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March 24, 2012 11:47 am
Art Dubai, the Middle East’s largest art fair, has this year attracted record numbers of visitors, as the Arab spring, combined with an increasingly mature regional art market, has intensified interest in Arab artists.
But while the uprisings of the past year may have whetted the appetite of art buyers, one of its underlying causes – arbitrary, often unpredictable state interference in public speech – still hangs over the region’s artists, and over Art Dubai.
As the fair opened on Thursday, Dubai authorities ordered at least four pieces removed from display in advance of a visit by members of the emirate’s ruling family.
One of the censored works was a painting based on the infamous image of a woman being beaten by Egyptian soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Another depicted a woman holding underwear with irhal – the Arabic word for “leave”, a common chant of protesters – written on them in Arabic.
Also removed was a piece based on maps of the region that used the term “Persian Gulf,” instead of “Arabian Gulf” as GCC governments insist the body of water should be named.
Antonia Carver, Art Dubai’s director, played down the censorship, saying it is not uncommon for works to be removed from exhibitions across the world due to legal or cultural concerns. Dubai’s approach to artistic expression has developed dramatically in the years since the fair launched, she added.
“As the city has grown as a cultural capital is has become much more open to the subjects that can be tackled,” she said.
A Dubai government spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment.
Censorship is common at art fairs in the United Arab Emirates, and made headlines in 2011 when Jack Persekian, the long-time director of the Sharjah Biennial in Dubai’s more conservative neighbour, was abruptly sacked after a piece of controversial art was exhibited at the show.
Regardless of the political challenges faced by the region’s artists, exhibitors at the fair said the commercial opportunities for international art dealers in the region are healthy.
Art Dubai, which began just six years ago, attracted more than 75 museum groups to this year’s event, a number comparable to or greater than those at major European events like Art Basel or the Frieze Art Fair, organisers said.
Gallerists at the fair said the combination of a growing network of wealthy buyers and institutions and the Arab spring’s international resonance, have combined to put Arab artists in the spotlight for collectors.
“They saw what happened in India and China, and that don’t want to miss the next one,” said Hisham Samawi, a partner of Dubai’s Ayyam gallery. “The Arab art scene has been maturing for some time and was already really warming up, but now it’s a kind of perfect storm.”
Prices are soaring for pieces by artists from the region who are becoming favourites among collectors and total visitor numbers, as well as the number of artists and galleries showing at the event, are all at their highest level ever, organisers said.
“They’re showing the type of work, the calibre of art, that they would show anywhere in the world. And they’re selling them,” said Bashar al-Shroogi, a well known Bahraini collector and gallery owner who is a patron of Art Dubai.
London’s Pace Gallery, which exhibited at the fair for the first time this year, sold works by every one of the high-profile artists whose work it displayed.
“Every sale we have made here has been to a new collector we have never sold to before,” said Polly Robinson Gaer, a senior director at the gallery. “And that is exactly what you want from an art show.”
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