Stacks of variously sized canvases, furniture, and sculptures are positioned nonchalantly in a crowded space akin to an unkempt artist’s studio. The booth belongs to Tehran’s Dastan’s Basement, a gallery established in 2012, and was curated by Iranian artist Fereydoun Ave. Among the variously scattered artworks is a hanging sculpture of an upside down man titled The Fall by Mohammad Hossein Gholamzadeh. It juts down tragically into the centre of the booth toppling over other artworks from the gallery as well as from Ave’s own collection, including a painting by revered Iranian painter, Ardeshir Mohassess.
Fereydoun Ave Installation
One of the most popular booths at Art Dubai, the annual fair that just concluded its 11th edition, Ave’s installation of an intimate artist’s atelier offered a taste of the world outside the commercial art fair. It is representative of new fair director Myrna Ayad’s implementation of more tightly curated spaces, with 79 galleries of curated solo or group shows in the contemporary section and 15 galleries in the Modern section of solo or two-person shows – a move which endowed this year’s Art Dubai with a sleeker finish. It’s also indicative of the fair’s guest curators, Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath. Ayad replaced Antonia Carver, who was Art Dubai’s fair director for six years.
In total, 93 galleries from 44 countries showcased works by more than 500 artists, marking the fair as a truly international platform – a meeting point between East and West. And yet while Art Dubai has always offered a great mix of regional and international galleries, this year the emphasis was clearly on the Middle East region.
Even if the number of participating galleries was the same as previous years, there were noticeably more Indian artists. At Dubai’s 1x1 Gallery, Mithu Sen’s fantastical multi-media works garnered attention as did Chittrovanu Mazumdar's luminous installations. London-based Grosvenor Gallery displayed the delicate works of Delhi-based Olivia Fraser incorporating techniques of Indian miniature painting, and at Mumbai-based Chatterjee & Lal were Thukral & Tagra’s lively mixed media canvases. Kolkata’s Experimenter presented a group show of works by Rathin Barman, Adip Dutta, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Krishna Reddy, Julien Segard and Ayesha Sultana. “This year has in particular seen lots of new Indian collectors, which is great for us as it means we are able to confirm sales from relationships back home through the relaxed setting of the fair here,” said Director Prateek Raja.
Olivia Fraser. Kalachakra. 2017. Stone pigment and Arabic gum and gold leaf on handmade Sanganer paper. 27.9 x 27.9 cm. Courtesy of Grosvenor Gallery and the artist
Powerhouse Indian Modern art gallery and first time participant Dag Modern showed in the Modern section. The gallery’s general manager Bawa Jay Sing shook his head and said, “There’s some interest but not the same as in London or Delhi.” On the third day the gallery had sold two works by Indian painter Biren De for an undisclosed amount. Dag is scheduled to open soon in Dubai’s DIFC. A regular collector of the gallery stressed how he didn’t “Believe [Dubai] is as conducive to modern art. It [Modern art] is still in its infancy in Dubai.”Similar sentiments were felt by other galleries in the Modern section, which was again detached from the Contemporary halls and situated forlornly in the ballroom of Mina A’Salam.
Here six-figure-sums were the price tags for works by some of the fair’s most distinguished masters. At Dubai and Tunis-based El Marsa Gallery a poignant display of works by Aly Ben Salem and Abdelkader Guermaz offered mystical scenes of life in Tunisia, revealing the influence of French Art Nouveau styles. Gallery director Lilia Ben Salah confidently stated that several works sold. Wadi Finan Gallery from Amman sold abstract landscapes by Princess Wijdan for around $30,000 and a painting by Ahmad Nawash for approximately $25,000. By day three Tehran-based Shahvrivar Gallery sold two works by Massoud Arabshahi for $150,000 each and a work by Abolghassem Saidi for $50,000.
Ahmad Nawash. Rajol Al Moroor, 1974. Oil on canvas. 56.5 x 56.5 cm. Courtesy of Wadi Finan Gallery and the artist
Back in the contemporary section, there was a larger presence of Iranian galleries this year, including Mohsen Gallery, Dastan’s Basement, Khak Gallery, O Gallery, Ag Gallery and Ab-Anbar. At Mohsen Gallery, a haunting installation made in 2014 by young Iranian artist Mojtaba Amini entitled Khaigh Aviz made in burnt wood, rope, and iron was inspired by 18th century artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s drawings of underground prisons. At Ab-Anbar similarly dark imagery could be found through Reza Aramesh’s Action: 165, made in 2016. Made in Carrara marble, it preserved a moment of violence through an eerily beautiful depiction, in this case a decapitated, blindfolded head.
At London-based Vigo Gallery, a first time participant, Flamenco Dancers, a magnificent 2012 work by Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi, attracted an admiring crowd. And at the prestigious Malborough Gallery, another first timer, an evocative solo show of sculptures by Santiago Calatrava, lured many curious eyes. The gallery’s Dale M. Lanzone told of their success in Turkey and desire to try the Dubai market. Two works had sold by the end of day three. Another solo booth at Dubai’s The Third Line showcased the architectural work of this year’s Abraaj Group Art Prize winner, Rana Begum. “This year was one of our most successful at Art Dubai to date,” said the gallery’s director Sunny Rahbar who said most of her booth sold out by the second day. Likewise, Leila Heller, whose gallery has branches in Dubai and New York, expressed her enthusiasm. “After 11 years of participating in Art Dubai, by far, this was the best fair we have ever had in terms of our artists’ recognition and sales,” said Heller who displayed works by Shirin Neshat, Rashid Rana and Reza Aramesh.
Gallerists were aglow with pride by the many visiting museum professionals – always one of Art Dubai’s strong points. These included Tate, London; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; The British Museum, London; The Centre Pompidou, Paris; MoMA and MoMA PS1, New York; LACMA, Los Angeles and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha. As part of the Global Private Museum Network Summit held at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, additional institutions included the MOCA Shanghai and Frieder Burda Museum. “The Summit was for many a first visit to the region, and was highly successful in triggering partnerships,” said President of the Network, Deborah Najar. “We had exciting interest from multiple international institutions and curators, placing a number of works into a US-based institution,” said Meagan Kelly Horsman of Dubai-based Meem Gallery that presented artists Dia Azzawi and Zhivago Duncan.
Rana Samara. Intimate Space VI, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 155 x 292 cm. courtesy of Zawyeh Gallery and the artist
A major addition, and one of which Ayad was particularly proud, was the Modern Symposium. Staged on the grounds of Art Dubai and at the OMA-designed Concrete space at Alserkal Avenue, the symposium offered an academic approach to the fair with topics ranging from Women and Modernity to Modernists and Spirituality, and included eminent panelists such as Dr Nada Shabout, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, Dr Venetia Porter, Vassilis Oikonomopoulos and HRH Dr Wijdan Fawaz Al Hashemi. “The surrounding events, like the Global Art Forum and the Modern Symposium were highly satisfactory,” said Saleh Barakat of Agial Art Gallery in Beirut.
At Ramallah-based Zawayeh Gallery large-scale acrylic on canvas works from Palestinian Rana Samara’s series Intimate Space explored societal norms and gender roles in contemporary Palestinian society. Nearly all Samara’s work, priced between $15-30,000, sold said the gallery’s Ziad Anani, who participated for the second consecutive year. “Art collectors are now becoming aware of Palestinian art,” said Anani. “The Palestinian art market is weak and we struggle with our local exhibitions. We find it hard to sell given the political and economic situation.” Art Dubai gives art from such a distraught nation the chance to succeed.
Here, the power of art lies in its ability to connect with distant cultures. And like the city itself, Art Dubai is a nucleus for art in the region and one that unites us all.
Previously published on Sothebys.com