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Adaptability, awareness and relentless passion contribute to Maliha Tabari's formula for art world success
Words by Laura Beaney in Design & Architecture · Nov 16th, 2021
Tabari Artspace is one of the UAE’s founding galleries, established by Maliha Tabari in Dubai in 2002. Maliha collects and champions artists from the MENA region and its diaspora with unwavering enthusiasm. Her collection of more than 200 works spans the modern and contemporary periods and tells a story about life in the MENA region from a multitude of perspectives.
A central figure in the development of the Emirates’s cultural landscape through her ambitious programming, mentorship and initiatives, Maliha has witnessed the regional art eco-system blossom. Tabari Artspace, once a rare space through which to encounter the modern masters of the MENA region, transformed at pace with the UAE and is now a platform that reveals the current contemplations of a new generation to a global audience. Now, as Tabari Artspace prepares to enter into its second decade, Maliha considers the factors that have contributed to her gallery’s success, from location to community engagement, before assessing the shape her gallery might take in the digital era.
Maliha: I established Tabari Artspace in the early 2000s motivated by a desire to foster dialogue between the artists from the MENA region and the international community - I envisioned a gallery that would form a bridge between worlds.
Maliha: Reflecting upon the last 20-years it’s been quite a journey. I think several factors kept us relevant - we’ve remained true to our authentic vision - something which our collector-base appreciates; we’re intimately connected to our artists and community, evolving with them and their needs; we’re very selective with the artists that we work with because we offer them a high level of commitment. Points of engagement with our artists - physical and digital - are also fundamental concerns. Exposing our artists to international audiences, stimulating new conversations inspired by their work and thinking beyond the physical gallery space helps us to evolve with society’s needs. We have to keep moving.
Maliha: I was an initial player in what is now a dynamic art scene. It’s been invigorating to be part of a regional art market that’s become globally relevant. The UAE’s government with their cultural vision are doing an excellent job in supporting a new generation of artists through education, the establishment of local and international cultural centres across the Emirates, and the support of global opportunities while also drawing in international collectors, curators and thinkers.
Maliha: We started off the season with painter Khaldoun Hizajin’s solo exhibition, The Cherry On Top (pictured), a highly critical and conceptual body of work that probes at social hierarchies and cultural legacies. It was well received. Some members of the Tufts alumni in the US even dedicated a podcast to the show. Stimulating new conversations is something that we always strive for.
Maliha: This summer, for example, we exhibited Emirati artist Maitha Abdalla in London with the support of Abu Dhabi Art and the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism together with other UAE-based galleries that represent artists from the Gulf. This type of strategic international exposure is central to the advancement of MENA art. It’s reassuring to know that the institutions we’ve invested in (we’re returning to Abu Dhabi Art to exhibit several artists this November 17-21) support and share our missions too. There’s increasing cohesion and collaboration between our institutions now, and why not? We share a mutual vision for the future.
Maliha: Our programming began and evolved in a highly personal way. In the 1990s I’d fly to Beirut, Damascus and Cairo to sit with - Adam Henein, Hussein Madi and Adel El Siwi. My instinct told me that these were the modern masters to exhibit and collect. The artists that we worked with in the early days are now collected by institutions from Centre Pompidou to British Museum. Such acquisitions are fundamental to the narratives of our communities being preserved and presented to far-reaching audiences.
Maliha: There’s a formula for building artists in a way that fosters longevity and international advancement. Supporting artists to be the highest version of themselves professionally and personally is one thing that’s stayed the same and kept me committed to life as a gallerist.
Having spent so many years growing with the region we wanted to support artists close to home. We recently signed several promising artists from the Gulf - Maitha Abdalla and Alymamah Rashed. These are the changemakers and artists to invest in.
Maliha: Locally we know and appreciate the narratives of our practitioners but what’s most interesting is seeing how their art translates and continues in new, international contexts. Collaboration is a central tenet of our ethos, we regularly join forces with other galleries and institutions and we’re always thinking of potential synergies for our artists whether this is with fellow practitioners, curators, authors or through participation in residency programmes. I’ve always thought that the meeting point between seemingly disparate spaces whether geographically or disciplinarily is one of the most interesting places to be in.
Maliha: To remain successful in what we have to do we have to connect. Human connection informs our approach on multiple levels - of course, our physical location is paramount to this. We moved our gallery to DIFC in 2006, our outlook is international so establishing ourselves in the heart of the International Finance Centre made sense. Witnessing the way that visitors to the UAE react to our artists is so rewarding. We often have collectors and business travellers from the MENA diaspora, based in Paris, London or New York, in town, keen to engage with our programming. They pose new questions and offer unexpected readings of the artworks as such the artist’s dialogue lives on and trasncends once the work has left their studio.
Maliha: DIFC with its buzzing nightlife, restaurants and new hubs such as Arts Club provides an all-encompassing climate where visitors can enjoy art and enjoy life. This is supported by a cultural programme which includes DIFC Arts Night and in the introduction of the Art Dubai fair to the district last year.
Maliha: As we approach the 20th anniversary of Tabari Artspace there’s much to glance back and learn from and also look forward to.
Maliha: I spent 17 years living in Saudi Arabia and I continue to be impressed by the Kingdom’s radical transformation from smart cities that fuse the real and virtual to the targeted expansion of the country’s cultural economy. The establishment of the first biennale, The Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale will shine a light on Saudi talent while site-responsive exhibitions like Desert-X expose regional art and the ancient AlUla desert to the international eye. There’s always been creative energy and culture there but now it’s colliding with the rest of the world. We’ve represented several internationally appreciated Saudi artists in the past and now we’re considering our presence there.
Maliha: It’s clear that the relationship between the art world and the digital sphere is only growing stronger. With our base and followship in the UAE, we’re quite a specific case. We understand that our community is still very much focused upon physical contact with artwork and in-person auctions and events. The majority are not interested in buying artworks from .jpegs or PDFs. There’s an appreciation for luxury here, for dressing up and going out to experience art and culture which prevails. This dynamic has afforded us the time to step back and monitor best practices of communities faster on the digital uptake and to consider how they relate to our audiences.
Maliha: There are trends towards immersive and experiential art but we’re not trying to be ‘cool’ or appeal to everyone. We’ve always remained true to is our identity but now, as art and society reshape in line with globalisation and digitalisation, we need to consider: how does our identity translate. How do we bridge the past and the future? How do we - as a gallery that values the human touch and fine art quality - remain accessible and relevant to a generation existing in the digital sphere? How do we present digital artworks in a way that remains authentic and meaningful to our artists and community? How do we stimulate conversations with an emerging generation and online community? These are the questions we are excited to tackle.
Maliha: We’ve already entered into the world of NFTs through a collaborative project with Palestinian mural artist Taqi Spateen. In June, 2021, Taqi took to the West Bank wall to produce a large-scale public artwork that also functions as a data-collecting NFT. The digital work acts as a register of crimes against humanity in Palestine, continuing the dialogue of the physical artwork once it has been removed.
We’re currently developing a digital programme in collaboration with Morrow Collective. This began with the recent exhibition of Survey For A Colonial Map by Hazem Harb at Foundry Downtown Dubai. The hybrid show presented both physical artworks and their NFT counterparts. Harb's remediated 19th-century map of Palestine morphs into a whirlpool to foreground questions relating to the impermanence of boundaries and the erasure of cultural narratives. This is where I see the art-technology axis come into its own, there’s potential for research-driven artworks to encounter a boundless audience and to create understanding and impact. Supporting and progressing thoughtful, socially relevant artwork will continue to inform all that we do both on and offline.