101: A New Platform to Support Emerging Artists in the UAE

Anna Bernice
9 min readJan 18, 2021

A Conversation With Gaith Abdulla & Munira Al Sayegh, Co-Founders of 101.

This story is originally published in Arabic on VICE Arabia.

Playing Spaces Exhibit | Alserkal Avenue | Photo by Dani H. Rey

What does it mean to collect ethically and create a sustainable arts market ecosystem in the Gulf? Vice Arabia sat down with Munira Al Sayegh and Gaith Abdulla, two young Emirati cultural entrepreneurs and art collectors shape-shifting the UAE arts scene. After a 13-year long arts practice centering around the UAE and the Gulf, they launched 101, a UAE-based grassroots art collecting and research platform existing to advocate for sustainable and ethical arts collecting practices in the UAE and address the gaps in its contemporary art market. 101 features non-gallery represented UAE-based artists in their quarterly sales and complements them with educational resources to create a culture of knowledgeable art collectors. Operating outside the typical 50/50 gallery business model, 101 strives to be ethical through demarcating the proceeds at a 70/30 split, with more proceeds going to the artists. As the platform vigorously grows, 101 evolves with the launch of their public programs, podcasts, and artist conversations that further grow its community.

In this interview, we get to know Munira and Gaith as collectors, artists, and thinkers. They share the core and context of their collecting and curating practice in the UAE, and how it has shaped their creation of 101.

Bernice: What is the framework of your art collecting in the UAE?

Gaith: I’ve grown up around a lot of the pioneers of this generation of artists, and have seen their work develop from the days of their undergrad. The framework of my collecting is I see this moment in the UAE’s history as very unique. A great part of it are the arts spaces emerging. I feel like collecting UAE art of today tells a very interesting story of this period.

Munira: My collection doesn’t have any geographical boundaries, bas I do have different themes that I enjoy for myself. What I think is important about collecting is deciphering your thoughts and living with things that make sense to you and add to your story. My collection thus far looks at the portrait of place, the portrait of person and the contemporary understanding of religious iconography. I’m drawn towards things that play with history and the contemporary realm.

Portrait of Munira Al Sayegh

B: Can you elaborate more on the uniqueness of the art you’ve collected specific to the UAE?

G: In 2007, there was this sudden decision to promote art as a pillar of culture in the UAE. You can see this in the decisions taken on a top down level. It was a conscious decision to invest in art, it’s not like it happened organically. This past decade, all of what we’re seeing [in the art scene] emerged from that top-down decision.

An interesting through line when talking about our collection is that our past experiences have gone to inform our approach setting up 101. It comes from our experiences and understanding the significance of what it is to be a collector.

M: Yani, art has to be responsibly collected. When the artist is done with their job, the artwork needs to go with somebody who’s going to treat the artwork equally as responsibly as the artist. That falls in the hands of a collection or a collector. The role of a collector and a collection looks at describing a time and a place, usually geographically and aesthetically. Gaith has a balling collection and has all the pioneering artists from our generation and the older generation, just because he was in the right place at the right time and he was curious and keen. His collection documents history. It tells us about issues in society, borders, gender, sexuality… you begin to get to know…

G: …whatever is important to a society at that time.

M: It becomes the truest teller of history through its object and form. It is up to the collector to be ethical enough to know that this is not just a transaction. Pieces that I have, I say hi to all of them everyday. I see them and I appreciate them living with me. There’s a really human relationship, whether I know the artist or not. There’s a level of admiration and respect, they’re not just objects to me. What we want to do [at 101] is to breed that same message in collecting. The term “ethically collecting” is a term that we keep going back to and decoding. People always ask us, “What do you mean by ethical collecting?”

Playing Spaces Exhibit | Alserkal Avenue | Photo by Dani H. Rey

B: So, what do you mean by ethically collecting?

G: It begins with understanding collecting as a practice that fits into a sociopolitical setting. It’s educating yourself while collecting. That’s why it’s important that our platform has a research element. We want collectors to educate themselves, to access resources that are being produced, for the most part in the Gulf, by young individuals who are beginning to understand the region and its art ecosystems much more critically, with a more aware understanding of their surroundings.

B: Why is your platform called 101?

M: 101 is the notion of beginnings. If you take a 101 class, it means it’s an introduction. A “101” is not scary. We will just introduce you [to art collecting] and you might fall in love, but it’s just an introduction. When it translated to our logo, we thought about it metaphorically: the 1 on either side is the artist to collector, the top is research, and the bottom is community. The number 101 comes together in our logo… we’re trying to lure in the people who need a 101 on collecting.

B: How are you as a new platform for emerging, non-gallery represented artists changing the dynamics of the art collecting system in the UAE?

G: In the last few years, there has been an explosion of artists [in the UAE]. [But] the space of art galleries [in the UAE] is tiny. There’s a huge boom of talent, the galleries can’t absorb it.

Ours is an emerging ecosystem. We see ourselves engaged with these artists, we understand their practice in a more intimate way, we’ve seen their growth. We see ourselves as a stepping stone, filling in the gap. The most interesting artistic practices that you see in the UAE today are emerging artists. They’re tackling the most interesting subjects, the most interesting materials, they’re thinking about art in the most interdisciplinary way. It’s a no brainer that we have to do something to push their work forward. At the same time, we wanna be doing this in a way that doesn’t devalue their practice.

Artists are thinkers and philosophers, they document history. We’re aware [of] the artists that we work with, we want to allow them the chance to enter the commercial space, while recognizing the fact that they need to continue developing their work conceptually. Without developing your practice on a conceptual level, you’re not gonna sustain yourself.

B: How do you think, as a platform, you’re changing this collector’s ecosystem that often feels capitalist or materialist?

M: I’ll give you a story… I was having dinner with my friend and her husband, and he said, “Why should I come [to the 101 sale]? Why do you think art is important? I want to retire in 5 years and make bank on my collection.” And I said, “How do you make bank on art you don’t know about?”

To create your collection, you have to be informed and be educated. The more you give to your collection, the more you educate yourself about your collection, the more important it becomes because you can speak about it. He started listening. He said he wanted to start his collection with the 101 sale… get to know the artist, know who they are. He’s an academic, so he asked, “What can I read? Teach me.”

We want to generate these kinds of conversations… if all you’re thinking about is how your art is gonna appreciate, that’s a fair count, but [art] will not appreciate unless you understand what you’re buying. When people initially start buying [art], they say, “I wanna buy somebody and I wanna make sure he’s going to become a Rothko.” People who bought Rothko didn’t know they were buying “Rothko” in his early ages. You need to look locally, regionally, to [find] a group of artists that you can trust are producing.

[And that guy], he came to the show and was insistent he was not going to leave without his first artwork purchase. That is the beginning of when you convert from one religion to another. That’s what we want: we want to make people believers [of the arts].

B: So you’re art collecting evangelists.

M: (laughs) We just need a choir up in this place and we’re good to go. I love that.

B: How do you go about selecting your artists for your 101 sales? How do you see your selection process evolving?

M: Our process is still being figured out, it’s important to highlight we’re only at our beginnings. The first sale… we brainstormed people that would jump on board. We started hitting up artists, and that got a lot of attention. We started receiving a lot of DMs [on Instagram] asking how they can participate. So Gaith and I decided we have to open up the conversation. To be ethical is to be accessible. How can we be accessible if we’re only picking from a pool that we know?

In the next sales, we want to feature artists that we don’t know based on proposals and portfolios. It’s important to keep our doors open and transparent, and to learn as we go. The answer to this particular question is going to continue to evolve.

Gaith Abdulla

B: If these people are emerging artists, and non-gallery represented artists, how do you go about pricing their work? How does that business model work?

G: It goes back to this idea of being ethical. There’s no number that’s gonna be correct, but you can try with certain metrics and guidelines. We want to make sure that the practice of the artist is sustainable. Potentially, you can sell something for 10,000 bucks. Someone will buy it. But that’s an unhealthy practice for the artist, the other artists around them and the sustainability of their market. It goes back to the problems we see in the commercial art environment and trying to address that.

M: Also having to sign with a gallery… especially when you’re still figuring things out, the anxiety of permanence is a lot. That reluctance is what we’re addressing [with 101], so that [artists] get a taste of what it’s like to be sold, but not have to stay with us for the rest of their lives.

When the art market first started in the Gulf, there were unhealthy price points for a lot of the emerging artists. And these same artists, who’ve sold for, say 50k pounds, are no longer producing, active participants in their art ecosystem. Gaith and I are aware of this. The highest source of my pricing anxiety is making sure I’m giving the work the value it actually deserves: not underrepresenting or overrepresenting it because both are equally detrimental.

Playing Spaces Exhibit | Alserkal Avenue | Photo by Dani H. Rey

B: What would you say to artists in the UAE finding their place in this ecosystem?

G: You wanna surround yourself with community: identify your peers and stick to them. They will push you forward. The greatest part about 101 is the community space that we’re beginning to see emerge around it, and that’s been the most beneficial.

M: I speak a lot on how we need to come together as a community, and what 101 has shown me is that we’re stronger together, that we do come together as a community. [Artists] need to find the community who will further [their] practice. Gaith and I have known each other since we were 18; he is the beginning of a community I didn’t know I was going to have.

Learn more about 101’s future programming at 101.art and Instagram @engage.101.

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Anna Bernice

Filipino multidisciplinary creative currently based in the UAE. NYU Abu Dhabi 2020.