New Vibrations

The National Newspaper
Arsalan Mohammad

Last Updated: June 01. 2008 6:38PM UAE / June 1. 2008 2:38PM GMT

New Vibrations 2

The sun-starched road into Nad al Sheba is only 15 minutes out of Dubai, yet it feels completely removed from the bustle and incessant traffic jams of the city. Here, on a side road, past the Maktoum Palace and its Majlis, heading towards the race course, surrounded by clumps of hedgerows, trees and modest villas, an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity reigns.

It's this sense of calmness that pervades a large, two-storey building hidden down a little side street. This quiet stucco building is home to a newly opened arts centre and gallery, Tashkeel, which looks set to revolutionise the way in which local art is discussed, created, exhibited and seen, both here and worldwide.

Indoors, all is cool and calm. A spacious entrance hall, flooded with light pouring from arched windows on high, sprawls eastward, a long, wide space that serves as Tashkeel's gallery area. When I visited last week to explore the centre's much-trumpeted facilities and to meet the founders and managers Jill Hoyle and Lateefa Maktoum, they were showing Islander, a photography exhibition by the American University of Sharjah professor and regular Tashkeel user Mark Pilkington. In his notes for the show, Pilkington refers to the "vibrations" that emanate from the building.

Ahead of my visit, Jill Hoyle had mentioned something similar, about a "vibe" in the place that made it curiously conducive to channelling creativity. Prior to hosting Tashkeel, the building served as the Latifa College, Zayed University's institute for young Emirati women studying fine arts. Before that, it was a supermarket – Lateefa Maktoum, who grew up nearby, says she can still remember visiting, as a child, to buy ice cream. All this history may well be responsible for the purposefulness and creativity in the air and after an hour or two in the building, one concludes that well, yes, there is something distinctly productive about the place.

For a not unreasonable annual or monthly sum, with discounts for students, experienced artists over 18 can apply to enjoy the facilities – and Tashkeel offers some serious quality resources. A quick glance at their website reveals the presence of a computer studio, large format digital printing, jewellery workstations, a painting studio, a black and white photographic darkroom, a printmaking and silk screen studio, as well as textile printing and 3D workshops. For a small, independently financed start-up, it's a pretty impressive line-up.

"We are very much for the 21st century community of Dubai," says Hoyle, an energetic character who, alongside Maktoum, oversees the day-to-day running of the centre. "We're open to international artists of any age and gender, it's not a closed community here. It's a real mix, and it reflects the community of Dubai."

Tashkeel was conceived last year, following a small show by alumni of Latifa College and friends, titled Minus Reality. Hosted by Art Attack gallery in Jumeirah, the show represented the nucleus of Dubai's young art scene coalescing around Maktoum. Minus Reality was the 23-year-old's first major curatorial project, in which 30 local artists from a variety of backgrounds exhibited work.

"It was after working with the whole range of artists at Minus Reality," she explains, perching on one of the soft leather sofas dotted about the premises. "I thought they had produced good work, but they did it alone. It's different when you create work around people, when you're at university. But after you graduate, there's nowhere you can go and work with other artists. There are places like the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre but people go and do classes and leave. Here, it's different – when you interact with other people, it influences your work a lot."

Setting off to explore the building, we wander through the gallery space, through a meeting room and into a print studio, complete with an impressive arsenal of equipment. The print facility is especially popular, explains Hoyle. Buying such facilities would be prohibitively expensive for most artists to contemplate. Beyond, lies a computer room, fitted out with gleaming new Apple Mac G5 machines and over-sized printers, capable of handling a variety of paper sizes and formats. Behind this lies the small black and white darkroom, accessed by a sliding hatch door. "This is probably the only black and white public-access lab in the UAE," comments Hoyle, before neatly vanishing back through the sliding capsule door.

A small detour takes us into the treasure trove that is Tashkeel's storeroom. The shelves are packed with professional-quality photography equipment. Nikon SLR cameras, Sony digital and analogue video cameras and stacks of lenses and accessories sit next to reams of paper, pens, paints, brushes, inks, sketchbooks, stationery, software, hardware, film, textiles and assorted tools. Everything is available for members' use.

Next, we inspect a large jewellery studio, equipped with custom-made workbenches, each fitted with small wells, gas jets and water pipes, for silver and gold work. While demand is strong for jewellery workshops, a suitable tutor is still needed. "There is interest," says Maktoum. "I am hopeful we will find someone who can teach it." Then, we're in a modestly sized film studio, complete with cameras, screens and backdrops and lights. The studio has hosted a number of small workshops, covering topics such as lighting and photography techniques.

Workshops play a major part of the Tashkeel plan. Already a number of small-scale events have taken place, helmed by acquaintances and local experts. Last weekend, the celebrated Arab "typologist" Huda Smitshuijzen Abifares held an event, which was sold out within a day. Other recent events have seen textile, jewellery, portrait painting and black and white photography workshops held at the centre.

Maktoum is committed to broadening and furthering the scope of the workshops Tashkeel will offer. "We will see, after a year, a year and a half, what works the most and how to better that. But Huda's workshop, this was like a tester, to see the response. I hope we'll work more with her. We have also been talking to Sacha Jafri [the London-based oil painter] about maybe doing a painting workshop with children. He came and visited last time he was in Dubai, he really liked the place."
Upstairs, a large painting studio bathes in the afternoon sunshine. Paulo Gianotti, one of the Tashkeel regulars, is intent on a canvas, upon which scorched pieces of plastic linger amid big, blocky shapes. Gianotti comes in almost daily from Sharjah. An Italian painter, recently relocated to the UAE, Gianotti's enthusiasm and appreciation for the centre is evident. His paintings are large, textural adventures which incorporate scraps of everyday items – plastic bin bags, for instance – into forms which he then scorches with a blow torch. Heavily influenced by the Italian abstract painter Alberto Burri, his pieces are destined for sale at the Mondo Arte showroom at the Mall of the Emirates. "It's good," he beams, scurrying about his canvasses, pulling examples of other work to show me. "Everything is good here."

We walk through a textile printing studio, through to a small library, overlooking the main lobby, packed with art periodicals from around the world. The academic atmosphere still lingers from the building's days as a college. Hoyle explains how they have striven for a decidedly more mature feel to the place. "We needed to change from having students to members – we needed to graduate."

A small lounge sits at the end of the upper floor. Today, four gentlemen of distinctly Bohemian disposition are lounging about, checking laptops, munching samosas and drinking coffee. These are artists from Berlin, who arrived early this morning to participate in Tashkeel's second artist exchange residency programme. A few weeks before, the first exchange had taken place, organised by Tashkeel and Sam Bardouil, a professor at the American University of Dubai, with the Volume! Fondazione in Rome. The experiment was deemed a success by all involved.

Now, collaborating with the Goethe Institut, Bardouil and Tashkeel are embarking on the second programme. The day before, a group of Emirati-based artists, including the lomographer Hind Mezaina and the Third Line's maverick Lamia Gargash, headed for Germany to spend a week in Berlin.

The Germans are looking a little overwhelmed. "It's fantastic," comments conceptual artist Rolf Giegold. "There is nowhere like this in Berlin." A Kreuzberg-based artist, Christian Sievers, explains his plan to try to find a nearby space large enough to photograph a number of fire engines and, ideally, helicopters. Over his shoulder, Hoyle looks doubtful, but remains enthusiastic about the prospect of the group's stay at Tashkeel.

"This has been really fascinating, this idea of exchange residencies is something we want to do again in future. The work produced in Germany and Rome will be shown there and the artists who come here will be shown at Tashkeel. And we've invited some local artists to work here in the studios with the artists."

Work created by the artists during their stay in Tashkeel will be exhibited in early June, followed by a milestone for the centre – an exhibition planned later in the summer comprised of work created by members. From the evidence lying about the various studios and workshops, in varying degrees of completion, it's likely to be an event that reflects Tashkeel's quality control. Something new and genuinely exciting is taking place here – a serious and concerted attempt to push the local art scene into life.

As I move downstairs to leave, I bump into Mark Pilkington, a photographer, who has called in to use the darkroom. A long-term resident of the arts scene in Dubai, Pilkington sees a bright future for Tashkeel and its users. "The word will spread," he predicts. "It is a brave thing to do. It's not affiliated to anything, it's just itself. I used to use the university's facilities, but I find this much more neutral."

We move downstairs, by the doors, and look out at the trees opposite. "It's ridiculous," he enthuses. "It's like being in the countryside. It's like a little oasis. It's very conducive to creativity."