Antonia Carver, the British-born director of cultural organisation Art Jameel, is based at Jameel Arts Centre on Jaddaf Waterfront. She oversaw the opening of the privately owned institution, one of Dubai’s first contemporary art museums, in 2018. Free to enter, the engaging and tranquil space sits right by the Dubai Creek next to the Jaddaf Waterfront Sculpture Park.
She never tires of her workplace. “I feel so super-lucky to work here. I get to look out on the creek and watch the coming and going on the water. I can see old Dubai then behind me is the sculpture park,” she says. “We’re in the heart of the city but it feels very tranquil and idyllic. People can reconnect with nature in the gardens as well as reconnect with art.”
One positive element of the pandemic, says Antonia, has been that people realise culture should be “treasured as an integral part of our society.”
With timed entry to limit numbers, a raft of sanitary measures in place and a focus on making the most of their outside space, Jameel Arts Centre re-opened in June after closing in March. It saw a big growth in resident visitors in 2020 which has continued into 2021.
“Every day people thank us for being open. Being able to experience art and get together in a safe, clean and open space is a real human need at this time,” she says. “We’re really appreciative that the government made opening cultural spaces alongside public spaces a real priority.”
Little did Antonia know when she first arrived in 2001, looking for a change from London life, that she would be a hugely influential figure in Dubai’s arts scene 20 years on. She was drawn to the region, which she says had a “buzz about it”, as the world was “waking up” to the fact that the art world wasn’t just centred on London, New York and Paris.
“There was a new generation of creatives in Dubai that wanted to make something unique. Something that had developed from the ground up and really focused on Dubai and the region as its own creative hub,” she says. “Dubai was right at the centre of things between Africa, the Middle East and south Asia and people were moving here from fashion, design and tech, as well as financial services.”
Over the years she has been part of the launch of the Dubai International Film Festival and director of Art Dubai, an annual event that is now the leading international fair for the Middle East and south Asia. She has seen many exciting changes to the creative landscape in this time.
“It’s completely fundamentally changed on the ground, in that Dubai is a bona fide cultural destination in its own right. The Dubai Design District came to the fore, design fairs started, the art fair launched, and Jameel Arts Centre opened. All the creative infrastructure was in place and lots of artists and designers moved here from all over the region,” she says.
However, she stresses, that is not to say there wasn’t a cultural life before the 2000s. “It was already quite developed, but the rest of the world didn’t necessarily know about it. The perception the world has of Dubai and the region has definitely changed,” she says.
Its geography still makes it a thrilling place to be creatively.
“As a hub between Europe and a gateway to the Middle East and south Asia, it’s a city that connects people and places. Culture plays a really instrumental role in that, bringing people together from across the world. It’s a city where you can see such a diverse range of artists, designers and works that are really referencing this part of the world in a dynamic, innovative and different way,” she says.
She sees this diversity in her day-to-day job, loving the “huge breadth of ideas”, nationalities and different ways of thinking she gets exposed to every day. The opportunity to nurture young creative talent is something else she relishes. She is buoyed by their energy and future-focus too, which she says is typical of Dubai in general. A “positive can-do attitude” is part of the city’s DNA.
When it comes to getting her own cultural fix, you’ll find Antonia in Cinema Akil in Alserkal Avenue.
“I love it there – it’s quirky with fantastic décor and they show really brilliant arthouse films that you can’t see anywhere else. Plus, they do a really great karak chai (spiced tea),” she says.
Alserkal Avenue is a “go-to creative destination” with its galleries, design stores and record shop. As is Dubai Design District (d3), home to her children’s favourite place to eat, Akiba Dori (“a kind of Japanese pizza place”) along with FRAME. “It’s a brilliant streetwear shop with a great coffee shop as well – they do the best coffee in Dubai,” she says.
The food is a big part of Dubai’s appeal: she also loves eating south Asian cuisine in the little restaurants of old Dubai and getting her falafel fix in her favourite Palestinian cafe.
“I love that you can have a fantastic and super-cheap street curry in Deira then go for an oat milk cappuccino with an amazing cookie on the side at Frame. You can be in the buzz of the city then camping under the stars in absolute desert wilderness in under an hour. It’s these amazing contrasts that make Dubai what it is.”
Broaden your horizons in Dubai
In Dubai, you’ll find all the right ingredients for a sun-soaked trip. The sophisticated metropolis by the sea provides unforgettable experiences, from serene safaris in the desert to dining in the world’s tallest building. Broaden your horizons with a trip that takes in its exhilarating mix of record-breaking architecture, traditional neighbourhoods and white sand beaches. You’ll return home with plenty of tales to share.
Find out more at, visitdubai.com