Creating a cultural production ecosystem requires multitudes of factors that cultivates research, learning, creating and disseminating. Warehouse421 aims to do just that. Supported by Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, Warehouse421 is an independent arts center that was founded in 2015 and is located in one of the oldest ports in Abu Dhabi – Mina Zayed, which operated since 1972. Mina Zayed also became one of the emirate’s tourist spots where people can witness docked harbors, the in-and-outs of trading operations, fishermen and markets of fresh produce and regional commodities. Warehouse421 initiative adds another layer of social and cultural revitalization to the area which ignites and nurtures creatives around the region. 

Speaking as an interior architect, the Warehouse421 project is perceived to be one of the best adaptive reuse initiatives by Bjarke Ingels Group. While the structural integrity is intact, the building has been enveloped with steel mesh cladding and equipped with amenities that are suitable for the artistic program. Vernacular elements inspired by the Gulf are implemented seamlessly throughout the space. This includes elements such as courtyards, native vegetation, furniture and public realm experience that resemble the dunes. The result is an upgrade, giving fresh use of the space while paying homage to its rustic industrial surroundings.

Warehouse421 (Image courtesy of Warehouse421)

Khaleejesque was invited to visit Warehouse421’s two latest exhibitions: 'Let Me Tell You Something', which draws from real-life episodes of missed communication, by Mohammed Khalid and 'On Foraging: Food Knowledge and Environmental Imaginaries in the UAE’s Landscapes'. The first exhibition is by an emerging artist who was part of their capacity building program while the latter debuted at Expo 2020 at the UAE pavilion curated by Dima Srouji, Faysal Tabbarah, and Meitha Al Mazrooui. Both exhibitions expressed the team’s enthusiasm towards cultivation of any kind – be it, for UAE based emerging artists or the land where food grows. 

The Warehouse421 team was extremely keen to give insights on the development of the exhibitions. Mays Al Baik, who is the Programs and Community Initiatives Manager, highlighted the role of open calls acting as communication tools for the team and the creatives. Both exhibitions were a result of the open calls and Mays accentuated the collaborative approach of working with an open mind to reinterpret the content after the debut at Expo 2020. This opened the opportunity to continue the conversation through expanding the content in accordance with the new space in Warehouse421.

Let me tell you something Exhibition (Image courtesy of Warehouse421)

Mays explains, “As for the second exhibition 'On Foraging', it all started with Expo 2020, where we requested proposals to choose a curator to find an overarching theme or thesis in a sense along with a list of artists they’d like to develop with. What this really tells us is the conversation between the organizers, curators, and the audience. The initial iteration of the ‘On Foraging’ was introduced at Expo 2020. When it was then implemented at Warehouse 421, the content expanded and more conversations happened on how to utilize the space and what it means to encounter works in a sequence under certain lights, etc.”

Warehouse421 lives up to its expectation of engaging with relevant questions and discourse. The recent global issue on food security exacerbated by COVID-19 was extremely emphasized by Head of Warehouse421, Faisal Al Hassan, as one of the main motivators of the 'On Foraging' exhibition. As a result, the exhibition showcases the different interpretations on “foraging” from different contributors around the region. He further congratulated UAE’s role as “a strategic location as a hub for transport of food and goods, including the transport of vaccines all around the world”. In addition, he looks forward to COP28 which will be held in the UAE next year. 

On Foraging Exhibition (Image courtesy of Warehouse421)

When asked what they discovered through producing the two exhibitions, Faisal explains, “We discovered two different things. First of all, the ‘On Foraging’ exhibition could not have come at a perfect time. It is the food security topic and the environmental crisis we are all dealing with right now with disastrous manifestations that we could not think of. The issue of food security has been addressed for a long time in the region, however, in the past few years with COVID-19, we are seeing the day-to-day effects of moving goods. As we are seeing the impact of climate change, we are seeing how it is affecting globally. What we have discovered from the exhibition is the deep rooted awareness of food security here in the UAE. Our region is not so friendly to agriculture. However, what you see in the exhibition, food security started from home here in the UAE. We then see developments of small-scale communal projects to provide food in the immediate surrounding. Then, you find strategic high-level initiatives that are looking at food production, not just for the UAE but around the world.” 

They also emphasized engaging with the wider public to stimulate discourse and extend cultural production lifecycle. Their dedication to facilitate creative production led to hosting a year-round education program. Inspired by “On Foraging”, the theme for the fall season is “A Season for Re-Grounding”. Nada Al Moosa, public programs coordinator, describes the aim of the program, “We hope to inspire reconnection with the land in context with the current modern age and identify the overlooked source of knowledge, which is indigenous knowledge. For example, one particular series ‘Jamming Sessions Homecooking Series’ is where we bring in family duos, to ask people to pause for a moment and learn from one’s culture. We will also have tours of farms and ecological sites. This season, we will also hold an outdoor market where local-based artisans showcase a range of sustainable products.”

The exhibitions ‘On Foraging’ and ‘Let me tell you something’ are currently on display in Warehouse421 until 25 December 2022.

– Marsya Abdulghani

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