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March 9, 2012 9:16 pm
Taking over Art Dubai, the contemporary art fair launched in 2007 in the straitened emirate city-state, would bring most art world stalwarts out in a sweat. Not fair director Antonia Carver, who took the reins in 2010; the former journalist is nothing if not evangelical about her vision for the key Middle Eastern event, which runs from March 21 to 24, and is still an important rendezvous for collectors, dealers and art advisers with an eye on the Gulf.
“The fair has its roots in the Middle East and south Asia, yet it should reflect the global nature of the art world. We’d like Art Dubai to be the global meeting point of choice,” says Carver, underlining that there is now increased interest in the fair from east-Asian dealers and collectors.
Art Dubai has, like most important fairs today, adopted the 21st-century fair blueprint fine-tuned in the early 2000s by the organisers of Art Basel Miami Beach, who envisaged such events as a combination of cultural and commercial concerns. Just like Miami has been “Miami-specific”, so Art Dubai catalyses the local scene while capitalising on the expansion of the global market.
The result is a comprehensive collectors’ circle programme tailored to patrons, museum directors and curators (half of the members come from the Gulf; the rest from abroad). Exclusive events include a guided tour of the US consulate-general’s Art in Embassies collection in Dubai, as well as lunch at the residence of Zaki Nusseibeh, adviser to the United Arab Emirates presidential court.
A repackaged Art Dubai is now the central strand of an ambitious umbrella initiative called Art Week, which encompasses a broad programme of cultural events taking place across the Gulf this month. It ranges from lavish new museum projects in Doha, Qatar, to the fifth annual meeting (March 17-19) organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation, an influential annual gathering of artists, art professionals and institutions. The joined-up marketing strategy makes sense, especially as Qatar is now a powerful force in the contemporary and blue-chip modern art worlds.
Other events point to a fairly robust art ecosystem: Art Week includes Sikka, a fair devoted to new commissions from UAE-based artists (March 15-25 in Al Bastakiya). The management team of Art Dubai, keen to tap into new Middle Eastern tastes for limited-edition furniture, has launched a new fair, Design Days Dubai (see below). Crucially, a commissioned projects programme, on a scale not seen at European art fairs, features more than 40 artists who will cheekily explore “the fabric and economy of an art fair”.
Manila-based artist Carlos Celdran will perform seven acts in seven different parts of Art Dubai, touching on, he says, the Philippines’ relationship with the US and how “state-sanctioned arts and culture can help create a country’s identity”. A three-month residency scheme involving artists Faycal Baghriche, Magdi Mostafa and Deniz Uster is part of Art Dubai Projects, consolidating further the fair’s cultural infrastructure. UAE artist Zeinab al Hashimi, another residency practitioner, will transport her sculptural pieces across the city on a traditional wooden hand cart.
But the boldest move on the part of the Art Dubai organisers must be an inaugural performance night (March 22) held in partnership with the non-profit space Traffic. “Over the past year, we’ve seen the number of non-profit spaces increase dramatically as people look for more direct ways to support artists,” says Carver. Non-commercial venues are noticeably gaining momentum, including Shelter in Al Serkal Avenue and Pavilion, which hosts a Living with Video show (March 17-June 30), including nine works by contemporary artists such as Mona Hatoum and Wolfgang Tillmans.
Paradoxically, the downturn, which decimated Dubai’s real estate and financial sectors, seems to have strengthened the city’s cultural scene, with the sharp drop in rents prompting new gallery launches. Dubai remains an important collecting hub with a wealthy Indian community and a burgeoning Pakistani and Iranian collector base. Chinese collectors are also making their mark. It remains to be seen, however, if these trends will continue.
Last year at Art Dubai, exhibitors reported sales to German, Mexican and Swiss buyers, while more than 65 museum groups from the US, Europe and Latin America are expected this year. “Dubai has the most established art market in the UAE, with a number of emerging collectors and art hubs such as the Al Quoz district incorporating the Al Serkal Avenue initiative,” says Georgina Adam of The Art Newspaper and the FT. In new hot spot Al Serkal alone, five galleries, including Grey Noise, a contemporary dealer from Lahore, will launch this month. The Gate Village of the Dubai International Financial Centre, which owns 50 per cent of Art Dubai, is another prominent art centre.
“In the last few years at Art Dubai, it’s noticeable that local collectors have sought art from the region,” says adviser Arianne Levene, a specialist in the Middle Eastern market. “Dubai is still nonetheless a melting pot and neutral zone where dealers and artists can exhibit works that they may not be able to show in their native countries, such as Iran.”
Carver adds: “Buyers here are becoming more open and more international.”
But Dubai dealer Charles Pocock is sceptical, saying: “The market here is still very limited ... and while Art Dubai is an incredible contemporary regional art fair, there needs to be more depth.”
The city-state, pumped with petrodollars, has not been quite the honey pot anticipated by art world movers. The first edition of the fair in 2007, then known as the DIFC Gulf Art Fair, included high-profile western participants such as Ben Brown Fine Arts and White Cube, both of London. The latter dropped out in 2008. Galleries showing Indian and Middle Eastern artists flourished and Art Dubai subsequently developed into a largely regional fair (in 2010, a substantial number of the 70 participants hailed from the Menasa area).
Other emerging art centres continue to woo the super-rich too, especially Hong Kong with its freeport status and financial liquidity (a 5 per cent import tax applies if works remain in the UAE, otherwise Art Dubai is a tax-free zone). Under Carver, though, the fair appears to be punching above its weight, with 75 dealers from 32 countries, including 20 new and returning participants for 2011, including heavy-hitters Emmanuel Perrotin of Paris, and New York’s Pace Gallery. In a canny move, the Marker section is devoted to Indonesian art, with Ark Galerie and Galerie Canna of Jakarta among five dealers from the south-east Asian state.
Dealers seem to be catering to the local market, offering works by regional artists. London dealer Pilar Corrias will exhibit pieces by Iran’s Tala Madani and Pakistan’s Shahzia Sikander, while works by Lebanon’s Jean-Paul Guiragossian, priced from $15,000 to $70,000, and Iranian Khosrow Hassanzadeh, from $30,000 to $500,000, are available through German dealer Matthias Arndt. London’s Paradise Row gallery will show new works by Mounir Fatmi of Morocco. Daryo Beskinazi of Istanbul’s X-ist gallery will offer works priced between €4,000 and €35,000; his roster includes Turkish artists Burhan Kum and Ali Elmaci. Is he worried that the Middle East bubble will ever burst?
“After 10 to 15 years of building up their new identity as a culture hub, do you think the Gulf states will just let that melt away? Will they throw away the perfect status symbol that is art and culture? I don’t think so,” he says with candour.
Art Dubai, March 21-24 www.artdubai.ae
Global Art Forum
The politically charged Global Art Forum, Art Dubai’s platform for debate on the issues surrounding contemporary art, is more relevant than ever against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, bloodshed in Syria and Iran’s hard-line stance against Israel and the US. A two-city affair, it runs from March 18 to 19 at the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha and from March 21 to 24 at Art Dubai, and features lectures, workshops and commissioned projects.
The Forum is organised by London-based writer Shumon Basar. He focuses on the double meanings of the term “media”, in the context of “a look back at the past year in the Arab world and how events there have been produced and consumed as media”, he says.
One of the world’s most prolific tweeters, Sultan Sooud al Qassemi, will discuss how social media played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring (March 18), curator Lara Khaldi elaborates on the Arabic Art Glossary project (March 19), and researcher Mariam Wissam al Dabbagh examines how the Arabic- and English-speaking media cover events in the Arab world (March 23).
The art world is represented by the ubiquitous Hans Ulrich Obrist of London’s Serpentine Gallery, who takes the stage with Lebanese author Amin Maalouf (March 21).
“It’s interesting that a culture of debate has developed in Dubai,” says Antonia Carver, director of Art Dubai.
This has helped, in part, to overcome the sensitive issue of censorship in the conservative United Arab Emirates, where artists and journalists are still subject to restrictions.
Design Days Dubai
Pop along to a big art fair nowadays and you’ll often find a design fair running alongside it hoping to attract crossover buyers. With the launch of Design Days Dubai (March 18-21) the emirate is no exception: 22 galleries from Europe, Latin America, South Korea and Kuwait will offer collectable and limited-edition furniture and objects.
The fair’s ebullient director Cyril Zammit insists that there is a market for high-end contemporary design in Dubai and the wider Gulf region. “Kuwait has some of the most sophisticated buyers internationally and there is growing awareness of the market in Saudi Arabia,” he says, adding that bespoke furniture is in demand among Middle Eastern collectors.
Backed by powerful patrons such as the design sibling duo Fernando and Humberto Campana, Zammit aims to boost the idea of design as a collectible art form in the Gulf.
“There is also a strong history of craftsmanship in Dubai,” he says, an observation not lost on London dealer Sarah Myerscough, who will show a selection of contemporary carved wooden pieces by craftsmen such as Friedemann Buehler and Marc Ricourt (priced from £2,000 to £5,000).
“While certain collectors may feel suspicious of the avant-garde in contemporary art, there is a universal appeal about the tactility of craft work,” says Myerscough.
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