Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Ayyam Gallery’s Maya Samawi

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 which 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.

Can you share your journey into bringing art to the UAE? How did it start, what inspired you to do so and what were the challenges?

Nadim Karam, 99 Objects, Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, installation view, 2013. Courtesy of Ayyam Gallery.

As many know, the gallery was founded in Damascus Syria, which was booming at the time, but remained local and regional. The UAE, and Dubai specifically, seemed like a more international market, with an influx of people and the cultural scene building itself from the ground up. There was something very appealing about it, and we therefore expanded into Dubai in 2008.

Which artists were the primary focus of your efforts? Did your choice change over time?

Situated in Damascus at the beginning, the environment and surroundings played a detrimental role in our mission. Being one of the first galleries in Syria to offer programming, exhibitions and competitions, the aim was and still is to promote underrepresented art, and that started with Syrian artists. In retrospect, we believe the MENA region houses four main fine arts institutes: Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt. As we extended our presence and established locations in Beirut, Dubai and London, while actively engaging in global fairs, we connected with diverse artists from the wider MENA region and its diaspora.

Sama Alshaibi, Collapse, Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, installation view, 2015. Courtesy of Ayyam Gallery.

Could you outline the key elements of your gallery programme and how it evolved?

Tammam Azzam, The Road, Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, installation view, 2016. Courtesy of Ayyam Gallery.

We carry visceral art. Our artists are all storytellers; their work has depth while always focusing on the visual. Etel Adnan once said, “I am very sensitive to beauty. We don’t speak of beauty any more in art criticism. We don’t mention beauty, it’s démodé, out of fashion. But it isn’t really beauty, it’s an inner sense and it makes us happy. It’s not complicated, we need it”. These are thoughts we truly believe in. Art is an expansion of oneself; the expression and beauty in it should never be forgotten.

In what ways has this endeavour played a role in nurturing the art scene in the UAE?

We are truly proud to have been the first to settle in the Industrial Area of Dubai. We were inspired by the art districts of the United States, places like Chelsea, in New York, or the district in Miami. The warehouses offered everything we were looking for – high ceilings and white walls – blank pages to express our artists’ dreams and stories. Today Alserkal has become a global art hub. Being the first ones there, we are glad our vision has flourished.

Can you provide an overview of the current state of the art scene in the UAE?

The UAE art scene had a boom a couple of years ago and then met a bit of a pause with a slowed-down economy in 2017, and it only recuperated after Covid. Today it feels stable and growing. All parts of the art scene keep growing and evolving, with an increasing amount of institutions and institutional exhibitions, and a variety of younger and global galleries opening their doors. The art scene is beating and surviving.

What are your expectations regarding the evolution of the art scene in the UAE over the next two decades?

We hope the art scene will only evolve and grow. With everything going on, the increasing amount of international interest in the region, and the amount of work and resources the GCC is pouring into the cultural and notably art scene, we hope it’s only going up from here.

Sadik Kwaish, Alfraji’s Drive by Storms, Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, installation view, 2015. Courtesy of Ayyam Gallery.

About Ayyam Gallery

Ayyam Gallery expanded to Dubai in 2008, leveraging its success in Syria to contribute significantly to the burgeoning art scene in the UAE.

Jouhayna and Maya Samawi, Owners of Ayyam Gallery.

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