Exclusive Interview: Art Dubai’s Antonia Carver

15 Min Read

By Heba Elkayal

If there’s anything that could be said about Art Dubai this year is that it’s overwhelming in the most positive sense: not least for the hundreds of carefully selected pieces that were on sale by 75 different galleries, or by the commissioned pieces of artworks that were dispersed throughout the fair, nor because of the multiplicity of lectures and talks organized or the organization of the fair venue itself — the high end Medinet Jumeirah resort hotel. Simply, Art Dubai had the ability to overwhelm visitors for capturing the zeitgeist of the region’s art scene.

Daily News Egypt speaks to the fair’s director Antonia Carver who under her direction led Art Dubai to be an intellectual and visual playground for visitors, and a commercial success for galleries in 2012.

Daily News Egypt: Now that Art Dubai has ended, how do you feel about it and what were peoples’ reactions?
Antonia Carver: Peoples’ reactions were quite positive. Art Dubai has been able to provide a particular opportunity of time and space to have meaningful conversations about art, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. Most of the galleries taking part sold to collectors that they didn’t know previously, and had the opportunity to sit down with curators and museum directors who would never have the time at other international art fairs or events.

Shumon Basar, who led Global Art Forum, and I had been talking about not taking on too much or making this too huge. But then of course you start having ideas during the organizational stages of the fair. The Global Art Forum was so brilliant this year, because so many contributors got so involved : art historian Victoria Camblin, writer/artist Doug Coupland, the Serpentine Gallery’s Hans Ulrich Obrist, and the writer Amin Maalouf, among others. It ended up being such an enjoyable experience because they all brought their ideas to the table before the event kicked off, enabling it to mushroom the way it did. Yet between the fair and Global Art Forum, people were still able to take their time and enjoy all there was.

What sort of effect has Art Dubai had on museum institutions or foreign collectors?
LACMA (The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art) is a great example actually because they’ve obviously been interested in Islamic art for many years. But their interest in contemporary Middle Eastern art has been something more recent —like many museums over the last 10 years. They came to Art Dubai last year and launched their contemporary Middle Eastern acquisition policy at Art Dubai.

This year they launched their “Gifts of the Sultan” exhibition in Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art on Sunday, March 18, and brought a huge delegation to the UAE also, including Linda Komaroff, Franklin Sirmans and Miranda Caroll and Michael Govan— four major members of the museum. It shows the usefulness of Art Dubai as a meeting point but also the attitudes of major museums towards the Middle East.

They weren’t looking for “Arab Spring art”, or a genre deemed trendy or fashionable, but they were looking for individual artists that could be represented at their museums. Representation of artists from this region is beginning to go beyond the clichés: this growth is testament to the fact that there are a lot of great artists, and maybe that was overlooked in the past by the international community.

Locally in Egypt, people initially underestimated Art Dubai yet now recognize its brilliance, because Dubai managed to get its act together and organize it.
Wow, well three years ago when the Sharjah Biennale and Art Dubai coincided we saw a shift [in regional attitudes], with many artists and curators accepting that the cities of the Gulf can be strategic meeting points. This development doesn’t negate the fact that great artists and productions are from outside the Gulf, but Dubai in particular has become a platform now that isn’t available in say Egypt or Lebanon.

We’re not pretending that we’re a center of art production, but because of many practical elements like Dubai’s airport, its role as a hub, its community of galleries, and the fact that there’s a huge presence of other Arabs in various creative industries including the media, and that Dubai attracts great minds from various parts of the world, creates this great audience for Art Dubai.

There were no clichés in the art works that were most prominently presented such as Egyptian Wael Shawky’s piece (which won the Abraaj Capital Art Prize). He was talking about history and its documentation, which is a question that is relevant to Egypt today, but it doesn’t stem from Egyptian politics or society at this moment.
That’s what I particularly loved this year, and you could see it throughout the fair. Artists went beyond the most obvious kind of message, such as Joanna and Khalil’s [other winners of the ACAP] work that was subtle and clever and universal. There were people making work on that kind of level, taking the work into themselves and into their community. It’s not that the artists can’t make politicized work, we had that, we did it, but now they’re taking a new maturity and sophistication into their message because they aren’t necessarily shouting out to the West. It’s about artists looking into their own backyards and being concerned with family, history, form — and this makes their artwork so much richer.

A lot of gallerists this year commented on peoples’ maturing tastes. People were buying the right pieces. The galleries couldn’t pedal anything stupid.
Yes. We encouraged galleries this year to take a risk. CRG with Jumana Manna’s work of twisted flag poles and a giant sleeping bag installation piece, for example, could be seen as a risk for a gallery at a commercial art fair. Yet her work sold, and to collectors from the UAE. We present Art Dubai as an opportunity to talk to the artists, curators, serious collectors and critics and if galleries sell, it’s a bonus. These conversations can really make an artist’s career. And if there are sales too, that shows there’s a real shift on the part of collectors too.

The scene in Dubai and Sharjah has changed in the past two years: Not-for-profit foundations have sprung up, private collectors exhibit their collections and young Emiratis are producing ‘zines. The art scene is being produced and supported on many different levels.

With the presence of Emirati and Saudi artists and artwork at Art Dubai, have any distinctions been made between the two?
There is a sense of national pride, of course. Collectors initially would gravitate towards art that they could easily recognize or had an immediate affinity with, but what’s changed over the course of the fair [since its inception] is the immediate feeling of the art work then the question where is the artist from? That’s really encouraging, it’s not nationalistic buying; it has to do with aesthetic concerns and forms and taste. That’s a real sign of maturity.

Was the fair successful commercially?
Commercially, the fair was a success. Eighty-five percent of the galleries said they were very happy with their sales, and many are also waiting to hear back from institutions who take a longer time to make their acquisitions. Museums don’t always make a quick decision as they have to discuss with their board.

Last year, 90 percent of the galleries from the previous year reapplied to the fair, and we’re expecting the same, if not more, for 2013. Also, many galleries report that they often get follow-ups and after-sales. It’s not a good time in Europe or the US economically speaking and the expectation might be that people would be more cautious, but we rely on a particularly global group of serious collectors, which diminishes the risk.

The arts scene in Dubai reflects its diversity. The art scene as it is anywhere else in the world tends to attract a higher income bracket, but it does seem that the arts in the UAE draws in the Iranian, Pakistani, Indian, Arab and European communities, and has opened up a space for debate which is precious and so important — especially in the Gulf where a lot of activities tend to be top down and government dominated. In Dubai, the arts have mushroomed and been nurtured by entrepreneurial individuals.

On any given night of the week, there’s something going on in Dubai: debates, literature clubs or movie nights in Arabic and English held in galleries, and so on. This has been a long 10-year growth. Because it was organic and set up by young people, it mushroomed into this very serious art scene. Additionally, there has been movement of Iranian, Pakistani and other artists moving over recently to Dubai. Dubai has always been this sort of haven city for business and trade, and now it’s becoming a refuge for artists.

On the topic of censorship, are galleries warned about what they can present? Is censorship part of the program?
There are different stages. In our application guidelines we say we adhere to the rules of the Emirates, i.e. we advise galleries not to show anything overtly sexual in nature or that could be seen as anti-religious, so galleries bear that in mind when they apply in June/July time each year. Once accepted, we go back and forth with galleries to plan their booth curatorialy, and ask galleries for images for press and marketing, but we don’t ask for all images in order to vet them.

Galleries are aware of the rules that exist and they bear that in mind when they select the work they’re going to bring, but this isn’t unusual. Galleries travel all the time and work in the same way when it comes to Hong Kong, China, Singapore or the USA: every country has rules about what they can or can’t show.

Repeat visitors I’ve spoken to have said that the fair this year was very good in terms of organization and art works, and the intellectualism of the pieces. Yet is there anything that you want to plan for next year?
We’re just starting on our debrief and are figuring out our plans for 2013, and how we can take the fair to the next level, year on year. We know we’re on the right track, thanks to feedback and when such exciting and dynamic intellectual content attracts such a big increase in audiences.

Organization wise, we have such a fantastic team and they work really hard. I’d love to do more events and sessions in Arabic. We want to reach out to the world of contemporary African art. There has been a relationship between the Gulf and the eastern coast of Africa for hundreds of years, and we’ve already had a lot of artists from Africa represented. The Gulf, especially through the port city of Dubai, has had an exchange of goods, language and ideas with African countries for hundreds of years. It would be fantastic to have a look at these links at the level of contemporary art.

We want to shift the conversation naturally to the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world, the Middle East and Asia. It’s really timely and of interest to people in Europe and in North America. It doesn’t always have to be an East/West dichotomous relationship; it’s much more complex than that. Art fairs are about galleries selling work but why not make it more? We’re taking as our starting point Dubai’s tradition and history of commercialism, trade and business, but also building a platform for artists and debate— something rooted in the local, yet with a global reach.


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