Annette Welkamp of Culture Counsel shares her insights on Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood’s art scene, including the best galleries in Al Fahidi and her favourite creative hubs in this historic pocket of Old Dubai.
“There are lots of reasons to go to the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, but mainly it appeals to me because it is a place where the contemporary is explored through a heritage lens. The result is that whatever art, design, fashion and stories you encounter there, you absorb them in the context of old Dubai, and everything becomes interdependent.
While I take all my international guests there, I also pass by regularly to visit the temporary exhibitions, shop for locally designed gifts, and stop for coffee or dinner. Meandering along the alleyways, or sikkas as they are known locally, also revives me.
While the last residents of one of Dubai’s oldest settled areas moved out decades ago, this little pocket is once again bustling with activity. You might have to be a bit adventurous, though, and go through a narrow doorway to discover its hidden secrets. Typical of Arab houses, all the action happens behind the big walls.
When there was only a handful of contemporary artists in Dubai, and not many more people interested in art, the XVA was established. Mona Hauser, the owner, has slowly but surely built an appreciative audience, never wavering from her commitment to rising artists from the region. If only these art walls could talk, what stories they would tell. The cafe continues to play host to many a formal and informal discussion about the merits of painting and sculpture, figuration and abstraction, western and Arab aesthetics. And the hotel rooms are precious gems.
Just across the sikka is a newer addition, the Alserkal Cultural Foundation. Another great contribution to Dubai by the Alserkal family, this not-for-profit foundation supports up and coming creative talent. It is also a building where exploring is rewarded. There are many rooms filled with art from local artists, and the Creativity, Book and Fashion Corner stores offer books, design and fashion products that you’ll want to take home. The Courtyard Cafe is enticing throughout the year, and coffee should definitely be taken up on the rooftop terrace. Up there the sea breezes are fresh and reviving, and it becomes clear why the residents often used to sleep on the flat roofs during summer.
Just around the corner, near the remains of the original city wall is very special place. Mawaheb for Beautiful People is almost always lively, especially if there is an art class happening in the courtyard. Mawaheb is an art studio for adults with special needs, and the creative output is as diverse as the artists themselves. There are large canvases for sale, and the store has a range of high-quality homewares and gifts, which are inspired by the artists’ work.
These are just three of my regular destinations, but there is more if you are looking for encounters of the creative kind, including the Majlis Gallery which has operated since 1989. Outside you also need to look out for sculptures and paintings lurking around corners in alleyways.
So now that you know what the word ‘sikka’ means, you will be prompted to visit the Sikka Art Fair in March. It is the week where the contemporary and historic collide in the liveliest, creative, and often noisy of ways.”
To plan your visit to this must-visit destination in Old Dubai, read Rashid Al Tamini’s insider guide to Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood.