Off Centre / On Stage

Image: Dubai Creek, 1977. Courtesy of John R. Harris Library.

Off Centre / On Stage seeks an earlier Dubai, much of which has now been bulldozed or cast in the shadow of a new city. Curated by Todd Reisz, the exhibition, which takes over the Jameel’s lobby and is accompanied by a new book, reveals traces of the older city found on photographic slides. A photograph, it has been said, captures more a sliver of time than a framed space. These slides – seen here for the first time – preserve moments from 1976 to 1979, when two architects, Stephen Finch and Mark Harris, traversed the city and its construction sites. Both were affiliated with John R. Harris & Partners, a British architectural firm that at the time was delivering transformation to Dubai. Working closely with Jameel Arts Centre, architect and writer Todd Reisz assembles their photographs into a spatial telling of a recent past that was all about the future.

The presented images are not commercial, documentary, or art photography. They are the visual notes taken by professional architects. They are observations recorded of city life made by those ultimately contracted to shape a future city life. None of them was taken to be exhibited. Through the eyes of the viewer, their assembly offers a means to investigate the newly planned city.

Off Centre / On Stage is kindly supported by Barjeel Art Foundation. Accompanying the exhibition is a new publication that includes an original essay by Reisz and nearly 100 photographs published for the first time. The book is a collaboration between Jameel Arts Centre and Khatt Books, designed by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, and is available from Art Jameel Shop.

From October 2021 through March 2022, Dubai hosts the world expo. The much-anticipated event takes place in a city that has been deliberately on display for 70 years. Ever since British regulations were loosened on Dubai’s trade capacities in the 1950s, images of what a city could be have driven Dubai’s urban development. When these photographs were taken, a significant leap in development ambitions on the city’s edges had already begun – including a new airport, a deep-water seaport, and a vast new hospital. These efforts were not (yet) the result of Dubai’s success. Rather, they added up to something like a showroom model, a display of what could be. The construction of Dubai’s infrastructural landscape was the exhibition, an exposition of a city to come.

Off Centre / On Stage captures a city lived in by people from different walks of life, all clearly living in the present but employed to create the future. Sixty photographs, together with other framings of Dubai in local and global media and in archival records, conjure a showroom floor of their city, which in itself was the model for something larger. Reisz shares material collected over more than a decade – as he became a leading authority on Dubai’s 20th-century urban transformations. The exhibition is a chance for residents and visitors to explore up close some of the gathered evidence of the early ambition and toil that created today’s Dubai.

Todd Reisz’s work examines the global practice of architecture, specifically how the architect circulates technologies and cultural narratives. His book Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai (Stanford University Press, 2020) explores architecture’s packaging to sell Dubai on a global stage. He also co-edited with Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi Building Sharjah (Birkhäuser, 2021), an archival investigation of that city’s vanishing 20th-century landscape.

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