Art Dubai report

One thousand three hundred and twenty one. One thousand three hundred and twenty two. One thousand three hundred and twenty three . . . 

The counting is audible at the heart of Art Dubai, the leading art gathering in the Middle East. As well-heeled collectors wander along the cobbled pavements between the modern art hall in the luxurious Mina A’Salam hotel and the contemporary fair at the waterfront, three megaphones are blaring numbers in different languages. The loudspeakers have been rigged in one of the stairwells leading down from the hotel to the water.

“The numbers are the production cost of my project,” Sunoj D, who created the installation, tells me: 2,000 US dollars, in English; 7,400 UAE dirhams, in Arabic; and 125,000 Indian rupees, in Malayalam. It took Sunoj a month to record counting the rupees in his mother tongue. “When I was growing up in Kerala, people from my village who migrated to Dubai for work would return and build two-storey houses. So Dubai for me has always been a place that’s all about money.”

It’s only fitting that artworks play to the stereotype of the city. Yet the fair itself is telling another, lesser-known story. Dubai is becoming a place that welcomes artists like Sunoj, funded by the fair, to create.

It is true that the initial days of Art Dubai seem the exclusive preserve of the international collector elite. VIP previews, VIP lounges, and lavish VIP parties. Dubai loves any excuse for a party. Some artists feel uncomfortable amid the glitz. Sunoj fled the fair, and I had to track him down by phone. But others don’t mind it.

“We have to sell to live,” Samia Halaby, a well-known Palestinian painter, tells me. We’re interrupted as a student approaches, saying she is trying to copy one of Halaby’s works. “There’s a general idea that artists are like religion. [But] if my art sells, I can paint more.”

“There’s a lot to be said for commerce around art, to define and lead the way to new initiatives,” says Savita Apte, chair of the annual Abraaj Group Art Prize. From next year, the private equity firm will fund five scholars to attend London’s Royal College of Art.

Apte uses her own example of starting Sotheby’s’ modern and contemporary south Asian art department in the 1990s. “The minute we began the auctions, knowledge came out in the public domain. So more is researched, more is archived, more artists are discovered.”

The spirit of the fair is taking over the city. Performers entertain at Galleries Night in Al Quoz, the industrial zone behind Dubai’s main thoroughfare, and around the financial centre; Christie’s auctions artworks at the Emirates Towers hotel; I learn Arabic Kufic stencilling in the artisanal Bastakiya neighbourhood; Najla Said performs at a Palestinian culture week near Meydan racetrack; Van Cleef & Arpels holds jewellery workshops at the Design Days fair; crowds flock to attend Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum discussions.

“There’s 100,000-fold more money in the New York and London art markets than in the Middle East,” says Khaled Samawi, the Syrian owner of Ayyam Gallery. “Lots of people here are asking questions. Maybe a Ferrari dealer in Dubai doesn’t have to work hard, but art dealers do, to increase the quality, the educational programmes, in order to sell the art equivalent of a Ferrari.”

As the fair travels through Dubai, it’s also travelling back in time. This year, as a sign that the Middle East market is maturing, Art Dubai is showcasing 14 modern painters alongside its usual contemporary section. The galleries include works by MF Husain, known as India’s Picasso, and Nabil Nahas from Lebanon.

“The focus on the modernists is very important from an aesthetic and learning perspective: you can’t understand what’s going on today if you don’t know what happened yesterday,” says Venetia Porter, curator of Middle Eastern art at the British Museum. She has been coming to the fair for the past seven years.

In the evening Porter and I meet again, this time mingling with curators and collectors at a party. She explains how Art Dubai is evolving. “Art Dubai is great, not only because of the art I find,” she says. “There’s such an energy here. It’s an art fair, but so much more. It’s where people meet, learn: it’s a concentrated moment.”

She’s right. Art Dubai also attracts the likes of Henry Kim, director of the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, who is at the same bash. The museum, the first in North America dedicated to the arts of Islam, chose to host its first international preview alongside the fair, at the Ismaili Centre Dubai. It even flew in some pieces, including a 16th-century folio of the Persian Shahnameh poem.

“We wanted to combine the preview with an event to which most contemporary collectors are coming,” Kim says. “We carry the narrative of Islamic art up to the present day. Contemporary art is one of the most vibrant areas these days. The statement is that we are doing both.”

Porter’s enthusiasm is echoed by Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong when we meet at a hall dedicated to Central Asian art, curated by art collective Slavs and Tatars, which Armstrong describes as “fantastic”. “The fair is sufficiently complex,” Armstrong says. “For western visitors in particular, there’s a tremendous amount of new information. The fair gives me access to high-quality dealers and art that I wouldn’t have time to see otherwise.”

Compared with established international fairs, Art Dubai is still an experiment. But its multiple faces are what make it interesting. The fact that it is spawning an arts scene throughout the city shows it is growing roots. And it already has the ingredients to ensure people keep coming.

To March 22,

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