Sanaz Askari: Mining for Diamonds

The Mine, Sanaz Askari, Alserkal Avenue, Harper's Bazaar Art, Art, Retna, Yasuaki Onishi, Paul Insect

Sanaz Askari in front of The Mine’s exterior spray-painted wall

Connecting emerging artists with a burgeoning crowd of young collectors and enthusiasts, The Mine is less a gallery space than it is a platform for conversation about contemporary art, says Sophie Bew

Standing across the road from arts compound Alserkal Avenue in Dubai’s Al Quoz 1, The Mine, with its bright spray-painted mural wall, sings out from left field of Dubai’s art scene. Launched in late 2013 by Sanaz Askari, the space has brought emerging artists—and their paintings, performances, installations and urban art—to the UAE’s fore ever since. Having moved in and out of Dubai several times in her twenties, the Iranian-Canadian founder finally settled here and now mines the globe, returning with art from America, Europe and the Middle East.

RETNA. So You Wanted To Run. 2016. Acrylic on canvas. 122 x 96 cm

“I felt like there was a massive gap in Dubai’s alternative scene,” Sanaz explains from the top floor showroom-esque space of The Mine. “I wanted something different. If I wanted to live in a city like Dubai, I had to create a space that was more stimulating and dynamic—a place that would inspire people. Rather than a white cube style gallery.” Sanaz also wanted to present what already didn't exist in the UAE. She has flown in artists from Brussels to do a performance piece as well as exhibited the work of Japanese artists. “The Mine has also been the first space to present urban art,” adds Sanaz. “We have had four to five urban art group shows already followed by the most important one: our recent exhibition on 11 May curated by Rom Levy included some very established artists such as Retna, Andrew Schoultz and Paul Insect which is unusual for The Mine as we usually represent mostly emerging artists,” she adds. “I believe that by keeping the place ‘experimental’ I have the opportunity to play and experience different forms of art especially my favourites such as performance, sound and installation art.”

Crafted as an antidote to the stereotypical commercialism of the Emirates, Sanaz’s raison d’etre is woven through every fibre of the space, from the large-scale installation works down to the recycled furniture and fittings. Japanese artist Yasuaki Onishi offers no exception. Having debuted in the region at the launch of The Mine, Vertical Volume is Yasuaki Onishi’s second solo exhibition here—a meaningful landmark exhibition at which to meet with Sanaz. This time, a hoard of soft cylindrical pillows of polyethylene gather in a corner of the large gallery space; their varied sizes, heights and suspension renders them almost weightless—translucent skins hover, half-present, half-invisible. Dotted around the white-walled warehouse space, A4-sized slates of pressurised glue and wood form Onishi’s Plates of Pressure series. Situated in a bare, pared-back industrial setting, these raw materials take on a particularly urbane feel.

An installation view of The Mine in Al Quoz featuring Yasuaki Onishi’s ‘Vertical Volume’

The warehouse, where The Mine is situated, is large with high ceilings, lending plenty of breathing space to Onishi’s works. In the far opposite corner sits the gallery’s welcome desk—an assemblage of huge concrete breeze blocks, found, claimed and reimagined into furniture made by Sanaz. “I didn’t want the space to be super neat and clean cut—a white cube kind of thing,” says Sanaz. “I wanted to show the roughness and real identity of The Mine. Because you can walk into a big gallery and it can be beautiful, completely done up and then any art that you’d put in there would be to some extent, more beautiful. I wanted the opposite of that. So I initially removed all the tiles and pretty things that were first in the space.”

Instead, the ripped out, “gutted” venue and sparsely used recycled furniture lends a sort of modest, almost monastic reverence to the artworks, while appeasing a personal evolution that Sanaz was experiencing at the time, “I have tried to detach myself from anything materialistic… I started to dislike the consumerist traits which I carried for so long—this buy, buy, buy,”she says. However, her ethos couldn’t stop visitors from trying to purchase her reclaimed pallets and wooden cable wheel tables.

Paul Insect. Meteor Lights. 2016. 7 colour screen print. 65 x 47 cm. Unique edition 1/1

The Mine’s focus on emerging artists, compounds this desire to obfuscate the region’s market trends. From urban paper artists Mahmoodreza Zandpour and Mostafa Choobtarash, to Iranian photographers Behnam Sadighi, Gohar Dashti and Mehdi Abdolkarimi, each new show introduces a plethora of new talent, “precious gems” mined from all over the world, and such an interest came from her own experience as a young collector. Sanaz was inspired to look for “underground talent that hadn’t been exposed at all because they were too young, their price range wasn’t high enough for Dubai’s art market, or they justP weren’t commercially suitable,” she says. Sanaz started collecting when she was in her early twenties. “I was buying really small pieces from London, New York, Toronto and Iran,” she continues. “They were a couple of hundred dollars, sometimes a thousand, but I came to Dubai and I couldn’t find anything [within this criteria].” As a result, over the course of the last two and a half years, The Mine has not only built an audience for “unsellable” performance, sound and installation art, but it has cultivated a new audience of young collectors, enthusiasts and art writers that appear regularly at all the venue’s happenings.

But how does Sanaz choose from the huge pool of new talent out there? “Conceptually it has to speak to me,” she says.

“I look for sincerity in their work, I think it’s very important that there’s a sort of rawness — showing parts of their personality or their philosophy, however ambiguous” 

It’s exactly this connection that brings Sanaz back to Iranian artists again and again. Though collections are pooled from all over the world, Iran is a key source for the talented miner. “When I started I thought, ‘Everyone is doing Iranian art’ and I wanted to avoid doing only Iranian art and then I started researching it and going back, seeing so much talent. There’s a very small percent of art from the Iranian art market that is being exposed. And not just visuals—there’s poetry, writing, acting and music which is all very, very interesting. I kept researching and I kept coming back to Iran, I couldn’t avoid it.” Askari puts it down to the Iranian magic that in her words is a combination of cultural heritage and “art as outlet.”

At The Mine, talent is paramount and this mindset allows the collections to transcend trends, stereotypes and expectations. The space and curatorial approach is kept flexible and fluid, with artists often brought in to curate group shows and prose writers enlisted to annotate exhibitions—the dialogue is continually broadened and remixed, whether over one of their organised dinners or beneath the waves of a Belgian sound artist.

Words: Sophie Bew. Photography: Ausra Osipaviciute

The Mine is located in Al Quoz 1. For further information visit: themine.ae

This article originally appears in the Summer 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art.

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The Mine, Sanaz Askari, Alserkal Avenue, Harper's Bazaar Art, Art, Retna, Yasuaki Onishi, Paul Insect

Sanaz Askari in front of The Mine’s exterior spray-painted wall