. Could you tell us more about your work with this NGO and how it has supported young Syrian artists in the UAE and the broader region?

HK: SAFIR is a project close to my heart, and I’m proud to have co-founded it. It is important to support artists from Syria but in recent times we have expanded this to the Levant. The initiative is focused on two main goals: capacity building and connectivity. Last summer, we were able to connect two artists living and working in the UAE with a summer residency programme in Germany. Another artist is spending time at a residency in Brazil and, just a few days ago, we supported an artist’s participation in an upcoming show in Korea. Furthermore, we hosted a workshop to empower artists in public speaking, which took place in Dubai. Dubai Culture has helped to provide talent visas to many Syrian artists over the last two years, which has enabled many to settle in this great country and establish their studios. Syrian artists feel welcome and appreciated in the UAE, which is something that all artists need.

RN: You’ve also been involved in documenting the collections of key Syrian collectors. What has this documentation process revealed about the diversity and richness of art collections in the UAE and their contribution to the art scene?

HK: Yes, this includes the notable Khair Collection of the late Fateh Moudarres. I am constantly on a quest to advise collectors of all nationalities and support with documenting collections wherever I can. As an example, there are many patrons of the arts who are Syrian collectors as part of the Dubai Collection.

RN: Your contributions to art education in the region are notable and include the development of curriculum on Modern and Contemporary Arab art. How has this educational initiative impacted the understanding and appreciation of Arab art in the UAE?

HK: Scholarship around Modern and Contemporary Arab art is very important to me and, fortunately, there are a number of institutions that are finally responding. In my current role at Art Dubai, I have been able to put together a talks series presenting Modern Arab art histories to the public. We also put together a day of educational activities on the same subject as part of our Art Salon programming, which supports the next generation of collectors through a series of events. We invited key artists to talk about their own experiences – it was well received and, hopefully, we will introduce more of these lectures soon.

RN: Since your arrival in Dubai in 2002, there have been other individuals who arrived around the same time and contributed to the UAE’s art scene. Are there any stories or collaborations you can share about your experiences with fellow art enthusiasts or professionals who arrived in the UAE during that period?

General view, Art Dubai 2023, Madinat Jumeirah. Photo by Spark Media for Art Dubai. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

HK: There are many of us! We sometimes get tagged as the ‘O.G.s’! We all know each other and it’s great to see that so many of us have remained loyal and committed to the scene. Many of us meet on different panels, at exhibitions or on trips, and we ask each other to make connections and introductions – it’s all a form of collaboration.

For a long time, I think the international community has looked at the UAE as a place of transit, but this is definitely changing. People are settling, investing in properties and sending their children to schools and universities here. I think what unites most of us is that we have now been involved in the cultural scene for almost two decades. Despite the fact that we all come from different backgrounds, the very fabric of the UAE, which welcomes everyone, is what leads you to develop such a personal connection with the region. I believe that the UAE is a land of opportunities that may not be available to people in their home countries. That creates a very positive energy. I particularly remember the first day of the very first edition of Art Dubai in 2007, where I met people who are still involved in the UAE art scene today. These people include Rami Farook, Asmaa Al Shabibi, Paula Al Askari, Hanane Al Sayyed, Ahmed Eldabaa, Nada Boulos and Judith Greer, to name just a few.

RN: As the regional director for Art Dubai, how do you envision leveraging your extensive experience and networks in the UAE and the Middle East to further enhance the engagement of local and regional collectors with the art world?

HK: I think this would be my work with the amazing team behind Art Salon, which is a growing community of curious people with a keen interest in the arts. The Art Salon programme introduces bespoke experiences, amazing speakers and artists to new audiences through events and international cultural trips. We are tapping into a magic formula which keeps our community engaged all year long, and it’s been nothing but an enriching experience so far.

RN: Art Dubai aims to foster regional relationships and sustainable long-term engagement. What strategies or initiatives do you plan to implement to achieve these goals and further enrich the art ecosystem in the region?

HK: Innovation has always been key to Art Dubai’s success – as an independent art fair that is well into its second decade, we have licence to try things that the bigger international fairs may not. A good example of this is Art Dubai Digital, which we launched two years ago as the first dedicated digital section of any international art fair, providing an annual snapshot of the digital art landscape. The response has been fantastic, opening up many new audiences and conversations.

We also have a strong connection to the regions and art scenes we seek to spotlight, in particular the Global South. For many of these geographies, where the institutional infrastructure is often underdeveloped, we are also the primary marketplace and meeting point. The 2023 Art Dubai Commissions presented 11 new works by a range of artists from South Asia – these were developed in partnership with several participating galleries and leading South Asian institutions, including the Kochi Biennale and the Dubai-based Ishara Foundation.

We also have the most extensive talks and thought leadership programme of any international art fair – last year we hosted more than 50 sessions, all fully booked, clearly demonstrating the appetite for cultural experience and knowledge that there is here. We are also lucky to count on the support of a range of long-term partners, including A.R.M. Holding, with whom we have developed an extensive children’s programme, bringing art and cultural programming to more than 9,000 children each year across all seven Emirates.

RN: Can you provide examples of artists or art projects that you believe symbolise the growth and vibrancy of the UAE’s art scene, and how they reflect the collaborative efforts of individuals like yourself who have contributed to its development?

HK: The Dubai Collection is a perfect example, and I believe tapping into this large inventory of amazing art from Dubai and the UAE has come as a surprise to many in the wider art community. Many collectors buy because they love art and they believe in its value as a good investment. Historically, these works have seldom been shared with the public. The Dubai Collection is offering regional collectors the chance to meet one another and learn about collecting while promoting the idea that art is to be seen and shared. Warehouses around the world are full of forgotten artefacts, which is a huge pity. By exposing these works digitally, and making them available for loan, the Dubai Collection highlights the importance of art patronage and of the UAE as a hub for art and culture. Today, the UAE is home to some incredible artistic gems from the region and abroad.


About Hala Khayat

Appointed as Art Dubai’s Regional Director in 2020, Hala Khayat is a renowned expert in Arab and Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Art, who brings profound expertise to enhance local and regional collector engagement. With a notable career at Christie’s Dubai since 2007, specialising in Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art, Khayat has expanded the Middle East’s Art market globally. Beyond her role as a Regional Director, she founded Safir in 2014, an NGO supporting young Syrian artists, showcasing her commitment to fostering artistic growth and advocating for Syria’s art community.

Caption featured image: Hala Khayat, Regional Director, Art Dubai, Image Courtesy Aasiya Jagadeesh.

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