Myrna Ayad, Art Dubai director, is speaking with Pablo del Val about the often publically overlooked fundamental element of the annual March event. “There’s a science to the layout,” says Ayad, before quipping that “Maestro Pablo” is at its helm. Del Val, who joined Art Dubai in 2015 after four years as artistic director at Mexico City’s ZONA MACO, affirms that the meandering journey through a fair is a statement in itself. “The way you wander the aisles, how the galleries connect, spatial play and the dialogues created between these elements put together is what you’re analysing, “explains del Val of his role negotiating aesthetics, concepts and logistics from a floor plan and a vision in his mind. “I love doing that, it’s a way of provoking and drawing out energies.”
Managing the two contemporary art halls, del Val handles all non-Middle Eastern galleries, international relationships, the committee, booth editing, promotion, contacts and “the convincing.” Embraced with a human touch, “Everything is through travel and physical relationships, building and continuing networks that have been with me since I started working this sector,” he says, emphasising the importance of face time, trust, collaborative projects and bringing his network along for the ride.
The new phase of Art Dubai sees the directorial team showcase their individual knowledge, expertise and connections, and del Val’s specialisation in Western and Latin American art initially proved a double-edged sword where mutual contribution and education went hand in hand. Though the new regional art landscape involved a learning curve, its burgeoning nature was rooted in familiarity. “It’s curious how the Middle East and Latin America have similarities,” he notes, reflecting on his position as a key figure in helping turn Mexico into an international art platform, working with contemporaries such as Santiago Sierra and Francis Alys. Compared to now working to launch Dubai’s artscape,
“One of the biggest shared challenges is the geographical spread—what do you consider Latin America? Are Portuguese-speakers included? What is the Middle East? Is North Africa the same as the Levant? It’s realising and understanding that describing a region is extremely complex.” Versed in differentiating the locales, the discussions, and what to discuss where, the Middle East presented new specifics. “Under one label, there are multiple meanings, perspectives and approaches. The Middle East is the same as Latin America in its preconceptions, with ‘cultures’ that are sold in a way that implies a sole etiquette.”
Poonam Jain. Shopping. 2016. Image courtesy of 1x1 Art Gallery
Challenging regional preconceptions is Art Dubai’s strength. With 25 new galleries from countries like Iceland, Kazakhstan and Ethiopia joining its 12th edition—it seems del Val’s conviction is right on point. Dubai is a cultural melting pot, and Art Dubai is one of the world’s most international art fairs, boasting galleries from 48 countries represented through 105 participants with a focus on North Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. “European fairs exhibit a certain local taste and aesthetic, there is a tradition in place.
Not here though, it’s a complex society. You’re dealing with a city that has brought together a huge array of sensibilities, tastes, eyes and ways of looking that allow everyone to have a space,” he says, noting that the fair’s diversity truly reflects its city. “But it raises questions like, ‘What should we exhibit? Who do we promote?’” Breaking abstract or vague expectations of authentic artistic production is a process. “It takes time to build the right energy,” notes del Val. “Every community has its own speed, but galleries and institutional visitors come here because they find people they can have discussions with.”
This year, Art Dubai is opening its conversation to continental Africa, highlighting galleries such as Ghana’s Gallery 1957 and Ethiopia’s Addis Fine Art alongside African artists from spaces such as Paris’ Galerie Templon or Seattle’s Mariane Ibrahim Gallery. But it is a guided conversation with careful gallery and booth curation—the geography may change, but the concerns are similar. “The work we’re doing to bring the energies from the African continent still poses the challenge of what Africa is. Are we discussing what is in Africa or the diaspora? Projects in the West tackle the continent, while internal projects deal with local production. It’s an extremely complex map.”
Farshad Farzankia. Blackboard. 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin
One of Art Dubai’s great tasks is showcasing disparate geographical zones with authenticity, through thoughtful connections, artistic and market intent and impact—and this comes with administrative dilemmas such as budgets, distance and mental blocks. But del Val is optimistic that the benefits outweigh logistics, standing behind a team striving to facilitate gallery interactions with a guiding and reassuring hand. “Guidance and showing that they can rely on us is so important in convincing people to come here. It’s a serious decision to come to a new geographical area, and making the UAE appealing is important because of the ideas about why you come here or what it is really about,” he says. “It’s a big challenge, but exciting when people who don’t have Dubai on their minds begin to think maybe it is the right place for them to begin working.” And part of relieving anxieties of venturing into new markets is del Val’s dedication to optimal presentation.
Del Val employs a collaborative, side-by-side work approach. “We don’t let the gallery parachute into Dubai,” he says. “From editing to hanging, we all want the gallery to look fantastic and have powerful pieces. The idea is that every single booth becomes a museum show because gallery and artist success is our success.” Strategically balancing booth proposals, mathematics and architecture, the curation of the intimate gallery halls aims to instigate a new dialogue for gallerists and visitors. This includes removing outdated sections such as Marker in favour of larger and more integrated regional spotlights, or in the modern section, introducing more solo and two-artist exhibitions alongside non-commercial presentations of Arab modernists to encourage more active engagement.
Art Dubai’s spatial limitations also work to its benefit. “They’re human sized so you can really play because there is no bad place,” he says. “Every section maintains its own special equilibrium of forces.” Del Val cites placing a young gallery next to an established one, or, “i8 from Reykjavik facing ATHR Gallery from Jeddah. We’re talking about black and white, and how we can make a successful dialogue between two such opposing booths. It’s part of the excitement.” Provoking connections and instigating activity is why galleries return, says del Val. “Our size and attention allow for quality time—and you know how precious that is—to discuss and see projects in a relaxed, friendly environment with time to network to reconsider ways of dealing with the future.”
Ehikhamenor. I am Ogiso, the King from Heaven. 2017. Rosary beads on lace textile. 262x177x10cm. Image courtesy of Tyburn Gallery.
It allows visitors to digest a manageable fair that permits the luxury of going piece-by-piece. “You immediately see the attitude of the directors when you walk through a fair,” says del Val, noting the importance of the underestimated strategy and consideration of fair layouts. “If you just sell square metres you will have certain results, but if you work with the galleries, then you get another,” he observes. “The work we do really lasts a whole year—it isn’t just about selling and placing, and you can tell when some fairs are really a work of art because every detail has been considered.” Acknowledging that Art Dubai attains this to an extent, “It happens once a year, and we want it to be unforgettable. We also put a particular effort in to make sure everyone feels well looked after to make sure the final experience is fantastic, with energy, excitement and intelligent design, because the work is all for the people who will come and see it. They are responsible for the final success.”
Del Val portrays a holistic ethos—perhaps in part because Art Dubai emerged at a time of limited institutional framework. “We definitely had responsibility because the quality of a fair indicates the pulse of the quality of local collecting. It’s key in shaping, validating, blessing, supporting and impacting,” he says. “A bad art fair will bring a bad collecting base.” Reflecting on Art Dubai as partial catalyst for Dubai’s art scene, he notes that “it has been a communal effort, and I truly believe that constructing a house from the roof is one way of doing things that Dubai is an example of.” Most art scenes begin with institutions, bringing collectors who then incite gallery activity. “In Dubai, we started differently, but it’s been successful. The beginning may have been painful—imagine starting from scratch with no references and trying to convince collectors and artists to come! It’s very courageous, and Art Dubai now showcases the resulting programmes, biennales and centres across Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah,” he says.
Yasuaki Onishi. Vertical emptiness KAC. 2013. Tree branch, glue, urea, other. 353x980x905cm
Part of the responsibility to the ecosystem includes keeping it fresh. Del Val’s introduction of Residents—a four-to-eight week residency for international artists in the UAE—was a way to rethink Art Dubai’s future. “You always want an art fair that is different to the others,” notes del Val. “We don’t want to be a photocopy—we want to be unique, different, have our own energy. That’s what attracts people, and it’s very important for the local scene.” Complementing the Global Arts Forum, Abraaj Prize exhibition, Campus Art Dubai, commissioned Room installations, Modern Symposium and Film sections, Residents reimagined previous non-profit initiatives and its Artist-in-Residency programme and refocused it into the gallery halls. “The UAE has the infrastructure that allowed it to be invented,” del Val explains, referencing the numerous successful public creative spaces throughout the UAE that inspired it.
“The most beautiful thing when you will enter the Residents section is each piece will have been produced with the spirit and energy of Dubai made from open studios, workshops and interactions with locals,” he says. With 11 artists and their galleries invited to produce and then present commercial solo booth exhibitions, creators such as Iabadiou Piko from Bandung’s Orbital Dago and Tato Akhalkatsisvili from Tbilisi’s Erti Gallery were selected based on their project proposals, which in turn dictated which residencies they would partake in at Warehouse 421, In5 or Tashkeel.
Introducing a local initiative that still has relevant international reach and encourages a back-and-forth between the international artists and local communities, “We are pushing boundaries by giving new readings of their home countries and the UAE,” adds Pablo. There is still, however, an element of surprise. “It’s extremely exciting that proposals might mutate, everything is unexpected when there is the pressure to produce an exhibition for sale with this kind of exposure, it has elements of drama, but also freedom. It’s an experiment, but it’s refreshing.”
Pablo del Val. Photography by Aasiyah Jagadeesh
Art Dubai reinforces the unique fusion from which it emerged and speaks to a broad audience, but “we are not a resale market or a place for pure economic transactions,” asserts del Val. “We are searching for the real collector, not the investor. Our participants provide something new, focused on introducing collectors to works for collecting, not investing and speculating.” Del Val believes in putting soul, mind and heart into it because Art Dubai deserves it, and shares what makes it so special. “I love looking. When I first came to Dubai I spent weeks observing and learning from people,” he recalls.
“One of the biggest surprises was that people don’t come with shopping lists—they really buy what they love. Normally in art fairs you see certain artists sell or certain trends, but here, people buy an artist they don’t know but fell in love with.” Focused on a curated blend of artists, geographies and configuring a space to best highlight them, “Here, there is a freshness and romanticism that you don’t normally see, and it’s encouraging,” he says. “It shows Art Dubai really is about collecting.”
Art Dubai runs 21-24 March 2018 at Madinat Jumeirah. Artdubai.ae