Roundtables Report I: What Do You Do?



A partnership between Aisha Alabbar Gallery, Engage101 and Bayt AlMamzar, Roundtables is a discussion series between practitioners in the UAE’s arts ecosystem. Every session, the speakers address a certain topic, aiming to critically deconstruct concepts and structures as they exist currently in the UAE’s evolving arts ecosystem. The sessions are concluded by a report that documents and analyses key developments, opportunities, challenges, misconceptions, and recommendations based on the conversation between the participants. The aim of the series is to produce analytical documentation of key issues in the form of reports available as an open resource and to define the ecosystem by the voices within it. Roundtables hopes to be a tool for collective introspection and to bring together members of the different silos that exist within the wider arts ecosystem of the UAE.

Roundtables Report:

What do you do?

Roundtables brought together a number of individuals from the UAE arts ecosystem, what follows is a report based on their discussion. Artist, Curator, Writer, Student, Gallerist were some of the titles the participating individuals ascribed to themselves on this roundtable, they discussed what titles meant to them and some of the issues the UAE arts ecosystem faces due to the structural hierarchy titles exist within. 

Broadly, titles function as static markers, contextualising and ordering individuals within the arts ecosystem, informing and enforcing hierarchy. While titles serve tangible and useful roles in classifying, individuals' relationships with their titles evolve and change over time. Wearing multiple hats and playing different roles is almost expected in the arts ecosystem of the UAE, which is very eclectic in nature. This can make it hard for an individual to settle on a singular title or definition.

Stamp of Approval

The arts ecosystem in the UAE is an interdependent network of agents and agencies. In this ecosystem, titles are often self-given, but there is an unspoken code to when one can confidently claim a title; a writer when a work is published or an artist when a work is exhibited and collected. There is ambiguity around some roles like curating due to varying understandings of what the role entails. As the local cultural infrastructure is at a maturing stage, titles are being claimed early on, given there is promise for growth unlike the past, when practitioners would hit a glass ceiling after a brief career. Nonetheless, there are gaps in the infrastructure on an individual, institutional, and commercial level, where the middle is not fairly recognised. Practitioners are either labeled emerging or established on the basis of age and title, not experience. It is a global issue that is not particular to the UAE.

Formal education in fields of contemporary art is a relatively new subject. Therefore, whether it is a requirement to claim a title or to qualify for a professional role is debatable. One side believes it is unnecessary by linking education systems to capitalist structures, where the industry does not place value in the content of education, but in the association to specific academic institutes. The other side argues formal education is important to validating art practices, however it does not automatically accelerate rewards which come with practical experience. Due to education being part of the validation structure, there is a consensus that being self-taught runs the risk of being labeled an ‘outsider’ of the network. Studying art also remains problematic for parents to accept, possibly explaining why the UAE art community, as with the rest of the world, is small in comparison to other industries. Certain practices are recently becoming more professionalised in the UAE – to earn a title instead of claiming it – by implementing international training criteria within institutions. This progression is questionable by how local identity will translate.

One Man Show

Titles in the art world do not dictate the capacity of professional roles. Whether working independently or within organizations, art practitioners are expected to carry out additional responsibilities. It is perhaps a reflection to staying relevant within the context of eclectic cities like Dubai. Inside art organizations, titles become insignificant in that all staff are expected to support one another and wear multiple hats to deliver the organization’s objectives. Their labour however is not compensated equally. Rather, financial compensation and praise are based on organizational hierarchy. The hierarchy of experience and expertise somewhat artificially dictates the structure of value and reward, disproportionately benefiting the individual with the most powerful title. The structures of hierarchy still prevail in how things operate and are perceived, especially to the outside observer. 

This mirrors hierarchical systems that exist in the UAE, where meritocracy is contradicted by a sense of nepotism that leads to investing more in the person than in the creative practice or labour. Nepotism is deep rooted in the UAE, operating on many different levels. Although this is a system based on meritocracy and individuals can and do work their way ‘up’, nepotism remains prevalent, it continues to influence how individuals gain access to certain roles and disrupts the operation of meritocracy. Additionally, validation is based on factors other than merit, including politics, nationality, and identity. It is a global issue, for example in how the identity of Arab artists in the West is exoticised contrary to having their practice critiqued as contemporary art. As a result, art practitioners tend to adopt several identities and skills to sustain professional careers and to have recourse in case of failure.

Another reason practitioners in the arts are compelled to perform a multitude of roles is to sustain themselves. The local infrastructure developed positively over the past 20 years, but some aspects remain unclear for those working independently. Despite their achievements, time, and labour, they still struggle with benefits such as health insurance, forcing them to continuously jump from one project to the next. Furthermore, financial compensation in the field is not always protected or respected, leading artists, curators, and other creatives to embody yet another persona to negotiate adequate payment. There is also a lack of public funding towards independent practitioners and organizations. International programmes do not have a strong focus on the UAE. The progammes that do exist in the UAE are highly bureaucratic, requiring many channels of approval that do not necessarily aim to reflect society inside institutions, but rather aim to create universal presentations that appeal to tourists before residents. 

Gatekeeping Structures

In the arts ecosystem of the UAE, as in the art world in general, it is the person, rather than the art practice or the work itself that is invested in and recognised. A general fatigue and exhaustion can result from this need to constantly be sharpening a self-image, refining and recontextualising one's definition as an individual in these contexts. Alongside this and materially speaking, titles remain important to the compensation and rewards of the capitalist system we exist in. 

To escape hierarchy, nepotism, bureaucracy and uncertainty, practitioners now tend to create opportunities by starting independent ‘safe spaces’ in the form of grassroots initiatives, like collectives and digital platforms. These initiatives level the barrier of entry especially to young practitioners by creating a sense of transparency and support that is not dependent on institutions, nonetheless is committed to delivering institution-quality products. These initiatives are also allowed certain freedoms when it comes to narrative that if exercised in institutions would have severe repercussions, such as being canceled. As a result, the top-down structure seen in the beginnings of the art scene is currently undergoing a shift, where critical dialogue is voiced from the bottom-up.

Professional roles in the contemporary art scene are constantly evolving with practitioners adapting to new practices and work environments, and in doing so taking on more responsibilities. Practitioners however practice the same role differently, leading to a wide spectrum of understanding certain roles. In some cases, it is diminishing and counterproductive for those who go through traditional systems of validation, both in the UAE and abroad. Assuming titles without putting in the effort to achieve the degree of rigor, care and labor that it requires is almost a characteristic feature in the UAE arts ecosystem. Thought-provoking to reflect on is that although we can rightfully be critical when certain individual artists, curators or other ‘cultural practitioners’ who lack merit are unduly celebrated for structural reasons, nationality, class or otherwise, their place has validity in that it tells part of the story of our system. 

Roles in the arts ecosystem require an unquantifiable passion that is reflected in the lifestyle of the individual, including circle of friends, events attended, travel plans, and work ethics. It is contradicted by an undermining thought of whether these roles are actually needed socially and economically. It is emphasised by the fact that art itself has become heavily narrativised and represented, so the role of the artwork comes into question. Can art exist outside the network and social structure and still be appreciated at the same value?

Institutional ideas of language and personality

The art scene in the UAE continues to be event-driven. Exhibitions and events are compacted into short periods that do not allow the individual to be fully immersed with a work, an exhibition, or a talk. Art practitioners are already over stimulated, so going into situations of hyper stimulation flares personal anxiety. Furthermore, the multifaceted nature of these periods demands additional programming, where commercial galleries take on the role of institutions and art fairs as museums. It is important to note the scene is young in comparison to other established markets. Galleries for instance find a need to participate in art fairs internationally to expand reach, even though the period during the pandemic proved they are able to partially sustain commercial activities. Constant comparison to other markets threatens the country’s progress to cultivate and establish a homegrown narrative that is not based on Western terminologies and practices.

Creative practices are received differently depending on the context in which they are presented. It is crucial to present the works in the environment that inspired them. Being a global scene, a lot of the systems are adopted from the West. As contemporary culture is being more and more reflected in art, practitioners reject parts of Western-centric structures, finding them to be mismatched with the actual narrative produced locally.  Within these systems that are the result of Western traditions and practices, the UAE is negotiating its identities and in doing so slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) reshaping existing models.

Individuals in the UAE arts ecosystem tend to embody multiple identities and titles because of the need to be able to seize various opportunities in what is a multifaceted space. It is important to also note that the wider context of the UAE remains heavily dictated by identity politics, namely those of nationality, ethnicity, class and gender. The ‘arts ecosystem’ specific nature and function of titles and their multiplicity is deeply informed by this wider context and the politics of nationality, ethnicity, class and gender. 

Self-awareness and acknowledging privilege 

The primary driver of arts and culture institutions and policy decisions is not socio-cultural rather economic development and profit, predominantly through promoting tourism and ‘cultural economy’. The lack of focus on the local population excludes them from cultural activities and therefore current discourse, so progress is detached from the reality on the ground. The gap created between society as a whole and the art scene puts cultural practitioners in a place of privilege. They are the ones observing society while gatekeeping artistic reflections of it. It is contradicted by the fact that within the ecosystem, practitioners are largely overworked and unfairly compensated. The question is what is the practitioners’ share in this economy? And how does this all fit into ‘everyday society’? 

If community is viewed as a monolith, it essentially validates a sameness that is problematic, reinforcing power structures we are directly and indirectly seeking to deconstruct. The UAE arts ecosystem today finds itself injected with some constructive critical conversations, but the hierarchical structures of titles and institutionalisation prevail and produce heavily mediated, largely superficial discourse; perhaps grassroots is the way forward.

While radical thinking, appreciation for all forms of free and critical thought and an avante garde is becoming part of the conversation in the UAE arts ecosystem. It is tempered by the perceived need to be very careful about how conversations are ultimately articulated in public channels, because of the fear, shared by both individuals and institutions, of systemic redlines and the court of public opinion. 

The participants in this discussion

Khalid Abdulla (co-moderator)

Sarah Daher (co-moderator)

Ekaterina Plastinina 

Liane AlGhussain 

Lubnah Ansari

Nadine Khalil

Sarah AlAgroobi

Tarini Tipnis

Walid AlWawi 

Download report


The views and opinions expressed by the participants in the Roundtables discussions, are solely their own current opinions and are based on their own perspective and opinion. Such views, opinions, and/or perspectives are intended to convey information of analytical value for educational, research and scholarly purposes, and are not intended to malign any individual, religion, ethnic group, or company. The opinions expressed in this publication do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Aisha Alabbar Gallery, Engage101 & Bayt AlMamzar. Aisha Alabbar Gallery, Engage101 & Bayt AlMamzar assume no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content or for the results obtained from the use of this information. All information in this publication is provided with no guarantee of completeness, accuracy, timeliness or of the results obtained from the use of this information. Under no circumstances shall the participants in the Roundtables discussions or Aisha Alabbar Gallery, Engage101 & Bayt AlMamzar, their affiliates, partners or agents be liable for any indirect, incidental, consequential, special or exemplary damages arising out of or in connection with access or use or or inability to access or use of the publication.