Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE. Tabari Artspace interview with Maliha Tabari

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.

Can you share the story behind establishing Tabari Art Space in the UAE?

Mouneer El Shaarani, exhibition at Tabari Artspace, 2006. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

Tabari Artspace celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Two decades ago, I took a bold step, driven by a vision to establish one of the first official galleries in the region. Although I hadn’t lived in Dubai, my frequent visits—owing to my parents’ residence— offered an outsider’s perspective, revealing a gap in the cultural landscape. In the late 1990s, the UAE lacked significant cultural touchpoints, with only a modest art centre showcasing ceramics and a coffee shop that displayed a few artworks.

Mohammed Abla, exhibition at Tabari Artspace, 2007. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

Having immersed myself in the vibrant art scene of the US, I recognised the untapped potential in Dubai. At the age of 22, I saw a bright future in the art scene and the vision of the Gulf and took the leap and decided to invest in the first gallery space.

Initially, opening a gallery wasn’t part of my plans. I intended to pursue a master’s degree abroad. However, fate intervened when I met my now husband, who not only became my life partner but also shared my vision for a gallery. With his background in real estate, we secured a small space in the Fairmont Hotel—the vibrant hub during those days. From 2002 to 2006, we rented this space and ran the gallery under the name Artspace.

Recognising the complexities of combining business and marriage, we ended our work partnership on the day we got married. Subsequently, as my other partner exited, I took full ownership, leading to a rebranding in 2017. The transition from Artspace to Tabari Artspace marked a new chapter, the start of my solo journey and a renewed direction for the gallery.

Group exhibition Adel El-Siwi, Adam Henein, Omar El-Nagdi, Yousef Ahmad, Hussein Madi, Paul Guiragossian, 2008. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

Which artists were the primary focus of your efforts?

Ahmed Mater, exhibition at Tabari Artspace, 2009. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

My inaugural exhibition, Vis-à-vis, featured three Persian artists, including Shadi Ghadirian. Having grown up in Saudi Arabia the theme of the show resonated with me: female oppression and identity struggles. Despite my initial concerns about addressing such a topic, especially in a new environment like the UAE, the response from people was overwhelmingly positive. At the age of 22, with my youthful boldness, I wanted to empower women through my first exhibition.

Zoom Art Fair, Miami, 2010. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

Beginning with Persian artists seemed natural, given their global prominence. Many were already making waves internationally, and the Iranian art scene, particularly its women artists, garnered recognition on a global scale through auctions and gallery exhibitions. However, my perspective broadened as I travelled to other Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon and Egypt. It was during these journeys that I discovered exceptional artists like Hussein Madi, Adel El Siwi, and Adam Henein. Unfortunately, their talents were relatively unknown, with minimal representation or curated exhibitions. Recognising the vital role of galleries in curating and exhibiting artworks, I felt a push to establish a space that would properly showcase these artists’ works.

During that time, I wasn’t known merely as a gallerist selling art; I considered these artists my friends. The dynamic has evolved over the years, and now it feels like working with siblings, given the younger generation of artists I now collaborate with. However, in the beginning, it felt like working with dear grandparents; creatives that brought a wealth of experience to my life. The journey was marked by learning and discovery. The moments spent with artists like Madi on his Beirut balcony, or in Henein’s garden in Egypt were unforgettable; a unique opportunity to delve into the minds of some of the most significant regional artists of our time.

Hussein Madi, exhibition at Tabari Artspace, 2010. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

What is your approach to collecting art?

The first artwork I bought was by Farhad Moshiri, and I still have it. I rarely sell what I own. I have advised many collectors over the years. I believe that whatever you’re collecting should be part of a story. We must ask what the vision is; is it the female gaze? Is it Modern or Contemporary?

Monif Ajaj exhibition at Tabari Artspace, 2011. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

How do you select artists and how does this nurture the art scene in the UAE?

Khaled Zaki, Treasuries of Knowledge, Venice Biennale, 2013. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

I’ve consistently relied on my intuition when selecting artists throughout my career. The artists I choose often contribute to emerging movements or bring forth new modes of thinking and practice. Reflecting on artists that I work with from the Gulf: Maitha Abdalla stands out as a pioneering and influential female artist, inspiring others with her focus on the intimate, internal, gendered, and psychological aspects. She sparks conversations about what is deemed sinful, exploring the inner battles universally faced.

Hashel Al Lamki is another Emirati visual artist who connects his regional experiences to universal concerns, particularly in sustainability. His consciousness about the materials he uses, and his exploration of the UAE’s landscape powerfully unites both local and global connections highlighting the interconnectedness of human experience.

Thinking of the next art movement, I believe we will witness the rise of Gulf artists. The region has recently opened up, and over the next one to two generations, individuals will become more vocal and internationally recognised. Many Gulf artists, whether from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or the UAE, have studied abroad exposing themselves and drawing influence from new communities and contexts creating new and unprecedented dialogues.

I’ve always been drawn to art that bears the hand touch, be it in sculptures or paintings. This connection resonates as a form of mark-making akin to documenting history. While I appreciate historical elements, I also value a connection to the present. Artists like Chafa Ghaddar reinterpret old frescoes in a contemporary context, and Hazem Harb recontextualises 18th-century photographs, offering a historical perspective on modern-day issues. When evaluating artists, I envision them as catalysts for changing future research and perspectives, capturing moments that might not otherwise be recorded and using their output to challenge the status quo and dominant order. Sometimes, I approach the gallery as an archaeologist or historian, considering the transformative impact on the world’s understanding in the future.

Art Dubai, 2016. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

Are these artists living in the UAE?

The interesting thread we see in all artists is that they’re all interconnected in a way because they all had an education, even if it was abroad. Many are living in the UAE, but they have also been outside of their region. I don’t like labelling this as ‘Middle Eastern art’ because these artists are more than that and I find regional tags a limiting way to understand and engage with art. They’ve been part of this international fabric, they just live in the region, they are so much more than just a geographic context.

Can you tell us more about how you work with artists?

Nasser Al Aswadi, exhibition at Tabari Artspace, 2017. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

In my collaboration with artists, I prioritise providing support well before their exhibition at the gallery. My commitment to the artists I select is comprehensive; it usually begins with me actively collecting their works. In this process, I often seek out pieces that resonate with the essence of their early artistic journeys. This approach extends to many emerging artists, and as their work gains prominence, we often engage in reflective conversations, reminiscing about the challenges and highlights during the initial production stages.

Our gallery ethos is centred around nurturing and supporting artists on a personal level throughout the years whether that be time spent in the studio, long discussions late at night, grant support or our residency programme in Italy. The objective is to unlock their full potential technically and conceptually, empowering them to express their intimate concerns. We believe in creating an environment where artists feel safe and empowered to realise their artistic vision to the fullest.

Adel Siwi, Faces & Beyond, Tabari Artspace, 2017. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

What are your expectations regarding the evolution of your gallery and the art scene in the UAE?

Hazem Harb, solo exhibition, Copenhagen, 2019. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

As new generations emerge, fresh artists naturally bring new concerns, access innovative art-making methods, and engage with a distinct global dynamic. Consequently, our roster of artists evolves to reflect these shifts.

While we continue to showcase and have access to works from established artists from earlier generations, our focus is on promoting the new generation who reflect contemporary living. These artists in diaspora or those who consider themselves global citizens invest time in the region, contributing to its dynamic in powerful ways.

Maitha Abdalla, group show at Basel, 2023. Courtesy of Tabari Art Space.

Examples include Hazem Harb, a Palestinian artist who lived in Italy before spending a decade in the UAE, and Chafa Ghaddar, a Lebanese expat who considers the region her home, having completed two residencies here. The gallery’s vision aligns with artists who actively engage in shaping a new dialogue grounded in the region.

When collaborating with artists, I am fully committed. Tabari Artspace operates as a collaborative gallery, bringing together like-minded individuals who form a unique community. This community, born out of genuine dialogue, stands out for its lack of competition. Unlike other art communities, our galleries in the region have created a powerful force, each with its narrative, niche, and commitments. The camaraderie among galleries results in cohesion, support, strong relationships, and genuine friendships.

Tagreed Darghouth, exhibition at Cromwell Place, London, 2022. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.



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