The sixth edition of Art Dubai recently wrapped up, running from 21 to 24 March 2012. The fair reportedly logged high sales, despite political tension in the region fuelled by the Arab Spring. Art Radar brings you opinions from the press.

Art Dubai Director Antonia Carver walks with the son of the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum.

Art Dubai was part of the umbrella initiative Art Week, which also included the Design Days Dubai fair, the smaller Sikka Art Fair, the Sharjah Art Foundation’s March Meeting, and the Global Art Forum. With 72 galleries from 35 countries representing over 500 artists, this year’s fair attracted over 22,000 visitors.

Out of the gate, sales strong

Many galleries in attendance reported good sales, with heavy buying taking place during the vernissage for both international and local galleries. Beirut’s The Running Horse sold fourteen works by Alfred Tarazi with prices ranging from USD2,000-12,000, while Grosvenor Vadehra sold Syed Sadequain’s oil painting ‘Couple in an Entrance’ for USD200,000. Represented by the London gallery Carpenter’s Workshop, art collective rAndom International‘s light installation ‘Swarm’ sold for USD 210,000. Middle Eastern contemporary artwork was selling as well. According to ARTINFO, Dubai’s The Third Line nearly sold out their collection of works by Iran’s Laleh Khorramian selling between USD4,000 and 8,000 and Iraq-born Hayv Kahraman in the USD14,000 to 20,000 range.

Alfred Tarazi, 'A Nation's Inflation 5 Ll (Arabic)', 2011, digital pigment print mounted on Dibond.

Galleries were split in the artists they represented, with several showing Middle Eastern artists and others bringing well-established international names, such as the Goodman Gallery that exhibited South African artist William Kentridge. There were ten galleries from the United Arab Emirates participating in the fair, more than any other country. On the other side of things, the collectors ran the gamut internationally. “I’ve been amazed at the spectrum of nationalities; we’ve sold work to collectors from Europe, the Gulf and Asia,” Senior Director of The Pace Gallery in London Polly Robinson Gaer told The National.

Censorship and the Arab Spring

Unsurprisingly, the historical events that rocked the Middle East in 2011 also made their presence felt at Art Dubai.

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 profound artwork this year.

Heba Elkayal, journalist, Daily News Egypt

Certainly the Arab turmoil in 2011 has inspired artists from Morocco to Iraq.

Aicha Amor, Director of L’Atelier 21 in Casablanca

Political sentiments were not merely an academic background to the fair either. Some commentators were moved by what they saw as a profound immediacy to the political works on display. Calling Art Dubai “where the Middle East comes to scream,” Eman El-Shenawi of Al Arabiya News Channel said of the fair’s artwork,

Call them what you like; the “canvases of crisis,” or contemporary art “rages,” but let’s not use abstract, conceptual descriptions on works that attempt to steer away from exactly that.

Not everyone was in agreement with this assessment, however. Georgina Adam of The Art Newspaper noted that there was “less politically engaged art than one might expect”. She also pointed to an increase in highly conceptual work, such as Marya Kazoun’s installation They Were There, as evidence that the fair was attracting more mature and sophisticated artwork.

Marya Kazoun, 'They Were There', 2011, performance, glass, mirror, wood, glue, and acrylics.

However, as much of the art in the Middle East is backed by the “Emirati,” ruling elites whose massive purchases buttress the region’s contemporary art infrastructure, Art Dubai was not without tense moments. Several works were censored over the course of the fair, two ostensibly because they commented on the Arab Spring uprisings. Criminal Investigative Department (CID) officials requested that a work by Palestinian artist Shadi Alzaqzouq be taken down in anticipation of a visit from Sheikh Mohammed. The painting, entitled ‘After Washing’, depicts a young woman holding a pair of mens’ underpants upon which the words “clear off” are written in Arabic. The artist himself was reportedly denied a visa as well. Moroccan artist Zakaria Ramhani‘s ‘You Were my Only Love’, which captures a violent scene from the Egyptian revolution, was also taken down. Both pieces were from the Artspace Dubai gallery.

Zakaria Ramhani, 'You Were My Only Love', 2011, oil on canvas.

Filipino performance artist Carlos Celdran also found himself in hot water for his one-man show that included a dialogue between former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and Filipina politician Imelda Marcos. Police interrupted his show and detained him, questioning him on the nature of his political commentary. He was able to continue the show afterward, but he cancelled a second performance when asked to remove the religious and political content.

A spokesperson for Art Dubai chalked the censorship up to standard protocol, telling The National,

Annually, prior to opening, Art Dubai’s content is reviewed by representatives who then may make suggestions about a minimal number of pieces which may not be in keeping with the social and cultural values of the UAE. These pieces may then be stored by the gallery at the fair.

Not all of the galleries in attendance were happy that so much media attention is focused on issues of censorship. Hamza Serafi, co-founder of Athr Gallery in Saudi Arabia, told BBC News,

Of course we have generalists who come here with preconceptions. They come asking about censorship, sexual issues, and we do not deny those issues. They are part of Middle Eastern culture, but they are not really the whole thing. We are much deeper and much more multilayered than that. You can see a more in-depth work that is … more poetic than just the unfortunate stereotype.

Fair’s quality draws praise

Many visitors to the fair commented on the maturity of this year’s fair, noting an organic integration into the local art scene.

It feels like a changed art fair. Sure, it’s still about selling paintings but it also – and almost all fairs fail to do this – seems to be uniquely a part of the place it’s in; that it could only be there; is specifically interesting because it’s there – basically, it’s good because it’s in Dubai not in spite of being there.

Robert Bound, culture editor for Monocle

Olaf Breuning, 'Smoke Bombs II', 2011, C print.

Dealers and visitors agreed that Art Dubai is becoming more sophisticated and constantly increasing in quality, thanks to the efforts of its director Antonia Carver, who in the past two years has eliminated the sort of garish abstract works that some galleries brought in the first years (and often found a ready market for).

Georgina Adam, journalist, The Art Newspaper

Part of the optimistic sentiment was due to the expansive education program that brought 65 museum groups to the concurrent Art Week education programs and the Global Art Forum. Some commented that the international presence at the fair bode well for Dubai’s long-term prospects as a commercial art hub.

For lots of Western collectors, the first time they were exposed to Middle Eastern art was at Art Dubai. The number of museum groups is comparable to Art Basel.

Bashar al-Shroogi, Director of Dubai’s Cuadro Fine Art Gallery

Art Dubai is an important step towards Director Antonia Carver’s goal of making Dubai “the global meeting point of choice” for contemporary art.


Related Topics: Antonia Carver, art fairs, censorship of art, art in the UAE

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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