The understated elegance of GAF’s programming was echoed in this year’s Art Dubai. Gone were the gaudy paintings of horses presented at last year’s edition in the Madinat Jumeirah’s long corridor, which leads to the exhibition halls where galleries – including Bischoff/Weiss presenting Rana Begum, Aya Haidar, Sheree Hovsepian and Raphaël Zarka, Green Art Gallery presenting a wonderful suite of images taken from Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck’s (in collaboration with Media Farzin) Chronoscope (2009-11), and newcomer, Austrian space Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska showing Josef Hoflehner, Gerold Miller and François Morellet – presented. Then there was Indonesian space and MARKER alumni, DGalerie, and a stand out booth by Dubai-based Grey Noise, whose artist Fahd Burki won this year’s John Jones Art on Paper Award.
In fact, the only horse-like reference was a herd of plaster donkeys by Lahore-based Ehsan Ul Huq presented as part of Art Dubai Projects. Apparently, Ul-Huq has since decided to bury his donkeys like China’s Terracotta Army, following a brainstorm between the artist and an editor from LEAP, perhaps on the beach, where Chus Martinez’s tightly curated ‘Sculpture on the Beach’ was to be found, with works that included a broke-down American flag by Mounir Fatmi and a satirical plaque of commemoration by UBIK.
Of course, the corridor leading to the Madinaat Jumeirah’s exhibition halls is prime Art Dubai real estate, occupied by the fair’s two main sponsors: Cartier, presenting their merchandise in a closed-off exhibition space, and Abraaj Capital, with its VIP lounge situated opposite the annual Abraaj Capital Art Prize gallery; the only prize in the world that, in the words of Savita Apte, chair of the ACAP, “awards dreams and ideas”. This year, the corridor was claimed with images by Syrian artist, Hrair Sarkissian (who barely made it to the UAE after visa issues surrounding his Syrian citizenship blocked him), placed by curator of this year’s ACAP exhibition, Murtaza Vali, titled Extra | Ordinary, featuring Sarkissian and fellow 2013 Abraaj Prize winners, Egyptian Iman Issa, Lebanon artists Vartan Avakian and Rayanne Tabet, and Pakistan’s Huma Mulji.
For Vali, the intention of Extra | Ordinary was to produce a space of personal and private contemplation amidst the frenzy of the art fair, perhaps best encapsulated last year in a daring performance by Carlos Celdran titled Livin La Vida Imelda, which was shut down after Celdran imagined a conversation between Imelda Marcos and Muammar Gaddafi on the subject of Islam. Evidently, in 2012, the fall out of the 2011 “Arab Spring”, not to mention the media storm caused by the 2011 Sharjah Biennial and its well-documented controversies, made last year’s Art Dubai a more heated affair.
Curated by Yuko Hasegawa, many noted the lack of political works at the Sharjah Biennial, which has become the region’s most established (and more political) biennials, though in truth, the biennial continues to flirt with the political this year, albeit in a more nuanced and delicate way.
This could explain a more contemplative and subdued atmosphere this year, further echoed in the 11th Sharjah Biennial, titled Re:Emerge – Towards a New Cultural Cartography, which opened one week before Art Dubai and staged in an area of Sharjah coincidentally known as ‘The Heart”. Curated by Yuko Hasegawa, many noted the lack of political works at the Sharjah Biennial, which has become the region’s most established (and more political) biennials, though in truth, the biennial continues to flirt with the political this year, albeit in a more nuanced and delicate way. (Saudi artist Sarah Abu Abdallah’s pink, broke-down automobile, Saudi Automobile (2012), being a case in point.)
In Sharjah, the focus on the Islamic courtyard as a space where private and public divisions break down was echoed in Art Dubai’s announcement this year that it is moving away from the East-West binary in favour of establishing a firmly global perspective. In many ways, this binary breakdown moves to complicate the widely-known term used to describe an incredibly disparate geographical area popularly known as “The Region”. It is an ambiguous term interrogated by a GAF panel titled ‘Middle East Nervous Anxiety’, riffing off the (reductive?) acronym “The Mena” – Middle East and North Africa –, which is a problematic term in itself given Art Dubai has focused over the past years, in its own words, on the wider net of "The Menasa": the "SA" standing for South Asia.
Hosted by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, archeologist and anthropologist Uzma Z. Rizvi, prominent UAE cultural commentator (and tweeter) Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, and Payam Sharifi of Slavs and Tatars, interrogated such complicated terminology and geography, with Sharifi proposing the inclusion of Central Asia into the regional fold and a new acronym: "Menasaca": fitting, given the curated Marker section at Art Dubai, which focuses on a certain region (last year Indonesia and this year West Africa), will focus on Central Asia next year.
"...to face such anxieties is key to how the contemporary art scene in the UAE continues to evolve, with Art Dubai and Sharjah each reaching a new level of maturation in how these events choose to approach the conflicting and often contradictory debates and discussions that arise from engaging with the global, contemporary artworld in what is an incredibly politically-sensitive country."
These discussions reflected the Sharjah Biennial’s own proposal towards a “Global South”, essentially exploring how “The Region” is to develop and assert itself globally, which has been, for a while, causing a certain western anxiety encapsulated in J.J Charlesworth’s review of Art Dubai as an image of the artworld’s future – (“Who are all these people? Which national dress is that? Can art transcend cultural, ethnic and economic differences?”). But to face such anxieties is key to how the contemporary art scene in the UAE continues to evolve, with Art Dubai and Sharjah each reaching a new level of maturation in how these events choose to approach the conflicting and often contradictory debates and discussions that arise from engaging with the global, contemporary artworld in what is an incredibly politically-sensitive country.
Given that most observed Art Dubai and the 11th Sharjah Biennial as quieter versions of themselves this year in terms of attendance, atmosphere and response, maybe this apparent slow-down (and scaling back?) is a good thing. Asking Dubai’s The Third Line Director Laila Binbrek if the fair was indeed quieter this year, she noted that things were not quieter but steadier, with a good flow of people that lead to necessary encounters and conversations surrounding the themes both Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial grapple with actively. Namely, the reorientation of approaches driven not only by prices and reputations, but by regional and global perspectives.
As Binbrek noted on the effect Art Dubai has had on the local art scene, “I think everyone’s programming has had to shift to become a bit more interesting, diverse and stable so as to really be taken seriously. It is not about cashing in on people’s interests in whatever is hot. It is a place where not only people can discover what we are doing out here, but, with things like Marker for example, gives us a chance to discover what other people are doing.”
Rather, it appears a greater sense of commitment has flourished, in that galleries are paying more attention to who and what they are showing and for what purpose, with a view towards the long term. This is, of course, something the Sharjah Biennial has been working on consistently since its conception in 1993, further strengthened by the work of the Sharjah Art Foundation and the annual March Meetings.
Looking at Art Dubai in its seventh year, maybe this really has become an art fair that thinks, like its neighbour over in Sharjah, as a beating heart: one that feels like settling down after learning more about the art fair’s potential to build deeper relationships. A thinking heart encouraging debates that challenge how art is presented within a “region” that is in the process of re-defining itself socially, culturally and politically, rather than courting suitors who are in it for the money alone. - [O]
Stephanie Bailey, Managing Editor of Ibraaz, is an active art writer who has written on art for publications including Artforum, ART PAPERS, LEAP, Modern Painters and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art.