The 8th Edition of Art Dubai opened with a pop on the evening of the 19th as thousands of the region’s art lovers descended on Madinat Jumeirah for Opening Night to appreciate work by more than 500 artists, a third of whom with ties to the Middle East. This year’s fair was significantly larger than last year’s and impossible to take in all in one night or in heels for that matter (my poor feet look like they’ve been through a bed of thorns). The opening was also slightly less packed and flashy than in previous years—presumably due to the Christie’s auction taking place across town the same evening—and the more relaxed atmosphere made it possible for guests to stop and have real conversations with artists, gallerists, and one another.
As usual, Art Dubai Contemporary drew galleries from all over the world and was very strong. Dubai based gallery Grey Noise deserves attention for striking watercolours by Sara Salman and a cleverly curated booth. Berlin-based Galerie Tanja Wagner took a chance and nailed it with a solo show of the “pieces of the love letter” series by American artist Annabel Daou, which elaborates upon the repetitive nature of the language of love by presenting a 10,000 word mash up of famous letters from history. It was possible to wander past a vibrant Yayoi Kusama, or a duly conceptual Anish Kapoor then round a corner and then be shocked into real reflection over Korean art at the buzzing 313 Art Project booth.
The Markers section this year was rooted in Central Asia and the Caucuses and curated by Slavs and Tatars, a collective of enviable experimental artists with origins from the area between the fallen Berlin wall and the Great Wall of China. Work from galleries in this area is seldom brought to an international art fair and it was marvellous to see it receive attention. Meant to recreate a traditional teahouse, the exhibition was installed in a series of stalls painted a military green and the works were numbered with a confusing corresponding programme, which made the section feel inaccessible and look significantly more like a community art market than the collection of treasures that it actually was. It is worth signing up for a tour of this area to really grasp the historical and cultural relevance.
The Abraaj Group Art Prize section was especially strong this year and curator Nada Raza was able to bring the 5 winning artist’s projects together in a poetic and meaningful way with the group exhibition, Bagh o Bahar (Garden and Spring). Each artist was paired with one of the region’s poets or novelists who responded to their work with a piece of creative writing that can be appreciated online or in the hall. I revisited Abbas Akhavan’s Study of a Hanging Garden several times and was drawn both to its beauty and its sad nostalgia. The floor sculpture displays Iraq’s native plants, laying them out on white sheets like precisely cleaned ammunition.
The Projects section creates a path from Madinat Jumeirah to Mina A’Salam (where the Art Dubai Modern Hall lies), and is easy to miss in the dark. Although the artists selected are top notch, some of the projects don’t feel like a significant enough departure from previous work or a large enough effort for the 3-month residency that supported the section.
Mounira Al Soulh’s interactive installation, “Clogged” presents a shoe store of 30 pairs of simple wooden shower shoes recently crafted in Syria. Visitors are asked to temporarily exchange their own shoes for a pair of the clogs. The shoes are uncomfortable and make loud noises on the ground, a clever reminder of the difficulty of walking a mile in anyone else’s fate, particularly that of a Syrian neighbour.
A brand new section this year, Art Dubai Modern brought together eleven galleries for a special focus on 20th century art in the Middle East and South Asia. The work meets a real need for grounding of the contemporary in the past and features standout pieces by Lebanese master Nabil Nahas at Lawrie Shabibi and Baya, a female contemporary of Picasso, at the Tunis-based Galerie El Marsa booth. This wonderful addition to the fair connects cities and artists across time in a conversation that has been much needed.
I’m off to get my learn on at the Global Art Forum at Art Dubai this afternoon, followed by book signings for two of my favorite contemporary Arab artists eL Seed and Hassan Hajjaj…