A catalyst for growth in the Middle East: Director Antonia Carver on Art Dubai 2014 – interview

Antonia Carver, Director of Art Dubai, shares her insights on the Middle East’s most important art fair and its role in the international art world.

Director of Art Dubai Antonia Carver spoke to Art Radar about the vision for the largest and most prominent art fair in the Middle East, the development of the local art scene and the importance of strengthening cultural ties with surrounding regions.

Mohammed Kazem, 'Directions (Triangle)', 2006, aluminum and led, 88 x 214 cm, edition 2 of 3 + 1 AP. Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Art Dubai 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.

Mohammed Kazem, ‘Directions (Triangle)’, 2006, aluminum and LED, 88 x 214 cm, edition 2 of 3 + 1 AP. Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde Contemporary, Art Dubai 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.

Art Dubai, this year in its eighth edition, is the first fair of its kind in the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) region. Directly involved in the local art scene, Art Dubai supports cultural development through the organisation of programmes in partnership with other institutions and art spaces. The fair runs parallel not-for-profit programmes including residencies that connect artists from the United Arab Emirates to international counterparts and invite them to participate in Art Dubai Projects.

As part of its critically acclaimed Global Art Forum, the fair also holds talks, panels and lectures, and a Saturday art school for local artists, curators and writers. With “Marker”, a curated section of the fair focusing on a particular area of the world, the fair promotes cultural ties with different geographical regions each year. In 2012, Indonesia was centre stage in “Marker” while 2013 shone the spotlight on West Africa. The upcoming fair, which takes place 19 – 22 March 2014, will see London-based Central Asian art collective Slavs and Tatars as curators of “Marker”, focusing on art from Central Asia and the Caucasus and marking the first time artists have been invited to curate at the fair.

Art Radar asked fair director Antonia Carver to share her insights on the Middle Eastern art scene, its development and its infrastructures, and its cultural exchanges with other regions.

Saad Qureshi, 'Borrowed From The Shadows', 2010, fabric, cotton wool, steel wool, dimensions variable. Aicon Gallery, Art Dubai 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Saad Qureshi, ‘Borrowed From The Shadows’, 2010, fabric, cotton wool, steel wool, dimensions variable. Aicon Gallery, Contemporary, Art Dubai 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

The Middle East has invested quite a lot of money in the development of the art scene and its infrastructure, from large acquisitions of art to the construction of museums and institutions across the region. What do you think about this major and quick transformation of the arts landscape in the region and the role that it will play in the international scene?

The regional arts scene has undergone a great shift over the past decade, given the burst – and then rapid deepening – of international interest and rise of art centres in the Gulf. Of course, there has always been a “museum culture” in cities like Cairo, Beirut and Tehran, and the scene in Beirut continues to give rise to more and more small to medium-scale institutions. At the other end of the scale are the museum developments in Doha, and in the near future, Abu Dhabi. While we’re yet to see a real museum culture develop in these cities at street level, the commitment of the Qatar and UAE governments to cultural projects can only bode well for the future – and the ways in which the Sharjah Biennial is commissioning artists and connecting with its audiences demonstrates the great potential that exists here.

Meanwhile, in Dubai, an enthusiastic and committed audience has grown up organically over the past decade, supporting over forty galleries, plus an increasing number of private museums, exhibition centres, libraries and so on. Art Dubai is the most established fair in the Middle East, and increasingly a platform for African artists too. The fair reflects the mushrooming effect and is also a catalyst in it. We’re proud and feel privileged to be a part of such a fast-growing, vital scene, making such an impact yet with so much potential.

Ade Adekola, 'The Challenger' (From the series Icons of a Metropolis), 2012, 183 x 60cm. Centre for Contemporary Art, Art Dubai 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Ade Adekola, ‘The Challenger’ (From the series Icons of a Metropolis), 2012, photograph, 183 x 60cm. Centre for Contemporary Art, Marker, Art Dubai 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

In your opinion, how does this development of the art scene and infrastructure benefit local artists and their access to the international market?

We have tried to look strategically at how we can work with different generations of UAE-based artists (and it’s a community that’s growing fast). Many of the pioneering generation that started making conceptual work here from the 1970s-1980s onwards have been picked up by galleries that participate in the fair and seen their work develop an international following. We run a residency programme with Dubai Culture, Tashkeel and Delfina Foundation that brings together UAE artists with their international counterparts, and invite UAE artists to participate in Art Dubai Projects which, given the constituency of curators, critics, collectors and gallerists attending the fair, certainly gives these artists access to an international platform. And we also run a Saturday art school with Dubai Culture for locally-based artists, curators and writers. The 2013-14 course is led by Tirdad Zolghadr and features other international curators and critics as visiting tutors.

Adama Kouyaté, 'Le transistor', 1967, photograph, 40 x 40cm. Gallery Carpe Diem, Markers, Art Dubai 2013. Image courtesy Gallery Carpe Diem.

Adama Kouyaté, ‘Le transistor’, 1967, photograph, 40 x 40cm. Gallery Carpe Diem, Marker, Art Dubai 2013. Image courtesy Gallery Carpe Diem.

There are increasing relationships between the Middle East and the Asia region. How do you think the two regions can benefit from these exchanges and why is it important for their connections to become ever stronger?

Over the past couple of years, the fair has shifted from addressing a binary East-West relationship to examine the threads that connect South with South, East with East. There are of course deep historical connections between the Middle East and Asia – or between West Asia and East Asia! And deep contemporary business and trade links. So it makes sense to draw out those connections through the galleries, relationships with institutions and collectors, and by inviting artists for projects, talks and so on.

Talking about Art Dubai, in 2013 its focus was on Africa. How was that received? Was it successful, and did it spur an increase in interest in the region and more exchanges between the Middle Eastern and African art scene?

We were delighted with the focus on art from West Africa at Art Dubai 2013 – through the curated Marker section, commissioned artists’ projects, talks and so on. It was the largest showcase to date of West African art in the Arab world and garnered huge interest, from institutions and collectors, as well as critics and the local or regional audience. The quality and diversity of the work exhibited seemed to resonate with viewers, and we have feedback from the participating spaces that it was very successful for them, in terms of the conversations had, getting a foothold on the international stage and in terms of sales. One gallery sold out completely, others sold above expectations.

Dubai is an international hub for many African businesses and banks and also a travel hub – Dubai has the largest airport in the region and Emirates airline flies to most African capitals. It’s only natural that it could become one international platform for artists, galleries and collectors from Africa.

Joseph-Francis Sumégné, 'Footballeur', 2012, sculpture, recycled materials, copper wires, 56 x 40 x 31 cm. Gallery Doual'art, Markers, Art Dubai 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Doual'art.

Joseph-Francis Sumégné, ‘Footballeur’, 2012, sculpture, recycled materials, copper wires, 56 x 40 x 31 cm. Gallery Doual’art, Markers, Art Dubai 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Doual’art.

How did you come to choose the focus for next year’s edition of Art Dubai as Central Asia? How do you see the Central Asian art scene and what is its presence in the international picture?

We had set out in 2011, when Marker was established, to look in subsequent years at Indonesia, West Africa and then Central Asia and the Caucasus – with the latter, there is a close relationship in terms of trade and communications and of course a shared history. These regions have been producing great contemporary artists and have dynamic young organisations as well as established state institutions, yet are rarely given an international platform. Art Dubai seemed the perfect home-from-home. We are thrilled to be working with the artists Slavs and Tatars on this programme, which also now includes a publishing project with onestar books.

Slavs and Tatars were selected as curators for the Marker section of the fair, which has a Central Asian focus, how did you come to the choice of the collective as curators? What do you think they can contribute as a vision to Art Dubai?

We happily announced that this year, for the first time, artists will be curating Marker. Slavs and Tatars are a dynamic artist collective, and their work has a strong emphasis on research as well as ‘objects’. They have both an inside and outside view of the regions in focus – which have been a continual theme or subject within their work for years – and we wanted to do something a little different this year, take a fresh approach. The five participating spaces range from state institutions to galleries and artist-run initiatives, including ArtEast (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan), Asia Art (Almaty, Kazakhstan), North Caucasus Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art, NCCA (Vladikavkaz, Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, Russia), Popiashvili Gvaberidze Window Project (Tbilisi, Georgia) and YARAT Contemporary Art Space (Baku, Azerbaijan).

We also announced a new collaboration between Marker and onestar press, the Paris-based artist book publisher who will publish books by emerging and established artists from Central Asia and the Caucasus invited by Slavs and Tatars, including Reza Hazare, Taus Makhacheva and Armen Eloyan. Marker also features an education initiative in partnership with the Caspian Arts Foundation, which includes a research booth, daily talks and tours, and opportunities for upcoming curators to research and gain experience in this field.

Nnenna Okore, 'Baggage', 2008, plastic bags,175 x 100 x 25 cm. Omenka Gallery, Contemporary, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy Omenka Gallery.

Nnenna Okore, ‘Baggage’, 2008, plastic bags,175 x 100 x 25 cm. Omenka Gallery, Contemporary, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy Omenka Gallery.

Who is curating the Modern section of the fair and what will it include?

Art Dubai Modern is a new section of the fair dedicated to twentieth century art from the Middle East and South Asia. The section is curated by a curatorial committee, including Savita Apte, an art historian specialising in modern and contemporary South Asian art and chair of The Abraaj Group Art Prize; Catherine David, a renowned curator with an extensive experience in the Middle East, whose exhibitions include Documenta X; Kristine Khouri, a researcher and a writer based in Beirut and Co-founder of the History of Arab Modernities in the Visual Arts Study Group; and Nada Shabout, an art historian specialising in modern Arab and Iraqi art, and curator, among other exhibitions.

Art Dubai Modern showcases artist focus stands from the participating galleries: Agial Art Gallery (Beirut) with Michel Basbous, Aicon Gallery (New York/London) with Syed Sadequain and M. F. Husain, Albareh Art Gallery (Manama, Barhain) with Nasser Al Yousif and Rashid Al Khalifa, ArtChowk (Karachi) with Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Karim Francis (Cairo) with Hamed Abdallah and Adam Henein, Grosvenor Gallery (London) with Rasheed Araeen, Jhaveri Contemporary (Mumbai) with Anwar Jalal Shemza, Lawrie Shabibi (Dubai) with work from the 1970s by Nabil Nahas, Janine Rubeiz (Beirut) with Huguette Caland and Shirin Gallery (Tehran/New York) with Ardeshir Mohassess.

Khaled Jarrar, 'Concrete # 2', 2012, concrete, diameter 16 cm. Galerie Polaris Paris, Contemporary, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy of Galerie Polaris Paris.

Khaled Jarrar, ‘Concrete # 2’, 2012, concrete, diameter 16 cm. Galerie Polaris Paris, Contemporary, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy of Galerie Polaris Paris.

Where are the galleries in the Contemporary section mostly from? What are the big names taking part? And who are some of the most famous artists they will be presenting?

Art Dubai Contemporary includes around seventy galleries this year, carefully selected from several hundred applicants – we pride ourselves on pairing some of the most established, curatorially-led galleries with upcoming art spaces, and on being perhaps the most global of art fairs. The galleries this year hail from 37 different countries and include Victoria Miro, Chantal Crousel, Marian Goodman, The Third Line, Gladstone, Greta Meert, Grey Noise, Sfeir Semler, GallerySke and Franco Nero. Some of the more ‘famous’ artists showing in 2014 include Marina Abramovic, Haig Aivazian, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Farhad Moshiri, Mona Hatoum, Ahmed Alsoudani, Kader Attia, Kamrooz Aram, John Baldessari, Rina Banerjee, Yto Barrada, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Lara Favaretto, Mechac Gaba and Danh Vo.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Untitled, 1982, acrylic on wood, 121.9 x 91.4 cm. ArtChowk, Modern, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy ArtChowk.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Untitled, 1982, acrylic on wood, 121.9 x 91.4 cm. ArtChowk, Modern, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy ArtChowk.

What programmes does the fair present? Will you organise panels and talks and other educational programmes? What are they about and what is their contribution to the Middle Eastern scene?

Besides the gallery halls, Art Dubai has a large not-for-profit programme of talks, commissions, site-specific projects, and children’s tours and workshops – perhaps the largest non-commercial programme of any fair, worldwide. The Global Art Forum is a curated, themed ‘conference’ – and a particularly innovative one at that – involving live talks but also commissioned research and projects, publications, interventions, and so on.

In 2014, the Forum is commissioned by Shumon Basar, with Omar Berrada, HG Masters and Ala Younis as co-directors. Titled “Meanwhile…History”, the Forum is an imagined timeline of turning points in history – significant decades, years, days, minutes or seconds that shifted an understanding of the world. It’s a hugely exciting programme that each year attracts capacity audiences. We also now run a Saturday art school throughout the year – the current term (October 2013-March 2014) is led by Tirdad Zolghadr with a host of visiting tutors.

We’ve also just announced the artists commissioned for Art Dubai Projects – curated in 2014 by Fawz Kabra – which includes installation, research, publishing projects, plus other programmes taking in radio and film. Five of the artists are resident in Dubai for three months before the fair, as part of AiR Dubai. They are Nadia Ayari, Youmna Chlala, Clark House Initiative, Sunoj D, Maitha Demithan, Sara Al Haddad, Shuruq Harb, Amina Menia, Maryam Al Qassimi, Mounira Al Solh and Hajra Waheed.

Reza Hazare, Drawing from "In Exile" Collection, 2008, pencil on paper, 86 x 62 cm. Yarat, Markers, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy Yarat.

Reza Hazare, Drawing from “In Exile” Collection, 2008, pencil on paper, 86 x 62 cm. Yarat, Markers, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy Yarat.

Art Dubai is a fairly new fair and so far it has been very successful from the beginning. What are the challenges of organising a fair in the Middle East?

Art Dubai has grown exponentially over the past eight years. I would imagine that just like any art fair around the world, Art Dubai faces common challenges that are no different in the Middle East. I guess one of the particular challenges here is just the speed of growth – not only the fair itself, but the arts scene, the city – but that’s a happy challenge to have!

What opportunities does the fair offer to the local audience?

Since its inception, the fair helped in contributing to the growth of the local arts scene and steering international attention to its artists and communities – we’re a kind of catalyst in the development locally – Dubai has grown from around ten galleries to over forty in a few years – and also reflect that growth. The fair has become a meeting point for international curators and collectors – the site and point in the year at which they devote themselves to engaging in the Middle East (and increasingly Asia, and Africa) – and vice versa, in which local audiences get an overview of the most dynamic of international galleries and artists, and foremost thinkers and speakers. We work year-round – via talks, residencies, our school, and so on – to engage with the local arts scene and play a role in helping to nurture it. Our model is one of partnership – with the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, with local institutions, artists, curators, audiences, those working to develop the arts scene here.

Orkhan Huseynov, 'Tagiev', 2010, oil on canvas, 90 x 70 cm. Yarat, Markers, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy Yarat.

Orkhan Huseynov, ‘Tagiev’, 2010, oil on canvas, 90 x 70 cm. Yarat, Marker, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy Yarat.

How do you select the participating galleries and artists? What does the selection process entail, and what does a participant need to have in order to successfully enter the fair?

Galleries that apply to Art Dubai need to have been running for two years and to have developed in depth and supportive relationships with their artists that include the market but go beyond it. We ask galleries for an in depth proposal of the work they’d like to show and the concept behind it. The Selection Committee is independent and spends several days going through applications and discussing, voting – like any other international fair of this stature. We aim to grow steadily in terms of the audiences attending yet retain the ‘human’ size of the fair (in 2014, at around 86 galleries), so audiences can really spend time getting to know artists, movements, regions that are perhaps new to them.

Ideally, who is the target audience of the fair? Do you invite a lot of VIPs to come to the fair and where are they from?

Most broadly, the fair has become a meeting point with a skew towards all those interested in the art world beyond Europe and the Americas. We put a particular emphasis on institutions and museum directors, as well as collectors, and in 2013, 75 museum groups from all over the world attended the fair and took part in special Gulf-wide programmes. The fair tends to morph through the week – from the local and international art world on Tuesday-Wednesday through to students, families, academics and art appreciators at the weekend.

Isaac Julien, 'MIRAGE (Playtime)', 2013, Endura Ultra Photograph, 160 x 240 cm, edition of 6. Victoria Miro, Contemporary, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy the artist, Metro Pictures and Victoria Miro.

Isaac Julien, ‘MIRAGE (Playtime)’, 2013, Endura Ultra Photograph, 160 x 240 cm, edition of 6. Victoria Miro, Contemporary, Art Dubai 2014. Image courtesy the artist, Metro Pictures and Victoria Miro.

Who are your target buyers and collectors? Is the majority from the Middle East or do you have a fair share of international collectors as well?

Art Dubai has a diverse base of collectors and buyers. Our bedrock of collectors comes from the Gulf, and then the Arab world, Iran and South Asia – and including the diaspora heading back to “their fair”. We’ve seen a big growth in collectors from Saudi Arabia, East Asia, and increasingly, from Africa, as well as more traditional art capitals. Given the very international profile of Dubai and its nature as a travel hub, we also see these as “Art Dubai collectors” to be nurtured for the long-term. There’s also a great interest from museum groups from Europe and the United States who bring their patrons or trustees. Recent visitors include Ps1/MoMa, the Pompidou Foundation, Aspen Art Museum, Creative Time, the British Museum, Tate, Zurich Art Museum, MACRO and MAXXI, La Maison Rouge, the Ullens Centre and many more.

In your vision, what do you foresee for Art Dubai? Do you think it has the same appeal and influence in the Middle East as Art Basel has elsewhere or would you think there would need to be more developments in order for it to grow to that status?

We see ourselves as quite a different kind of fair to the norm, and don’t necessarily feel the need to grow dramatically in terms of the quantity of galleries we have – instead, we have diversity and quality at our core. Art Dubai is generally seen as the leading international fair in the Middle East and South Asia, but its identity and status goes beyond that – it also has an extraordinarily rich not-for-profit programme or projects and talks, plus an incredible line-up of galleries, museum directors and collectors visiting each year. The media has recognised that in terms of art world attendance and the extensive nature of the programme, Art Dubai sits among those global events with the greatest appeal and influence.

 C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related topics: art fairs, Central Asian artists, UAE artists, promoting art, non-profit initiatives, artists as curators, events in Dubai, interviews

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