Art Dubai 2016: All Roads Connect

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Mar 13 2016 / 21:51 PM

Now in its tenth edition, Laura Egerton previews all the grounds covered by this increasingly multi-cultural art fair in Dubai

Art Dubai 2016: All Roads Connect
Courtesy of Saskia Fernando Gallery

Priyantha Udagedara, Paradise Lost IV, 2014

Art Dubai 2016 seems to be looking in every direction at once. This year, the fair reflects on its past ten years through a marketing campaign that highlights significant and mundane events from 2006 (think first Brazilian astronaut in space, the deaths of James Brown and Steve Irwin, launch of twitter), further commemorated through the fair’s special project space given over to the newly created non-profit Atassi Foundation for Art and Culture as tribute to Syrian artists and through its galleries and project artists. With over 500 artists representing 70 nationalities, highlighting a region stretching from Algiers to Manila, Art Dubai is truly representative of the widest possible array of current art production from across the globe.

It also looks forward (and back) to various possible futures in the works of the Abraaj Group Art Prize winners Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme and the Global Art Forum theme ‘The Future Was’. The future is in the hands of ‘89 plus’, the generation born alongside the internet and the subject of investigation by Hans Ulrich Obrist and other curators in an international multi-platform research project that will see its first performative response to research on the Middle East which was initiated at the 2015 fair. UK education specialist Polly Brannan, co-founder of ‘Avant Gardening’ comes on board with the Sheikha Manal Little Artists Programme (targeting 5-17 year olds). Her practice focuses on human interaction within transient spaces.

Art Dubai HQ is now in Dubai’s Design District (d3). As is usual in the month of February, rows after rows of bright-eyed youth (probably all 89 plus) tap away on computers pulling together an extraordinary array of programming for the five-day event. There is a new animated face in the office, that of Pablo Del Val, who recently joined Art Dubai as Director of Exhibition Relations. Fresh from four years as Artistic Director of the leading art fair in Mexico City, Zona Maco, del Val observes:

“I truly believe in the power of becoming global through the local.”

He had never visited Dubai before his move here four months ago but is already appreciating its position as an exciting hub. “The magic of Art Dubai is that it is a window to a world many people don’t know exists,” he says. His influence on the exhibitors will be felt more strongly in 2017 but there are new Spanish galleries showing thanks to him, for example Travesia Cuatro, which attempts to bridge the international art scenes of Latin America and Europe with spaces in Madrid and Guadalajara, Mexico.

More curatorial input in the initial selection of participants in the contemporary section came from Kate Fowle, chief curator at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow and director-at-large at Independent Curators International (ICI), Guest Curator for the second year in a row, a role which helps to create cohesion in what is a staggeringly diverse array of 73 galleries from 35 countries. For 2016 the gallery halls will return to a traditional layout of a perfect grid. Returning participants include galleries whose active, year-round programming focuses on the Middle East such as Taymour Grahne Gallery, Kalfayan Galleries and Sfeir-Semler Gallery. Leading international galleries such as Victoria Miro return—the London gallery will exhibit Idris Khan again and also Conrad Shawcross who participated as a project artist in the very first edition of the fair in 2007. Diana Al-Hadid at Marianne Boesky Gallery is subject to a major solo exhibition at New York University Abu Dhabi opening in March. Carroll/Fletcher devote their booth to the Abraaj Group Art Prize winners Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Christine Sun Kim, who is a commissioned artist for the Global Art Forum. There are more new galleries than ever before, coming from countries with emerging art scenes such as Ghana, Georgia, Lithuania, Sri Lanka and Oman.

Diana Al Hadid: Attack, 2015, Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery

To have so many galleries from the region is truly encouraging given the current climate. East Wing: photography specialists based in Limestone House next to the DIFC have also joined the roster. Indeed there are more galleries than ever from Dubai — 14 in total. Not surprising when you consider long-time Art Dubai participants Leila Heller from New York and El Marsa from Tunis have recently set up shop in the Alserkal expansion alongside The Third Line’s new space and across from Carbon 12, Grey Noise and Green Art Gallery, all taking part again. A new neighbour in the avenue 1x1 has decided to participate in Art Dubai for the first time, despite having had a presence in Dubai for nearly twenty years. “We have had time to think about how we want to project ourselves as gallery,” said founder Malini Gulrajani. “We want to step out of the box and be more visible, having a presence at Art Dubai is an important step in that process”. The leading Dubai-based gallery specialising in Indian contemporary art, her booth will showcase six artists, including Chittrovanu Mazumdar and Mithu Sen. She is encouraged by the strong presence of eight Indian galleries at this year’s fair that helps to prove Dubai’s position within a wider regional market.

Strong representation is also felt from Istanbul this year, with three spaces participating. This is alongside stalwart Art Dubai supporters Agial from Beirut return alongside Athr Gallery from Jeddah and Albareh Gallery from Bahrain. Tehran is a new addition to the extended VIP programme (along with Baku, Beirut and Kuwait City) and is present at the fair through galleries Dastan’s Basement and Ag Galerie.  Further noteworthy new spaces are Gallery One and Zawyeh Gallery, both from Ramallah. The later will display Measures of Uncertainty by Jawad Al Malhi, an important series of large-scale paintings of the people he observes from his balcony which overlooks the Shufhat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem, a place where the artist himself was born and is today home to over 60,000 people. “Public spaces are filled with the relationships of temporary clusters of people,” muses the artist,  “watching and waiting.” An intense study on the current human condition, it is truly terrifying that over time a sense of community has completely broken down.

Art Dubai Modern brings together presentations of artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia from the Twentieth Century. These include seminal sculptures by Adam Henein (Karim Francis Gallery, Cairo), abstract paintings by Samia Halaby and Moustafa Fathi (Ayyam Gallery, Dubai) and Pakistani masters Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Syed Sadequain (Grosvenor Gallery, London). The fair can also be a place for new discoveries of older practitioners. Two examples of this are Maliheh Afnan at Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai and Mounirah Mosly at Hafez Gallery, Jeddah. Both are female artists, Afnan’s practice was fundamentally dictated by the many upheavals she undertook during her life and the wars she experienced. Of Persian extraction, she was born in Palestine and lived in Beirut, Kuwait, the US, Paris and London where she died earlier this year. Her modest canvases are infused with memory and traces of tactile experience, mark making, archeology and script. Mosly, on the other hand, only left her native Saudi Arabia to study in the U.S.: her colourful paintings on wood and burlap are a celebration of life.

Mounirah Mosley: For The Children of this Generation, 1985, Courtesy of the Artist and Hafez Gallery

In its third year, Marker will highlight a new generation of independent, artist-run spaces in the Philippines, curated by Manila based artist and curator Ringo Bunoan. Inspired by Robert Chabet (1937-2013), dubbed the father of Filipino conceptual art, the exhibition features a major installation of Chabet’s and continues his ethos of giving younger artists a platform. Incredibly, it will be the first showcase of Filipino art at any art fair. Given Dubai is home to one of the biggest Filipino expatriate communities in the Middle East, many of whom work in the creative industry, it seems fitting. Work is experimental and exciting, places such as 98B COLLABoratory that encourages artists to engage with the public and feels like the next Delfina, with active programming including talks, residencies and publishing outlets. The showcase will consider issues such as community, place, intervention, collaboration, labour and alternative economies. As usual there is a spill over onto gallery stands with new participant Silverlens presenting a solo project by the winner of the 2015 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award Maria Taniguchi. Her ongoing series of large ‘brick’ paintings present a grid pattern broken into different surface configurations—her attempt at organising space in the context of the densely populated urban environment of Manila.

Robert Chabet: Towards 1001 Isthuses, 2012, Courtesy of Ringo Bunoan

Almost by coincidence, a second regional focus seen this year is that of North Africa and the Magreb. GVCC from Casablanca and Gypsum from Cairo are participating and two of the Abraaj Group Art Prize shortlisted artists are from Egypt: Dina Danish from Cairo and Mahmoud Khaled from Alexandria. The international artist in the Artist-in-Residence programme is Lydia Ourahmane, a recent graduate of Goldsmiths, London originally from Algeria. Her investigative practice focuses on contemporary political and social situations. Yasmina Reggad is the appointed Curator of the Art Dubai Projects 2016, programme curator at aria (artist residency in algiers), she is also curating a solo exhibition at Isabelle Van Den Eyde Gallery in Dubai this March. Reggad was involved in the selection of artists which includes Algerian Massinissa Selmani who focuses his practice on print media; Egyptian performance specialist Doa Aly and the collective Nile Sunset Annex (NSA) from Cairo. NSA is, in Reggad’s words, the new Townhouse: the space that can give artists their first solo exhibition and support them. For Art Dubai they are presenting a hybrid publication. “My idea was not to engage so much in a site-specific way with the building as has been done in previous years but instead engage with the very special audience at Art Dubai,” says Reggad.

“How to provoke, interfere, interrupt and disrupt an audience that has a short attention span, that is what we are developing.” 

Nav Haq, curator for the 2016 Abraaj Group Art Prize, has a slightly different task, to both present an exhibition at the fair while also helping the winners produce an ambitious new artwork that will form part of a collection. He does, however, also appreciate the need to exchange ideas.

Reggad’s method of working with the eight artists returns to the initial mission of a residency: to encourage collaboration. A dialogue between the more established international (such as Sreshta Rit Premnath from Bangalore living in New York who has participated in Art Statements section at Art Basel and Semani who has shown at the Lyon and Venice Biennials) and the young UAE artists, she is propagating Pablo del Val’s philosophy of becoming global through the local. By reflecting current moods and attitudes, Art Dubai maintains its relevance and allure.

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