Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Total Arts’ Dariush Zandi

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.

Rima Nasser: 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?

Dariush Zandi: When I first established myself in Dubai in 1980 as an architect of municipal and private buildings across the city, I became involved in the restoration of historical buildings and their conversion into museums, whilst I was simultaneously developing my practice as a photographer. Dubai was quite magical with its special atmosphere and its growing potential, but I felt it lacked a platform for artists. Alongside a group of close friends and colleagues, we started developing the first art institute in Dubai called Dubai Art Center. In the same spirit, I later felt the need to establish Total Arts, my own gallery and studio. At the beginning of the 1990s, I put forward a proposition for a multicultural, multifunctional, multidisciplinary artistic centre. Land was allocated to it on an empty lot in the Al Quoz area of Dubai and I happily began designing and building what came later to be called The Courtyard.

The Courtyard opened its doors in 1998 and became the first cultural organisation in Al Quoz and an anchor for what was to come. In 2023, we celebrated its 25th anniversary. And as I look back at the beginnings of it all, I can say that even though I saw the UAE’s artistic potential, I never imagined it would grow to the extent it has. Today, The Courtyard houses our art gallery, Total Arts, along with a theatre with a 70-seat capacity, an incubator business centre, spaces for interior designers and artists, printing, film and photography studios, restaurants and unique creative boutiques.

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

DZ: The Courtyard’s concept was to create a viable, multidisciplinary community centre which could house a variety of functions, exhibitions and cultural activities in a city that is home to many different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. It was created to be a place for people to meet, interact and learn about each other while engaging in art and culture. This broadness of the spectrum was deliberate, and our primary focus was to create an art institute, rather than focusing on any particular artist.

This choice of approachability and this broad-minded line of action remained and developed over time as our knowledge of the geo-social context grew. Being located in Dubai, we naturally directed our attention to the artists of the region, especially the UAE, Iran and the Arab World. And we always rose above any considerations of race, religion, types of arts or special entities, while keeping an open mind, free from any conventional notions in conceiving arts and culture.

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

DZ: Total Arts had always been a place for rich creative exchange, and over time it diverged more and more into becoming a space of experimentation, learning and collaboration. With fine arts at its core, it transcended being a gallery or an art centre into becoming an artistic community where artists feel welcome, valued, and propelled to interact, create and experiment.

As the art scene developed in Dubai and the UAE, as more art institutions and galleries sprung up, we felt the liberty to free ourselves from the restrictions that commercial galleries usually have. The move was to divert from the commercial gallery format towards becoming a non-profit entity, an interdisciplinary space fostering learning, cooperation and cross- experimentation, where we explore the less-obvious, the unpaved ways and the fresh, new trials from which we grow. With time, this led to a changeover in the conventional perception of art that came to be more relaxed about itself, less concerned about delivering prominence but rather playfully liberated from the stress of opinion and ready-made judgement. Art was freed from the definition of what ‘real art’ is or ought to be. Putting down that responsibility changed the standards for art. The bold simplicity of the concept rallied our spaces’ variety and originality, found interest in artists and gave new, much-needed freedom.

RN: In what ways has this endeavour played a role in nurturing the art scene in the UAE?
DZ: Everything is of help at the commencement of things. And it is really an interaction with the milieu. This idea of starting and being a member of the art community in a villa in Jumeirah – immediately taking charge of the photography group and starting the dark room, was met by the passion of a group of people interested in the field of photography. Launching exhibitions of all sorts with others in the community, especially the members of the art centre, helped the growing community of art enthusiasts in Dubai. This led to the need to develop the field even further by taking land in Al Quoz and designing and building a dedicated platform for this cause. As an urban designer, I felt the need to fulfil my aspirations and goals and to put this idea across, but it is really the enthusiasm of like-minded people that was the catalyst. The attraction of the people and artists to organise art events or exhibitions and to take up residence in a place that was not necessarily in the middle of the city was key. As those galleries and cultural organisations grew, they expanded into new headquarters elsewhere in the area or in the city. They became some of the most recognisable names in art and culture in Dubai today. Since the opening of the Courtyard in 1998, the area has changed significantly. Many galleries and art studios have flourished in the neighbourhood to make an artistic and cultural hub. In 2022, the Dubai government designated Al Quoz a special creative zone. This transformation of an industrial quarter into a creative one is a beautiful example of the transformational power of art.

RN: Can you provide an overview of the current state-of-the-art scene in the UAE? What are your expectations regarding the evolution of the art scene in the UAE over the next two decades?
DZ: It has been a joy and pride to witness and be part of the evolution of art in the UAE, rallying the contemporary, the traditional and the experimental, and making the past, the present and the future dialogue together. The transformation of the art scene has seen a growing interest from perhaps a handful of individuals who were not widely recognised into a vibrant community with an increasingly growing number of galleries and numerous young and promising artists and designers contributing to the city’s creative scene and hence shaping the cultural landscape of the region.

Having been in AlQuoz for the past 25 years, my expectations would be very positive. As a witness and active participant in the immense growth in the art scene since first arriving in Dubai in 1978, I expect the same speed of development over the next two decades, if not more. With the ever-increasing number of galleries, museums, art institutions, art authorities and cultural events in the area, the UAE and the region in general, I imagine the growth and evolution of the art scene would even surpass the previous. The level of knowledge and the art programmes have risen to new heights. Many art institutions have brought new learnings and experiences from the rest of the world. In addition to this first-hand information, the connection between the UAE and the rest of the world has grown, as has the exchange and connections between local artists, educational institutions here and worldwide artists and institutions. All these elements have brought the standards of the field to a new level. Funding has tremendously increased. The rising competition, participation, workshops and seminars in the field over the last three years have given me the indication that we are going to be reaching a very high level in the standards of the arts and art institutions through the next 20 years. This also can be said of the UAE’s different emirates and of the entire region because we are observing in many of the neighbouring countries an increasing participation under the vector of defying social and artistic boundaries, and all this is indisputably reflected through art.


About Dariush Zandi

Dariush Zandi, founder of Total Arts and the Courtyard (established in 1998), has significantly shaped Al Quoz’s vibrant art community, fostering experimentation along the way.

Caption featured image: Dariush Zandi, Founder of Total Arts. Photo by Elias Daaboul.

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