Art Dubai has come a long, long way since its first edition six years ago. Launched in the go-go years before the global financial crisis, it rode out Dubai’s economic meltdown in 2008-2009 and has now emerged as a successful event with a strong regional identity, and a distinct jump in quality.
This year saw 75 dealers from 32 countries come to the roomy spaces of the Madinat Jumeirah, including major names Pace, Perrotin and Continua. The exhibitors mainly chose to focus on artists from the region, with the happy result that Art Dubai looks very different from other “generic” art fairs with international brand names. The price points in the region are not at a Hirst or Murakami level, of course, but this year saw a bolder approach by dealers, who brought more challenging and pricey work.
Matthias Arndt was exhibiting a spectacular dome by Khosrow Hassanzadeh, lined with glittering ceramic tiles for which he was asking $500,000. While this did not immediately find a buyer, it seemed significant that a very conceptual piece – a four-person sleeping bag by the Palestinian artist Jumana Manna (“Wanderers” 2011, with CGR gallery) – sold at the opening to an Emirati collector for $16,000. Many of the exhibitors reported strong sales, particularly those who had done the fair before: it was sometimes slower for those participating for the first time. London’s Bischoff/Weiss, on its third outing, regretted not having brought more art, having sold virtually everything at the vernissage, including a triptych by Aya Haidar (£20,000) and drawings by Rana Begum at £1,000. Nathalie Obadia was pleased and slightly stunned to have sold seven works on the first day, including ones by Fiona Rae, Youssef Nabil and Joana Vasconcelos, while Ursula Krinzinger said she had a “big queue” to buy Kader Attia’s “Harragas” (2009), a revisiting of the “Raft of the Medusa” made in tiny photographs (€50,000). Art Dubai ends on Saturday.
An ambitious plan to create a new artist and art gallery hub in the warehouse area of Al Quoz was unveiled during Art Dubai. The £8.5m project will see the creation of 46,000 sq m of space for artists’ studios and art galleries in Al Serkal Avenue, already home to many of Dubai’s leading contemporary dealers. The site, next to a marble factory, will also include restaurants and a café, sorely needed in a district that remains a bit of an adventure to visit. “The project is really exciting, but I hope they will keep the edgy, slightly underground feel of this area,” said Asmaa Al-Shabibi of the Lawrie Shabibi gallery, which is installed in the avenue, while Will Lawrie was as enthusiastic: “With more people coming, at least it will make directing people here easier,” he said. “I have so many conversations about how to find us!”
Just two weeks after the New York mega-dealer David Zwirner clinched the deal on his London townhouse, two more major Americans are setting up in London. Michael Werner will open in Upper Brook Street, while Per Skarstedt has found a space in Old Bond Street. And even Ayyam, with branches in Dubai, Damascus and Beirut, is coming to London, taking a first-floor gallery at the top of Bond Street.
Still in London, an amusing spat onTwitter is opposing the writer Hari Kunzru and art critic Waldemar Januszczak. Kunzru wrote a hard-hitting newspaper piece accusing Hirst of making art that is a “pure commodity” – “at every price point from major installation to souvenir mug”. Januszczak quickly tweeted: “Lots of waffle abt Damien Hirst by Hari Kunzru. A good writer could have said in 200 words”, to which Kunzru riposted: “Given your own many 000’s of gushing words abt Hirst, suspect problem isn’t concision. Why not just say you disagree?” As the temperature mounted Janszczak’s claimed Kunzru’s piece was “a windbag’s work” while Kunzru talked of pots and kettles ...
Meanwhile in Maastricht, the European Fine Art Fair (finishes on Sunday) has been assiduously courting Chinese collectors. There is a Chinese-language version of the website and, this year, the fair succeeded in attracting some 100 Chinese collectors for two days to the quaint Dutch town that hosts the event.
Did the efforts pay off? As the fair opened, Floris van der Ven – who specialises in Asian art – sold three pieces, including a Shang bronze for €250,000, to Chinese collectors: one mainlander, one Taiwanese and one from Hong Kong. But those galleries specialise in Asian art, so they already have a converted audience. The big question was whether Chinese buyers would take an interest in the western art on show. Dealers were not convinced they would be ready to buy Old Masters, for instance. But Wijermars Fine Art did sell an edition of the famed Barrias sculpture, “La Nature se dévoilant devant la Science” (1899), to a Chinese collector.
“The Chinese were quite overwhelmed by the size and quality of the fair,” says the fair chairman Ben Janssens. “It’s a learning curve for them, and for us: we need to have more guides who speak Chinese and more labels in their language. But it was a very positive experience.”
Spotted in Maastricht taking an intense interest in a “Vanitas” by the 17th-century artist Jacopo Ligozzi (and tagged at $320,000) was Matthew Slotover, co-organiser of Frieze. It was on the stand of the foremost dealer Luca Baroni, who was commenting on the gruesome image – a grimacing half-face, half-skull, with a rotting nose. Was Slotover buffing up on traditional art in preparation for the new Frieze Masters fair this autumn?
Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper