DUBAI: A century ago, as humanity emerged from the hardships of World War I and the Spanish Flu, a wave of creative energy suddenly swept the globe. From London to New York and Sydney to Tokyo, the decade known as the Roaring Twenties ushered in an era of unprecedented cultural exuberance, prosperity and industrial advancement.
New technologies, from automobiles to wireless radios, have hit the consumer market, and a new zest for life, evident in areas such as music, art and home decor, has replaced the gloom and conservatism of the world. ‘pre-war.
The phenomenon was seen to reflect a pent-up desire to make up for lost time – a sentiment perhaps best captured by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel “The Great Gatsby”.
A century later, as the world takes its first steps out of the gloom and turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are already drawing parallels between this fictionalized period of cultural, economic and technological hyperactivity and the promise somewhat delayed from the 2020s.
The rollout of vaccines and falling infection rates in mid-2021 have allowed governments to ease lockdown measures and resume global travel. That is, until the emergence of omicron.
The emergence of yet another highly transmissible variant of the virus in November showed that the pandemic is not yet over.
Far from roaring in 2022, many countries have once again chosen to impose new restrictions, closures and postponements on museums, galleries, recreational facilities and performance venues.
It remains to be seen how the latest wave of restrictions impacts the ambitions of Gulf states.
Take Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is experiencing nothing less than a cultural revolution. After decades of self-imposed isolation, it hosted dozens of “first-time” events across the arts, culture, sports and entertainment industries in 2021.
The words “game changer” and “historic” could be heard on many lips during the month of December, as the Kingdom hosted the first Diriyah International Art Biennial, the first Philosophy Conference, the International Festival. of the Red Sea film and the first Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia. Price.
“The change happened so quickly. We are exhausted but so excited and inspired, ”a Saudi artist participating in the Misk Art Institute’s Masaha residency told Arab News.
The cultural explosion has a lot to do with the Kingdom’s commitment to develop exciting new aspects of its economy as part of the Vision 2030 reform program.
The Saudi Ministry of Culture was established just three years ago. Since then, with the launch of the National Culture Strategy and 11 sectoral commissions, the Kingdom has created a dynamic cultural ecosystem.
Since the beginning of December, the Kingdom has presented “a real cultural spectacle of more than 100 events, initiatives and commitments”, according to the Saudi Ministry of Culture.
The show included the Return of Desert X – an exhibition of monumental works of art presented among the ancient ruins and desert landscape of AlUla.
More recently, the Saudi government announced a new $ 20 billion master plan to create a “world-class destination” called New Jeddah Downtown in the heart of the historic port city of the Red Sea Kingdom, which will include a museum and a opera.
“Change has always been a constant in social development,” Ashraf Fagih, head of programming at Ithra, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, which opened in Dhahran in 2017, told Arab News.
“Vision 2030 has propelled us forward, opening the doors to the Kingdom’s cultural renaissance, and the pandemic has allowed us to be dynamic, resourceful and creative enough to drive this change, together as a thriving society.
“As an economic catalyst, cultural catalyst and global gateway, we at Ithra were at a crucial point in advancing the Saudi cultural scene to the rest of the world before the pandemic, which was supported by unwavering efforts and the talent pool. unlimited creatives. that made it come to life in the first place.
“To make sure he didn’t lose that momentum, we put our creativity to the test and came together to make sure we completed this mission safely at a time of remote connectivity – united.”
Indeed, unity has been essential to the survival of the creative industries through the darkness of the pandemic, as the ban on exhibitions and performances has undermined opportunities for artists and performers to work and grow.
“The horrors of COVID-19 have brought the cultural community together,” Alia Al-Senussi, renowned patron, consultant and scholar who has worked closely with cultural organizations in Saudi Arabia, told Arab News.
“There has been this hope that we are going through this dark time through all these wonderful fairs in Europe, art fairs like Art Basel and the recent Diriyah Biennale. But we cannot forget all the suffering that still occurs. In 2022, there is hope to embrace this sense of community through the cultural enterprise.
The same cultural vitality is present in the United Arab Emirates. In Dubai, open borders, high vaccination rates, widely available testing, and new visa programs designed to encourage expatriate entrepreneurs have attracted thousands of talented people and investors.
In the spring of 2021, the city hosted Art Dubai, the world’s first major in-person fair since the easing of lockdown restrictions. Even if omicron takes hold, there are no plans to cancel upcoming cultural calendar events.
“Yes, COVID-19 has hit Dubai hard like everywhere else, but the way the government has handled it, including the world leader in vaccinations, has allowed the city to adapt and bounce back quickly,” Ben Floyd , CEO of Art Dubai, told Arab News.
Art Dubai was able to move forward last year “because we could see that Dubai was attracting wealthy families and businesses from all over the world, and we were confident that we could produce a successful event,” he said. declared.
Will 2022 be any different? Floyd put it this way: “We have had more gallery applications than ever before and plan to innovate more in our offering, continuing to lead the industry through our programming.
“We will launch a new digital sector in response to both the growing tech community here in Dubai and the increased interest in digital art and NFT production and collection.”
The Dubai Festival for Youth Theater in November, organized by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, saw an unprecedented participation of 14 theater companies from across the country.
Then, in early December, Dubai Culture and the Ministry of Economy and Tourism launched “Creatives Journey”, a new initiative targeting people in the creative industries looking to start their own businesses.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi announced in June that it would invest $ 6 billion in cultural and creative industries on top of the $ 2.3 billion already pledged as part of its post-pandemic stimulus package.
On December 29, Dubai Culture launched the first-ever “Creative Dubai: Dubai’s Growing Cultural Industries” report, providing a comprehensive overview of the UAE cultural sector and establishing a roadmap for its growth.
According to the report, Dubai’s cultural and creative sector contributed around 4% of total economic output in 2019. The sector generated revenues of over AED 37 billion ($ 8.5 billion) this year- there and employed over 108,000 people.
In fact, Dubai, which has more galleries than any other city in the Middle East and North Africa region and some of the fastest growing household spending on cultural activities, ranked among the top 10 most influential cities in the world in the FutureBrand Country Index 2020.
That being said, the cultural renaissance sweeping the Gulf has been less evident elsewhere in the region, where the pandemic and the resulting economic hardships have placed creative pursuits lower on the priority list.
Lebanon was once the capital of art and culture of the region. But with the onset of the 2019 financial crisis, the pandemic, political paralysis, energy shortages and the collective trauma of the Beirut port explosion, day-to-day survival has taken hold.
“The Beirut explosion was more powerful than COVID-19, and the country is collapsing with incredible speed on all levels,” Saleh Barakat, a Lebanese gallery owner, told Arab News. “Here you don’t have fuel, electricity or even water because they can’t pump it. All we can do is continue.
Even so, the green shoots of cultural activity have somehow pierced the dense layers of despair.
“If you come to Beirut, you will be amazed at the amount of exhibits,” Barakat said. “It’s not economical. It is the result of our desire to continue with life. This is how we fight. “
The decade may not be that of the Roaring Twenties of this century, as one had imagined or perhaps hoped for, but the same eager desire to emerge from past upheavals, embrace a new aesthetic and catch up with the wasted time is obvious.
• Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor