Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Lawrie Shabibi Gallery’s William Lawrie

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?

Nabil Nahas, Tethys, 2023, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi.
Nabil Nahas, Tethys, 2023, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi.

Before we opened the gallery, both Asmaa [Shabibi] and I had different roles in the UAE art scene. Asmaa was the managing director of Art Dubai, and had the idea for the Abraaj Art Prize, which brought both sponsorship and curatorial clout to the fair. I was director of Contemporary Middle Eastern Art at Christie’s, and I was the first auction house specialist in the region and for this category. At that time the UAE art scene had a relatively small group of key players, so it’s natural that we all knew each other.
Before this, I first came to Dubai in 2005 as a specialist in Christie’s Islamic Art department in London. My background is an art historian, specialised in Islamic Art, i.e. historical artworks from Islamic lands, from the 7th – 19th centuries CE. I was responsible for consigning the works for Christie’s first exhibition in the Middle East, which was held in the ballroom of Madinat Jumeirah in March 2005. I quickly became friends with the first Christie’s Dubai representative, Lydia Limerick, and through her was introduced to a core of collectors of Modern Arab art in the UAE. With encouragement and support from colleagues in London, we planned the first Christie’s Dubai auction, which was held in May 2006. I spent the nine months between travelling around the region, researching and persuading, and putting together a group of Arab and Iranian Modern and Contemporary artworks, which was the first time Christie’s had ever presented this category in auction. Meanwhile, my colleagues built a legal and logistical framework, which included training the first dedicated fine art shippers and handlers in the region. Most of the clients were entirely new to Christie’s, most completely new to auction and also many of them had never been to Dubai or the UAE. It was a huge gamble, and we were not sure it would work. On the day, the works made three times the top estimate, and almost immediately I was asked to move to Dubai and head the sales. I led the next eight series of auctions, with sales totalling $100m.

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

Hamra Abbas, Colour | Garden, 2022, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.
Hamra Abbas, Colour | Garden, 2022, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.

With the first auctions there was only a relatively small established international market for Arab Modern and Contemporary art, more national markets (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon etc) with some overlap and also collectors in the GCC, who would buy regionally. In the first auction in 2006, I was trying to cover as much ground, geographically- speaking, as possible, but really the way I would refer to it now is we threw many balls in the air to see which would be caught. Back then tastes were different. Calligraphy-based art did best. That changed over the time I was in Christie’s Dubai, and we gradually moved to the kind of selections you see now in the auctions. I could see very clearly how the evolving market quickly began to shape the content of the sales, changes that were not necessarily to my taste or interests.
At this point I had the idea to start my own gallery. My friend Asmaa had a similar idea, and we both expressed it over a coffee 13 years ago, and here we are! Our primary focus was artists from the Arab world, Iran and the broader region, who we felt were underrepresented in Dubai. Mostly young artists with a few established names. We opened with a show for Nabil Nahas, who was a friend from my Christie’s days. We followed this up with an exhibition for Shahpour Pouyan, and then with a group show to try working with several artists, including Asad Faulwell. I am happy to say we still work with all three.

Mehdi Moutashar, Cardinal Points, 2021, nstallation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.
Mehdi Moutashar, Cardinal Points, 2021, nstallation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.

We do listen to what our artists and supporters say, and this can sometimes change our programme. Seven or eight years ago a few people noted that our programme was at the time heavy on diasporic artists. We thought this was interesting and began to explore this. As we are both British and partly UK- based, we started focusing on diasporic artists working in the UK, where a wealth of art schools and artist studios has, in London especially, enabled a particularly vibrant artist scene. Around the same time, we were very lucky to begin working with Shaikha Al Mazrou, and slightly later, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, two of the leading artists in the UAE. Until then all our artists were abroad, but it’s such an enriching experience to be able to visit artists at home and in the studio. As the scene here changes and opportunities open up, it’s been particularly rewarding to work with Shaikha and Mohamed on projects around the region, especially public art.

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

Shaikha Al Mazrou, Dwelling in the Gap, 2022, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.
Shaikha Al Mazrou, Dwelling in the Gap, 2022, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.

There are a few overlapping features, I like to think of it as a Venn diagram of overlapping sets. We are drawn to artists with an appreciation of history/art history/culture and investigate or critique these within their work; we are drawn to abstraction, especially geometric abstraction; to artists who work with either motifs or techniques that have a dialogue with historical Islamic art; to artists whose craft is wholly apparent – we don’t like things to look too machine made; we work with older artists whose work we think is underrepresented or has been missed out in the first wave of global art history. These are interests that Asmaa and I have been developing for a long time and are conscious of. There are several other themes, and we never mind if they are pointed out to us, in fact it’s very helpful. Essentially, it’s the personalities of the artists that shapes the programme. As their work develops and changes, so too do we have to keep up.

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

There is only a very small number of galleries in Dubai which have a comparable outlook and way of operating. We try to maintain a level of consistency in our approach, with five or six exhibitions each year in the space, the two local fairs – Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art, and international fairs in the UK, US and East Asia. To maintain this over more than a decade requires a lot of energy, dedication and also funding. Not many galleries here are prepared for this kind of constant commitment, and those who do provide the bedrock of the commercial art scene here in the UAE. In more than 12 years, we have worked with many of the most interesting artists of the region, often bringing them to the UAE for the first time, as well as working with collectors (occasionally helping mint new ones), and with institutions, some old, some yet to open, to build their collections through acquisitions and commissions, while at the same time having a programme of exhibitions – now more than 70 – that are free and open to any visitors.

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

Mona Saudi, Poetry in Stone, 2015, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Lawrie Shabibi.
Mona Saudi, Poetry in Stone, 2015, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Lawrie Shabibi.

It’s funny to think our gallery is now one of the older galleries in Dubai! Of the group I mentioned above, we are the youngest. There are many commercial galleries and spaces in different areas of the city, more than I can reasonably follow, including for digital new media. It’s looking more and more like a holistic art scene, spread through the three main cities – Sharjah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi. Whilst Dubai is very much the centre of the commercial art scene, Abu Dhabi with the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (under construction both in terms of building and collection), Sharjah with the Sharjah Art Foundation and Sharjah Museums, several universities now teaching to bachelor’s or master’s standard and non-profits such as Art Jameel, Marayah and 421.

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

What excites me most is the opening of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. It will be the most significant museum opening in the world when it opens, perhaps the most important museum opening this decade. We have been working with the Guggenheim team for about a decade now, getting to understand their ethos about what it means to have a contemporary art museum – more than that, a Guggenheim a) in the region b) in the UAE c) in Abu Dhabi. It’s been a journey and it’s been delayed. We know all of that, but what it’s given is time and space to reflect on those questions, and I am sure what we will see will have a huge impact not just on the UAE art scene but on the whole region’s cultural scene. Just look at the effect the Guggenheim had on Bilbao, or the Tate Modern had on London, especially the whole of South London, which I think it was key in regenerating.

William Lawrie’s notes on shows:

Nabil Nahas, Palms and Stars (2011)

Our opening exhibition took place just before the opening of Art Dubai and was one of the best attended events in Alserkal Avenue that year – although it is fair to say that there were only four or five galleries there back then! As a brand-new gallery, we were very lucky indeed to have this kind of artist as the first show!

Nabil Nahas, Palms and Stars, 2011, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi.
Nabil Nahas, Palms and Stars, 2011, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi.

Nabil Nahas, Tethys (2023)

This is Nabil’s third exhibition in the gallery, and is our current exhibition. The space has undergone six months of renovations, and having Nabil’s show mark this reopening is a kind of symmetry that we like! These recent tree paintings are so much darker and stronger than anything we saw before. More gestural, highly textured and abstracted, these are some of his strongest works.

Nabil Nahas, Tethys, 2023, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi.
Nabil Nahas, Tethys, 2023, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi.

Hamra Abbas, Kaaba Picture as a Misprint (2014)

This is the first of four exhibitions Hamra has held at the gallery. The title piece KPAM is a series of six prints which mimic offset trim-colour printing, with CMY colours overlapping to form a black simplified Kaaba. Visually very simple, conceptually profound, this was one of the most striking works we’ve shown.

Hamra Abbas, Colour | Garden (2022)

The most recent exhibition of Hamra Abbas, almost entirely consisting of works in inlaid and mosaic stone, a technique she perfected whilst making a 1000 square foot mosaic pavement for Dubai Expo 2020, this included a 3-metre mountain scape made entirely of lapis lazuli. The only other work that was not in stone referenced KPAM, although simplified, it was the same size and proportions and shown in the same location.

Hamra Abbas, Colour | Garden, 2022, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.
Hamra Abbas, Colour | Garden, 2022, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.

Mehdi Moutashar, Cardinal Points (2021)

This was the first exhibition in the UAE for Moutashar, who was a recipient of the 2018 Jameel Prize although had received little exposure in the GCC. The exhibition itself was one of the best uses of our space. I just love how Mehdi installs his works – he animates the floor and the walls, the works themselves occupying a space between two and three- dimensions. Right now, he has a truly exceptional solo exhibition at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. Several of the works from Cardinal Points are shown there. His brand of minimalism, inspired by Islamic art, is showing at the same time as an extraordinary exhibition of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin at Riwaq. Even in such company his work certainly holds its own.

Mehdi Moutashar, Cardinal Points, 2021, nstallation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.
Mehdi Moutashar, Cardinal Points, 2021, nstallation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.

Mona Saudi, Poetry in Stone (2015)

Mona was one of the first artists from the region I got to know in 2005, when I was researching the first auction for Christie’s Dubai. Things don’t always happen immediately, and it was almost a decade later we showed her in the gallery. Our aim was to increase institutional interest in her practice. Mona had a retrospective at Sharjah Art Museum in 2018, followed by further institutional acquisitions after her death in 2022. Very tragically, her daughter Dia Batal, also an artist, recently passed away. The gallery is continuing to work on Mona’s legacy. The relationships we develop with artists and their families has begun to span generations and we are seeing that as the gallery matures, so does our sense of responsibility and duty.

Mona Saudi, Poetry in Stone, 2015, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Lawrie Shabibi.
Mona Saudi, Poetry in Stone, 2015, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Lawrie Shabibi.

Shaikha Al Mazrou, Dwelling in the Gap (2022)

This was the second show for Shaikha Al Mazrou in the gallery, with her folder steel works referencing minimalism and inspired by origami. Shaikha is the first artist from the UAE that we have worked with, and her work has improved and matured so that every piece in this show was a gem – colour and form perfectly balanced, and the series conceived as a complete set. Seeing the exhibition for the first time was like walking into a candy store – that same sense of giddy excitement.

Shaikha Al Mazrou, Dwelling in the Gap, 2022, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.
Shaikha Al Mazrou, Dwelling in the Gap, 2022, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Ismail Noor.

About William Lawrie

William Lawrie, co-founder of Lawrie Shabibi, has been an influential figure in the UAE art scene, transitioning from a role at Christie’s to establishing the gallery in 2010 with Asmaa Shabibi.

William Lawrie and Asmaa Shabibi, founders of Lawrie Shabibi Gallery.
William Lawrie and Asmaa Shabibi, founders of Lawrie Shabibi Gallery.

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