Back in the first decade of the 21st century, Dubai accelerated towards a future that never came. One thing missing from the masterplan was culture. To the mercantile-minded powers of Dubai, culture didn’t lend itself to fast monetisation. It was left to a young generation, in their 20s, who had grown up there and witnessed its transformations at first hand. They built the foundations for art, design and music that might match the aspirational malls and mansions. Few were trained to do this, so a core of amateurs quickly coagulated and became professional culture producers. Rami Farook is one of the few Emiratis in this pioneering group, and his presence over the last six years has been as significant as it is soothing. Editor-at-Large Shumon Basar talks to him about the phases of his creative curiosity, his contribution to Dubai’s change and whether the Gulf can imagine a post-oil future.
Shumon Basar In 2007, you set up Traffic, in what would be the first of its incarnations: you introduced high-end designer furniture by Zaha Hadid, Konstantin Grcic and others at a time when these names meant very little to all but a handful of people in the Arab world. Where did your idea come from?
Rami Farook In 2006 I needed furniture and quickly realised that there wasn’t much to choose from in Dubai. I went on a quest to learn more about the industry, fell in love with it and brought it home. That evolved in 2008 when we set up a multidisciplinary studio for public spaces and installations, then in 2010 launched our design label, LOCAL.
SB There was a strong sense that Dubai’s immediate future was up for grabs. Especially when it came to art, design, fashion. Your generation were only in their 20s but very quickly managed to lay significant cultural foundations.
RF Yes, I was fortunate to have pioneers around me, like The Third Line, one of the first contemporary art galleries here, and the event agency 9714. Most of us had grown up here, lived abroad and then come back to build the city we wanted.
SB Traffic’s next incarnation was as a commercial gallery. Around the same time you began to practise as an artist. What accounted for the shift from design to visual art? And, given that there were so many new commercial galleries opening just before the crash, why did this feel like the right thing to do?
RF In the summer of 2008 James Clar, an American artist who had moved to Dubai the year before, approached me for a six-month studio residency at Traffic. His studio was stuck to my office, so we worked very closely. After the six months he asked me to “represent” him. As a gallery, Traffic participated in Art Dubai 2010 with our only artist, and the response was encouraging. Other friends then approached me to represent them and I happily accepted. This required concentration, especially since I had just become a single father of two, so I decided to focus on visual art and pause design. In early 2011 I started practising as an artist and in late 2011 I quit dealing art. All these trips seemed right at the time. I was curious.
SB You set up the Farook Collection and amassed a significant number of contemporary works from the Middle East, but also by western artists. Institutional collections are meant to represent eras as equally as they can. Personal collections reveal the character of the collector. Where did your collection fall on that spectrum?
RF It fell on the personal side. When I first started buying art it wasn’t with the goal of building a collection. Three years into it there were around a hundred pieces that seemed to flow, and then for two years after that I went on a mission to build a family collection. I then started curating socio-historical exhibitions under the banner of “The State”. The series ran from November 2010 to April 2012, alongside commercial exhibitions, musical performances and other pop-ups. Thematically, they dealt with post-9/11 fear, the economic crisis, insurrection and hegemony. Looking back at this experience, I think I attempted to use art as a form of mass communication when I could have just started a blog. I stopped collecting more than a year ago now, and carry a lot of guilt for the money, time and space that could have been better allocated.
SB The clichés of art in the Gulf used to be calligraphy and homages to beloved animals. There isn’t – allegedly – an indigenous school of conceptualism. How would you describe your own work as an artist?
RF My work deals with monitoring, the impulse to observe, report and intervene. It investigates the responsibility of a witness or knowledge bearer. I attempt to capture societies and cultures at a given moment and place in history by showing possibilities, developing proposals, and sending warning signals where needed, using words, sounds and images. In the past year I have exhibited around 150 short films and published two books. Inshallah, these and more will be available for free online soon. My son thinks I’m an artist-scientist but I’d like to be a journalist-psychologist.
SB The last iteration of Traffic is harder to summarise – which is what, to me, made it so important. You stopped being a commercial gallery and instead turned into a kind of cultural-community factory outlet. It felt Zen. This is radical in a place like Dubai, where the profit motive drives almost everything. Was that what you were aiming for, or did it happen organically?
RF I wanted to turn Traffic into a centre for social studies, research and development, a place where the community can create, exhibit and exchange.
SB Your new initiative seems worlds away: renewable power plant technology. Can you tell us about it, and whether the Arab world is ready to engage with serious alternatives to oil and gas?
RF We’re developing a power plant that maximises the work done by gravity, by allowing free fall to harness energy. There have been signs of regional engagement with alternative energy, with the UAE building four nuclear plants, Abu Dhabi completing a 100-megawatt solar park and Dubai working on a 1,000-megawatt one. Reports say that Saudi will be running out of crude for export by 2030, and coincidentally they’re building 16 nuclear plants with China, to be completed by 2031, and 41,000 megawatts of solar by 2032. OPEC’s demand has also been falling because of America’s shale gas. Let’s see.
SB Just three to four years after the global financial crisis destroyed Dubai’s infamous dreams of being the world’s “Number One”, there’s been a lot of talk about its strident return. Some say Dubai gains when other parts of the Middle East – Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt – are in chaos. Have you felt this mood of a new beginning?
RF It seems more like an adjusted continuation than a new beginning. Well-off refugees have made Dubai their home, stocks and real estate are doing well, paused projects and some new ones are on the go, tourism is king. Dubai 2020 Expo is in the air, banks are calling to offer debt for your debt, Ramadan tents were full during summer, 72 per cent of the youth of Arabia want to live and work here, humanitarian and community initiatives are popping up. It’s all around us.
SB You were the only place in the UAE to sell American and Continental theory (Baudrillard, The Invisible Committee). Can you picture theory beginning to influence life there, especially since so much of it is inherently anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist?
RF I’m looking forward to how the kids react to our current UAE in the coming decades. I think theory can influence life here, but it might have to be summarised to Facebook-sized posts by high school kids first.
SB You spent a considerable amount of time in Kerala, India, last year. What was it that continued to draw you there? And how did the rest of the world seem from that vantage point?
RF My first visit was in June 2012 and was hosted by the Kochi-Muziris Biennale crew, who then took me to Bangalore and Bombay. For someone who lives in Dubai, travels a lot to Europe and studied in the States, India was a new frontier. Over the past year I’ve befriended and worked with people in advertising, art, mechanics, IT and NGOs. I felt so at home, especially in Fort Kochi, that I considered moving there. I also saw a lot of potential and purpose. We’re currently developing our gravitational power plant there, so that keeps taking me back, but we also intend to set up a 24-hour emergency kids’ clinic and other social projects.
SB If P.E.A.C.E. is an acronym, what do you think it could stand for?
RF Please Endure Aggravated Conspiracy Evocations.