What prompted you to set up your blog, The Culturist, often praised as a lone critical voice in the UAE?
I wanted to share information about cultural events in Dubai that not many people know about. Additionally, I wanted to share things that interest me (in Dubai or abroad (that I hope will reach an audience with similar taste). Before the blog, I was known to send informal newsletter updates to my friends that included things like list of events/exhibitions happening during the month, or my recommendations of films to watch at the Dubai Film Festival, etc.
That eventually led to the blog which took me a while to commit to, as I didn’t want to start a blog and not follow through.
I also wanted to have a place where I can voice my opinion or thoughts on certain things. I don’t necessarily review/critique all events/exhibitions I go to, but once in a while, if I feel strongly about something, I will do some critical writing, especially when it’s for something that gets blind appraisals in the regular press or social media without any interrogation or questioning.
The blog turns four this year and so far I am very happy with it. I enjoy writing it, finding fun things from the Internet and I am glad to say I have met people who say they like the blog, find it useful and refreshing (so it turns out it’s not just friends and family that read it).
You travel a lot but keep Dubai as your base, how does that dynamic work for you and inform your practice as a photographer and blogger?
I am curious by nature and love travelling to explore and get my culture fix. I try to go to as many museums, photography exhibitions, music events, and film screenings as I can, to see, to learn and to be inspired.
Even simple things like spending a few hours browsing through bookshops or flea markets, which I don’t get to do in Dubai are an inspiring experience.
There’s so much out there and unfortunately, not many international touring exhibitions or bands I like pass by Dubai. So if there’s an exhibition or concert, especially in any of my favourite cities, then it’s a perfect excuse for me to travel.
How was your experience of participating in Sikka Art Fair, Dubai, where you made your blog into a three-dimensional work of art?
My experience at SIKKA was one of the best I’d have and truly an unforgettable one. It triggered in me the love of curating a space and I really enjoyed going through the process of creating a physical space representing my blog. The response I got was so positive and heartwarming.
Are you interested in experimenting further with the exhibition-making process?
I am definitely interested in experimenting with the exhibition making process and would like to see if I can partner with certain art spaces in Dubai. I’d also like to do more promote my blog in physical spaces, like organising film screenings or music events.
How have you seen the art scene in Dubai develop over the last five years? Do you have any fears, hopes or predictions for the next five years?
The art scene in Dubai has been active for the past decade, and year on year we’ve seen more galleries opening in Dubai, but what this city lacks are proper art institutions and academies that can nurture and even groom young artists based here.
I fear there might be a stagnation of art being created here. I don’t think we see enough of a variety of subjects and ideas, ‘identity’ is one of the common themes and I wish artists in this city would move beyond that.
I hope art will be more than a commodity and how much it’s ‘worth’. I hope artists are encouraged to express themselves freely and in public spaces. I do wish street and public art could be allowed to grow organically instead of always having to be sanctioned, commercialised and restricted to certain areas.
Not good at predictions, but I think (and hope) Dubai will have its own art academy. If Dubai wants to be a creative hub, it needs to help nurture creative minds that live in this city and create a generation of artists that are born here.
Are there any art spaces you particularly admire in the UAE?
Many art spaces in the UAE have the same formulaic set up, art stuck on walls and I wish more of them would be more engaging by hosting events/talks to educate and keep their spaces more active instead of just on opening nights.
Having said that, I do have a few favourites on my list. The Empty Quarter because it’s the only fine art photography gallery and I wish more could open.
Gulf Photo Plus because it’s a great community space for photographers and holds interesting talks and exhibitions. My favourite Gulf Photo event is Slidefest, which is held several times a year and showcases some very talented photographers from the region. It’s been consistently good and hope the quality doesn’t get compromised.
The Fridge, one of the very few spaces that supports and hosts local bands and musicians.
Are there any institutional models you would like to see adopted there?
I’ve mentioned this before, but I really would like to see a proper art school or art academy in Dubai. When I was in Singapore (Dubai is often compared to Singapore) and found out they have had SOTA (School of the Arts) since 2008, I thought to myself why couldn’t Dubai have something like this?
I am huge fan of cinema and sadly, there’s not enough to please cinephiles in the UAE. It would be great if the cinemas could do even a quarter of what the BFI (British Film Institute) does in London. I wish the cinemas here had one of their halls dedicated to special programming like screening old classics, a director’s retrospective, anything besides the Hollywood blockbusters that we keep getting. Although we have one ‘art house’ cinema, The Picturehouse in Reel Cinemas in Dubai Mall, it’s really hit and miss and isn’t consistent in its programming. They’re currently screening Iron Man 3!
There are spaces in Dubai that hold free film screenings, some are even organised by the British Council, Goethe-Institut, Alliance Française and even Dubai International Film Festival, but nothing beats watching a film in the cinema.
What interests you about ‘retro’ forms of photography, such as Lomography and Polaroids?
I am team analogue when it comes to photography. I love that the results of analogue photography are based on something physical - film rolls/cartridges, chemicals to develop the film and of course the printed photo.
With Lomography, I love the online community, the variety of cameras and film and the ability to experiment. I know many say the same results can be done using Photoshop, but that’s not the same for me. I’d rather spend time taking photos instead of spending time behind a computer screen manipulating images to make them look retro/analogue.
As for Polaroid and instant photography, I love the spontaneity of it and the sound of the photo coming out of the camera. I still find something very magical about it.