The seventh edition of Art Dubai mirrored the changing face of artistic developments in the region

Displacement, power, urbanisation… artists irrespective of region, religion and other divides, across the world are addressing these global issues of concern through their art. On the stage of Art Dubai held between March 20 and 23 at Madinat Jumeirah, an annual art event in its seventh edition, several such voices were being heard by art enthusiasts gathered in Dubai from all over the world. According to Antonia Carver, Director, Art Dubai, 25,000 people visited the fair this year, and this included 75 museum groups and over 400 major curators and institutional representatives from every corner of the globe.

One of the biggest departures, a few art critics and artists noted, was that the fair is gradually moving to conceptual art from decorative and ‘blingy art’, and it supposedly did well. Delhi-based art gallery Exhibit 320, which primarily showcases conceptual art, one of the 75 galleries participating at the fair, has registered a blockbuster sale at the fair. “We sold off everything we had taken and, interestingly, the buyers were from the same region. Usually buyers, when you go to such fairs, are European but here the buyers were from Dubai and Turkey,” says Rasika Kajaria, the gallery director. Enthused not just by the sales, but also by the fact that the fair — one of the biggest fairs of contemporary art in West Asia — gives them an entry point into the region, the gallery intends to participate again.

Carver says, “This year had an even further expanded not-for-profit section, with more commissions this year than previous editions. In terms of works at the booth, I think the fair reflected the changing tastes of buyers this year. Collectors are becoming increasingly diverse in their investments, and as a contemporary art fair we tried to include conceptual art, video art through The Hatch, sculptures as well as art from a diverse range of geographical markets such as Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Lebanon.”

Art worth 45 million USD exhibited at the fair busted another myth that the art coming out of the region is largely about conflicts. Of course, there were pieces like a gem-encrusted Kalashnikov adorned with butterflies making a commentary on world affairs, but so many more reflected on other realities of life. 'Dinner For Two: Gold 2013' by Rachel Lee Hovanian at Leila Heller Gallery was an installation that everybody could relate to. A dinner table with two chairs has two screens fitted at either end. The screens show the faces of a couple. There is everything on the table but untouched because the couple is occupied with technology, texting, chatting and calling. They hardly look at each other.

Another artist whose work was widely appreciated at the fair was photographer, calligrapher and painter Ahmed Mater, whose monumental photographs document the change that is taking place in the holy city of Mecca. In his ongoing project, “The Desert of Pharan”, the artist is concerned about how construction is altering the landscape of Mecca.

On the sales front, Carver refuses to divulge anything more than that galleries reported strong sales. “It included major acquisitions by collectors and visiting museum groups at Pilar Corrias (London), Nubuke Foundation (Accra), Athr Gallery (Jeddah) and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde (Dubai), and strong sales at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen (Brussels) by artists exhibiting in the region for the first time.”

A particular section is devoted to a country “that has long been overlooked by the Western world.” Last year it was Indonesia, and this time it was West Africa. Titled ‘Marker’, it was curated by Bisi Silva. Five contemporary art spaces in Cameroon, Mali, Lagos, Senegal and Ghana sought to create awareness about the art in the region and also explore the changing nature of these cities. While somewhere an artist expresses his concern about malaria spreading like fire in Dakar, Senegal, elsewhere somebody talks about the changing profile of traditional markets like Lagos, which has come to be invaded with Chinese goods.

This year the Abraaj Group Art Prize was won by Vartan Avakian of Lebanon, Iman Issa of Egypt, Huma Mulji of Pakistan, Hrair Sarkissian of Syria and Rayyane Tabet of Lebanon. Murtaza Vali had curated an exhibition of the works by the winning artists and during his guided tours he stated that the ‘Extra/Ordinary’ is a silent space, away from the hustle-bustle of the fair. The curious visitors particularly spent a lot of time gazing at objects like taxidermic animals, plastic bags, cutlery, dolls, etc. kept inside the cabinet, an installation done by Pakistani artist Huma Mulji.

Art projects, ‘Sculpture on the Beach’, a mobile art gallery, ‘Artists in Residency’, ‘The Hatch’ (a space for film screenings), Global Art Forum, performances, and book launches were other highlights of the fair that concluded last week in Dubai.

(The writer was in Dubai at the invitation of Art Dubai.)