Fairs Market United Arab Emirates

Dubai: the thinking man’s party town

The Art Dubai fair, which opens this week, sets a more than respectable intellectual standard for the region’s culturati

HH Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum visits the Art Dubai fair during the Abraaj Group Art Prize opening. Photo: courtesy Art Dubai 2014

Art Dubai (19-22 March) always has a party feel to it. It takes place in a very luxurious, multi-Moorish hotel by the sea, and the unlimited champagne and gastronomic treats at the opening event makes it one of the social occasions in a town that loves to live it up.

Everyone knows it is happening, even the taxi drivers, who rarely know where anything is, and a local bakery has come up with art-themed cupcakes that take the misery out of Munch. The man who swanned in wearing an elegant, off the shoulder evening gown and a defiant expression clearly felt that here was the place to push the envelope, as artspeak likes to say.

This does not mean, however, that Art Dubai is unserious. In fact, as art fairs go, it is the most intellectually stimulating because the combination of art and thinkers is different from any you find in the West. You see and hear something new.

Art fairs have ambitions

Contemporary art fairs increasingly aspire to the status of cultural events, and where the cultural infrastructure is weak, as in Dubai, a fair can make a big difference.

Art Dubai talks this year have been put together by Shumon Basar of London’s Architectural Association, Omar Berrada of the Marrakesh library, literacy and arts centre called Dar Al-Ma'mûn (after the ruler of Baghdad who created a great library in the ninth century) and Ala Younis, the Kuwaiti-born, Jordanian resident via a Rockefeller Foundation grant: an artist and curator in the West as well as the Middle East.

It is worth unpacking peoples’ lives here. They spin a dense network of invisible threads linking countries and cultures that makes Westerners seem parochial. Almost no one comes from just one place. They move because the politics back home may be difficult, or the intellectual climate too narrow, or the opportunities and the stimulus of the West irresistible. In any case, the concept of the clash of civilisations is absurd here.

Art Dubai is Mecca to art world intellectuals

Having set a more than respectable intellectual standard, Art Dubai under the direction of Antonia Carver does not have too much difficulty getting art world stars to come.

This year, we have Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the 2015 Venice Biennale; Hans Ulrich Obrist, the world-whirling curator; Adam Szymczyk, the director of Documenta 2017; Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, the author of a book about the military coup against the Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973; Sulayman al Bassam, the Kuwaiti playwright and director; Solange Farkas, the Brazilian curator of video—and many more.

The theme is key moments in history, and that means the Sudan; artistic cross-fertilisation between Iran and Dubai, closely linked by centuries of trade and migration, but currently separated by politics; what Kuwait might have been, judging by developments from 1942 to 1982; Soviet Orientalism in 1920 (Central Asia is so modish at the moment); the 1970s; and nostalgia for eighth-century universalism as found in Ibn Khaldun’s “Muqadimmah”, compared to the alarming Islamic particularism popping up now from Indonesia to Nigeria.

The Gulf is also knitting together (at least on the art front; politically, Qatar has broken ranks). If you had arrived a week ago, you could also have gone to the March Meeting, the excellent annual conference for art world professionals held in Sharjah, a mere hour’s drive away, or an hour’s flight would have taken you to Qatar, with its museums and talks in the capital, Doha.

Who knows the names of the Central Asian republics?

The fair itself has an invited section called Markers, curated by the artists Slavs and Tatars, that gives us a crash course in the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia, a huge terra incognita, but not the boondocks.

The Soviet academy system has seen to it that these are well-trained, sophisticated artists. We just don’t know their names because there is next to no market there, so they have not been branded yet.

Cultivating one’s back garden

Another section is devoted to Modernism, with 11 galleries showing the art of the 20th century from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. The sad story of Ardeshir Mohassess, who drew subtle cartoons against the Shah and died poor, ill and abandoned in New York in 2008, emerges here.

This is the area of the Middle Eastern market where the biggest prices are achieved; collecting always starts as nationalistic, and these are easy works to hang, in limited supply as many of the artists are dead. At Christie’s on Wednesday night, Construction of the Suez Canal by the Egyptian artist Abdul Hadi El-Gazzar (1925-65) sold for $1,023,750. It remains to be seen whether moving the auction to coincide with the fair will have exhausted the collectors’ will to buy in this field, and so dampen the market for modernists at the fair

Lots of meanings

The national breakdown of the main fair is 15 galleries from the Middle East and North Africa, 32 from Europe, eight from the US, eight from South and South East Asia, two from Latin America and one each from Australia and Nigeria. Much of the art is metaphorical, although as a Westerner you aren’t always sure you are getting the allusion right.

For example, at the Jeddah-based Athr Gallery, is Musaed Al Hulis’s prayer rug made of jump-leads really to be taken straight (prayer is so energising), as the blurb suggests or could it have satirical intentions that no one talks about? Given the other art on the stand, I would suspect the second. Athr is one of the top Saudi galleries, founded in 2008 and with commensurately youngish artists. It has a good following and had sold nearly half the stand in 24 hours at prices up to $20,000.

Sales and prices

The New York gallery, Lombard Freid, had not sold anything by the end of the first day, but Marian Goodman gallery had sold a work by Sabine Moritz for between $14,000 and $28,000. “The American century is over; we must widen our horizons,” a member of the gallery staff said.

Courtesy of Canvas magazine, which does a daily paper during the fair, here are a few of the sales: Galerie Chantal Crousel from Paris sold four works by Allora & Calzadilla and Haegue Yang, for between $35,000 and $125,000. Madrid’s Sabrina Amrani Gallery sold a piece by the Pakistani artist Waqas Khan for $11,686. Nathalie Obadia from Paris sold Joana Vasconcelos’s Candy Garden for more than $97,000 to a European, and a work by the Iranian Ramin Haerizadeh to a Turkish collector. Galleria Continua from San Gimignano, Italy sold works by Serse, Mona Hatoum, Pascale Marthine Tayou and Michelangelo Pistoletto to local and international buyers. And New York’s Gladstone Gallery sold a work by Ahmed Alsoudani to a Dubai-based collector.

Third Line, an established Dubai gallery, sold works by the fashionable Farhad Moshiri at around $200,000, while Isabelle van den Eynde, another Dubai dealer, sold a textile works by the UAE’s veteran conceptual artist, Hassan Sharif, and Abdelkader Benchamma’s Rorschach in Marble to Dubai-based collectors. In other words, there are both international and local buyers at Art Dubai, although no prices near even half a million have yet to be announced.

Don’t let’s forget the sponsors

The Dubai–based investment group Abraaj is the big backer of Art Dubai. It also awards the Abraaj Prize and has just announced a major scholarship grant to allow students from the region to go to London’s post-graduate Royal College of Art. Cartier, the Dubai property company Emaar, and the Jumeirah hotel, where the fair takes place, are also partners.

The Dubai Culture & Arts Authority supports the fair’s year-round education programme, but the ruling Al Maktoum family is not directly involved. So far as culture is concerned, unlike in the neighbouring emirates of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, it prefers to let the private sector make the major investment.


Design Days Dubai, where the outstanding display was a room of gilded Louis XV boiseries, brought by the famous Paris antique dealers Steinitz, full of astonishing objets produced by the London design firm Carpenters Workshop
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