The right blend of local and international flavours was the common refrain that echoed across the just concluded Art Dubai.
An art fair is an art fair. At the end of the day, it is all about the business of selling art. But it is how the fair goes about achieving the task, which defines the fair's identity and separates it from hundred others now dotting our artscape. Art Dubai, whose eighth edition recently came to a close, isn’t aspiring to be Art Basel (it organises three mega fairs in Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong), someone mentioned during a casual conversation and rightly so. There seems no clamour for matching up to the overwhelming figures of any massive art fair in the world, but it negotiates a unique space for itself.
So, on Al Sufouh Road, at the uber-luxurious Madinat Jumeirah located near the Burj Al Arab, lay an interesting spread of 85 galleries from 28 countries, art projects, works by 500 artists, A.i.R Dubai (Artists in residency) Global Art Forum, Marker, Terrace talks, The Sheikha Manal Little Artists Program, The Abraaj Group Art Prize plus two brand new additions: Art Dubai Film and Art Dubai Modern. Elsewhere in the city was happening SIKKA Art fair (an artist-led fair) and Design Days, a design fair.
A curatorially stronger fair, dominance of conceptual art and just the right blend of local and international flavours was the common refrain that echoed across Art Dubai’s eighth edition, once again directed by Antonia Carver. To prepare the right mix, the gallery selection committee carefully chose one third of the 85 galleries from West and South Asia and a third from Europe and yet another one third from the Americas, Africa and East Asia. “Over the years, Art Dubai has come to be known as a fair of discovery,” says Antonia Carver. And her claim was corroborated by the absence of blue-chip western galleries and the presence of several unknown and uncelebrated artists from West Asia. “We are aware that the art calendar is so busy these days and that any successful event has to carve out a particular place and unique identity for itself, so giving the time-poor gallerists, artists, curators, collectors and museum directors a fundamental reason to be there, every year. Art Dubai has its roots in the UAE and is the leading international fair for the Middle East and South Asia — complementing the fairs and biennials taking place in Delhi, Kochi, Dhaka, and elsewhere. The fair is also increasingly is seen as the global fair of choice — the meeting point for all those interested in arts scenes and regions outside of Europe and the Americas, as it becomes a platform also for the arts scenes of Africa, too,” she says.
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, one of the most influential names in the art world, discovered the work of 89-year-old Etel Adnan, a Lebanese-American poet, writer and artist. He has now curated an ongoing exhibition of her work for Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. “It is a great place to find Emirati artists, middle-eastern artists of different generations,” says Hans, who feels very positive about the emergence of multiple cultural centres across the world.
If we are talking about discovery, then what can be a better example than the Marker section where the famous art collective in their first curatorial outing focused on Caucasus and Central Asia, a region remaining obscure despite its pluralism and complexity. Visitors were surprised to find art galleries from places like Tblisi and Baku in the section designed like a tea salon or a traditional chaikhaneh.
Remembering last year’s Marker section which focused on West Africa, art critic Bharti Lalwani says, “Art Dubai also makes an attempt to foreground contemporary art from lesser exposed regions such as Indonesia and Africa. As an Indian diaspora from Nigeria, it was a thrill to meet collectors, curators and artists from Lagos last year. At the time, my conversations with these remarkable individuals focused on how Art Dubai could act as a facilitator for fostering new collectors in a region that may not have the infrastructure yet.”
Another remarkable thing about this year’s Art Dubai was Art Dubai Modern. With modern art eliciting so much interest in the art world, to devote one section to modern art from the region was the right thing to do. While London’s Grosvenor brought Pakistani-born British artist Rasheed Araeen, Karim Francis of Cairo brought Hamed Abdalla and Adam Henein, the artists who were marginalised because of their strong anti-establishment stance, Pakistan’s Art Chowk got some brilliant works by Zahoor ul Akhlaq — which blends modernist abstraction with traditional forms, New York’s Aicon gallery had splendid creations of M.F. Husain and some unseen works by Pakistani modernist Sadequain. These works were left behind in Paris in 1967 after he moved to Pakistan to never return to claim them. In 2010, the works were returned to The Sadequain Foundation.
“Of 11 galleries at Art Dubai Modern, four were showing Pakistani artists,” pointed out Varda Nisar of Karachi-based Art Chowk gallery, which has returned after selling three quarter of the works. Responding to how Art Dubai has been increasingly engaging with Pakistani art, Varda says, “I think a lot of it has to do with how people are so curious to find and accept positive things coming from the country which is mostly in news for negative things. Talks by Rashid Rana and Shahzia Sikandar were packed.” To add to the burgeoning Pakistani presence, was Nada Raza, the guest curator for this year’s Abraaj Art Group Prize show titled ‘Bagh O Bahar: Garden and Spring’.
The Indian presence didn’t disappoint either, most noteworthy being Bangalore’s Anup Mathew Thomas who won the Abraaj Art Group Prize (for his work ‘Nurses’) along with Abbas Akhavan, Kamrooz Aram, Bouchra Khalili of Iran, Basim Magdy of Cairo.
“Art Dubai is possibly one of the most well attended art events of the region. The fair goes beyond the confines of the traditional role of an art fair and puts together a host of engaging programs via the Global Art Forum initiative, Art Dubai Projects, the Abraaj Prize Exhibition and more. The fair is possibly getting stronger each year from the point of view of curatorial content. We participate in several of the most important fairs in the world, but to us, Art Dubai feels like home. The organisers pay special attention to the gallery’s key interests and facilitate conversations. Also this fair attracts a whole host of international curators, which to me is a really important part of the fair,” says Priyanka Raja of Experimenter gallery, Kolkata.
Young artist Hajra Waheed’s poignant commentary on migration and loss in her sea change series, shown by experimenter at Art Dubai, got completely sold out. A first-timer at the fair, GallerySKE, enthused by the response, hopes to participate next year too. Art Dubai projects had works by Sunoj D, another Bangalore-based artist, and Mumbai-based art collective Clark House Initiative. Bombay-based Chatterjee and Lal and Jhaveri Contemporary also had booths.
Malini Gulrajani, owner of Dubai-based 1X1 art gallery, has been introducing to the Dubai art scene some interesting names from the Indian art world. Putting things into perspective, the gallerist says, “This year saw Art Dubai mature from a fair with a slightly local flavour into an absolutely international affair with top quality works and tonnes of buyers. The only downside in Dubai is its small population and limited audience for the arts, but Art Dubai has found a perfect way around this, showcasing the art and culture of the region to visitors through a week-long cultural experience. Its booming economy, good infrastructure and a great mix of international crowd and government patronage also encourage the art scene here.”
Not to forget the Sharjah Art Foundation — a non-profit initiative aimed at developing art in the Gulf — located in Sharjah, which is just an hour away from Dubai.
The writer was in Dubai at the invitation of Art Dubai.