By Heba Elkayal
With 20,000 visitors flocking to Art Dubai, the region’s largest art fair — now in its sixth year — was considered by organizers and participating galleries a success when it ended Saturday night.
Dubai’s story with art is an interesting one. Though not a power player in the regional art scene when compared to Egypt or Lebanon, Dubai is responsible for organizing and hosting the region’s most successful commercial platform for contemporary art.
This year, from March 20 to 24, 75 galleries from every corner of the globe participated in the fair, representing artists and pieces that were auctioned off to art aficionados and a growing number of serious collectors in the region.
All tastes were catered to, whether one’s inclination was towards regional or western contemporary art. Price points too were varied: ranging from as low as $5,000 and as high as $500,000, the former being a dome structure by Iranian Khosrow Hassanzade.
Arab artists were well represented at the fair. Among the most notable were the Jeddah-based Athr Gallery, the Dubai-based gallery Art Space and Ayyam Gallery, the Syrian institution that has been singlehandedly responsible for exporting Syrian talent to the world.
This year, a piece by Syrian artists Safwan Dahoul sold for $180,000, a price higher than initially expected. Another piece by Dahoul was then exhibited to meet customers’ demands.
Art Dubai has undoubtedly played a role in creating a serious platform for Arab art. Various initiatives and large-scale national projects, most notably by Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Qatar, are lending these areas a cultural credibility with their support for the establishment of fairs, biennales and various art foundations.
Such is the case with the creation of Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, whose building was designed by architect I.M. Pei of the Louvre’s Glass Pyramid fame. The Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island is another example, planned to include a branch of the Louvre Museum designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi designed by Frank Gehry and a national museum designed by Foster+Partners are on the list — all projects are set to open within the next five years.
Whilst Art Dubai was in full swing, the ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced that a new cultural district will be built in downtown Dubai to include an opera house and museum for modern art by the Emirati based construction company Emaar.
An expansion plan is also underway for Dubai’s art district, which initially developed organically by private gallery owners over the past decade in an industrial zone of Al Quoz district.
The government’s support for this non-government initiated art district is a nod to the role of the private art sphere, which some credit for laying the foundation for the regional art fair.
Events were scheduled parallel to Art Dubai, including the Global Art Forum, a six-day affair that included panel discussions organized and led by Shumon Basar, a London-based writer.
Global Art Forum first kicked off in Doha, Qatar on March 18 in Mathaf Modern and then carried on throughout Art Dubai under the theme “The Medium of Media.” Guest speakers included bloggers, artists, curators and writers such as Sultan Al Qassemi, Serpentine Gallery’s Hans Ulrich Obrist, novelist Douglas Coupland and revered Egyptian artist Huda Lutfi.
Sikka Art Fair was organized to highlight art by emerging Emirati local talent, while Design Days Dubai shed a light on work by regional and local designers.
Egyptian artists were a highlight at Art Dubai. Lara Baladi was represented by Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde; Adel El Siwi, Mohamed Abla, Khaled Zaky and El Fayoumi Mohammed by Art Space Dubai; Youssef Nabil by Paris-based gallery Nathalie Obadia; and Hassan Khan by Paris-based gallery Chantal Crousel.
Artist Magdi Mostafa had been commissioned by Art Dubai to create an onsite installation piece as part of his A.i.R. Dubai residency. Meanwhile, Wael Shawky was one of six artists to win the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, an award established by the private equity firm to encourage the production of contemporary art and what they deem the “entrepreneurial role” of private companies in supporting the arts.
The influence of the Arab Spring was wholly tangible, whether through topics of media, censorship or military rule dominating the conversation at Global Art Forum, or artwork with themes of social or political commentary. Art Dubai offered visitors and gallerists an opportunity to experience and sell some profoundly deep work this year.
A total of 75 galleries from every corner of the globe participated in the fair.