Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Meem Gallery’s Charles Pocock

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 personal journey in terms of bringing art to the UAE?

Art in Iraq Today installation view at Meem Gallery, 2010. Courtesy of Meem Gallery.

My journey really started many years ago in 1994 at the University of East Anglia studying History of Art under Professor John Onians. I was the second year of undergraduates to undertake the World Art Studies programme. This was the first time ever a university had initiated such a course that looked at non-Western art in the same light as Western. With the Sainsbury Centre collection and with the right guidance by the world’s leading academics at the UK’s leading university for History of Art, one’s perspective on art and culture was given a serious upgrade. Years later, working in art in 2000, one was drawn into the contemporary culture of the region where I am now based. It was a close friend of my late father, from Saudi Arabia, who focused my mind on the contemporary art of the region.
I had been to the UAE a number of times between 2002 and 2005, working on projects such as the Al Qasr and Mina Salam Hotels and extensive discussions re the DIFC Art Collection. In May 2005, Mishal Hamed Kanoo suggested the idea of setting up an art gallery in Dubai and he organised a meeting with Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi at the Wafi Mall cinema. We were all going to see the new Star Wars film. It feels like yesterday. We met, we talked and we discussed the idea of setting up a gallery together. At this point the gallery was just a conversation.
It was an atrocity in London on 7th July 2005 that triggered my move to Dubai. I had spent 18 months working on a retrospective of the work of Ali Omar Ermes to be held at Christie’s Auction House in St James’s London, opening on 16th July 2005. I had arranged sponsorship to cover the costs from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). It was all gone. Then the horrific atrocity happened attacking London’s transport network seven days before our launch. One of those closest to me at the time missed the explosion by 300 metres and another friend lost his leg in the explosion. RBC withdrew its sponsorship and clients who were meant to come cancelled. It was a disaster on every level, above all for humanity and the victims of the atrocity.

Art Morocco: Mohamed Melehi, Ahmed Cherkaoui, Julali Gharbaoui installation view at Meem Gallery, 2012. Courtesy of Meem Gallery.

It was at that time that Mishal Kanoo stepped in, The Kanoo Group agreed to sponsor a part of the project and covered the costs as they saw the importance of promoting peace during a time of chaos and gave us all a window of hope, which I will always be thankful for. Looking back at it, it is amazing how we ever managed to deliver the project. Most would have cancelled, but we pushed on as it made sense on many different levels. It was at the end of July 2005 that Mishal suggested to me that now was the time to leave London and set up Meem in Dubai, I agreed, and I flew to Dubai to meet with Sultan and Mishal. We registered Meem Gallery at the Dubai Courts on 22nd August 2005. Meem Gallery was legally initiated, but the journey to opening it took a bit longer. Meem Gallery was all built and ready to go in April 2006 when another mountain was put in front of me in the form of aggressive cancer and I had to return to the UK for heavy surgery and then recovery. Finally, we opened Meem Gallery to the public in January 2007 with the work of Ali Omar Ermes.
It must be said that Meem Gallery would not have happened without Mishal Kanoo. It was his idea, his vision and he brought us all together and he encouraged me to come to Dubai. There were lots of challenges, the biggest of which are already mentioned. Strangely, the mild challenges one encountered in setting up in Dubai seemed inconsequential in comparison to what it took to actually get to Dubai. Sometimes you have to push on to get the job done. Yes, one needs to understand when to stop. However, being determined combined with some pragmatism seems to have won through. Above all, working with Mishal and Sultan, all of us having a shared vision, having their support in all ways and at all times, and above all having them as close friends, made Meem happen. We built Meem together. Our remit has not changed and we are all proud of what we have delivered through Meem Gallery, now in its 18th year. The cultural journeys of Mishal and Sultan’s are different from mine. Both are passionate art collectors, Mishal is a passionate collector of Islamic art and Sultan’s journey started at school when he learned how Picasso’s Guernica taught how art could capture a historic, political moment in history. In 2000, when visiting an exhibition of Ismail Shammout and Tama Al-Akhal in Dubai with his mother and late father, Sultan’s passion for collecting started. He went on to found the Barjeel Art Foundation in 2010, which has a focus on Modern Arab art. This is another story separate from Meem’s, however, both are woven together as part of the history of art and culture in the UAE and the history of Arab art.
In 2005, the Sharjah Art Museum was the key museum. Abu Dhabi announced the plans for the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in July 2006. The Sharjah Art Foundation was established in 2009.
Mathaf: The Arab Museum of Modern Art was established in 2010. However, Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani, the founder of Mathaf, had been privately collecting since the early 1990s. The Barjeel Art Foundation was established in 2010 and stabled originally at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah.
In 2005 there were very few actual public institutions exhibiting Modern and Contemporary Arab art. The art scene revolved around private collectors and the taste at that time was for hurifiyya, this being art that predominately uses the Arabic letter and has its roots in Islamic art and Arabic calligraphy. This was formalised with the exhibition at the British Museum curated by Dr. Venetia Porter, Word into Art, which was sponsored by Dubai Holding. The exhibition then came to Dubai in 2008. The key Arab artists of this movement are Ali Omar Ermes, Nja Mahdaoui, Ahmed Moustafa and Rachid Koraichi, and these were the artists we brought to Dubai for our first exhibitions, specifically Ali Omar Ermes of Libya and Nja Mahdaoui of Tunisia held at Meem in 2007.

Ali Omar Ermes exhibition at Meem Gallery, 2007. Courtesy of Meem Gallery.

The art scene in Dubai was very different back in the early 2000s. The reality is you had to give your clients what they want, however, you can guide and introduce works by different artists. Meem’s approach has always been balanced relating to Modern and Contemporary Arab and Iranian art. We moved away from hurifiyya and focused on the leading contemporary Arab artists and the Modern masters of the region, working very closely with Dia al-Azzawi, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Mohamed Melehi, Kamal Boullata, Parviz Tanavoli, Abbas Kiarostami, Mahmoud Mokhtar, Adam Henein, Jewad Selim, Ahmed Cherkaoui, Saliba Douaihy, Assadour, Rafa Nasiri and Mahmoud Said. We accepted the limitations of hurifiyya work and our clients also moved more into Modern masters and Contemporary Arab art. We have always made a point of having a balanced programme of Modern and Contemporary.
We exhibit the contemporary work of Dia al-Azzawi, Adel Abidin, Moataz Nasr, Walid Siti, Assadour, Jeffar Khaldi, Mahmoud Obaidi and Zhivago Duncan. Another side to Meem is the research and archive side to the gallery, as well as the publications programme of Meem under Meem Editions. The research and archive side comes under the Noor Library, which holds over 20,000 physical publications devoted to the arts of the region and the digital archive holds around 150,000 files. We work with institutions, both regionally and internationally, with a focus on Modern and Contemporary Arab and Iranian art, advising, supporting and placing key works with the leading institutions and supporting exhibitions at institutions re loans of works and archival material.

Did your choice change over time?
There are a number of artists we have worked with for a long time. Our journey has been shared together. We all change over time, however, in most instances, we have changed together. As human beings, we must push ourselves to adapt and improve at all times. We must always be going forward, never backwards. We must be aware and awake, and as I said, push ourselves, as a gallery, as an archive, advising clients both private and institutional. All our tastes change in all ways all the time. Our programme has changed, not completely, however, it has changed. I know we need to support young and local talent more and it is on our mind regularly. We have so many requests from the leading private collectors and global institutions, that there are nearly not enough hours in a day to get everything done. However, we found a way. Yes, we need to nurture more younger talent as the art scene in the UAE is exploding with some very impressive young raw talent that needs to be guided.

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

Modern Masters installation view at Meem Gallery, 2020. Courtesy of Meem Gallery.

I am asked this question regularly. The reality is this: the key collectors’ focus is on Modern – be it Arab or Iranian. This is clearly seen in the public sales held in London, by the market leaders, Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. There will always be a focus on the key Con-temporary Arab artists in diaspora in London, Paris, Berlin, Helsinki and New York, such as Walid Raad, Adel Abdessemed, Mona Hatoum, Adel Abidin and Kader Attia by collectors of art from the region. They broke out of the regional model and are seen as international with works in key international museums.
The art scene and the art market are two very different things: connected yet different. Looking at the art fairs, biennales and gallery programmes in the UAE, there is no question that things are more mature, structured and established and things will only get stronger. I remember how things were here in Dubai in 2003 and how things changed so quickly. It is not for us to say what Meem has achieved. This must come from others. All I can say is that we have done all we can to make change and make a difference for the better. We have always believed that art scenes must develop organically and you cannot force something on somebody. Yes, nurtured, cared for, protected and done in a responsible manner. It is not about me; it is about us and us all. We are a collective, we are one society and we all live together and hopefully all wish for the same thing, for a better world for our children.

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

Walid Siti: Fragile Construct installation view at Meem Gallery, 2023. Courtesy of Meem Gallery.

In the next five years, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be open. Dubai could have a Modern art museum. This is needed, but this is another conversation. The UAE art scene will grow and develop. Look at how the Abu Dhabi Festival under the leadership of H.E. Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, DCT under H.E. Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, the Sharjah Art Foundation and its world-class biennial by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi or Dubai Culture under H. H. Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, how they have all matured, become more established and the projects worked on for years are now being developed and fulfilled. One must take into account the main driving force in the UAE and that is H.E. Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, the Cultural Adviser to the President of the UAE, who was directly instrumental in the development of the Cultural District of Abu Dhabi. All these parties have been carrying the original vision of the founder of the UAE, H.H. the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The concept of a cultural centre and a national library was discussed by the National Consultative Council as far back as 1971, the very year the nation was born. So important was the plan for the Cultural Foundation that it was actually entrenched in the country’s original legal framework in the second law ever passed in the country, Law No. 2 of 1971.
The UAE now has a permanent pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Dubai has the strongest gallery scene in the whole region. The UAE holds the leading art fairs of the wider region and has delivered world-class museums such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi with more to come. I expect the UAE cultural scene will mirror New York and Washington DC and its growth will be mirrored organically in the UAE. A liberal and progressive stage has been set up by an open-minded government that has allowed a cultural scene to develop and evolve. It will only grow larger and become more established.

Dia al-Azzawi: The Lebanon Works installation view at Meem Gallery, 2021. Courtesy of Meem Gallery.

About Charles Pocock

Co-founder of Meem Gallery, established in 2007, Charles Pocock has been instrumental in shaping the artistic narrative of the region in collaboration with Mishal Kanoo and Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi.



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