In recent years Dubai has begun to make a name for itself as an international hub for art, due in part to Art Dubai. The annual event is now in its 5th year
“Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement; art is a great matter. Art is an organ of human life, transmitting man’s reasonable perception into feeling.” Leo N. Tolstoy
It’s over a century since Tolstoy recognised the intrinsic importance of art and its influence on human beings, but his words are no less fitting today and could easily apply to Art Dubai.
It could be argued that the art at Art Dubai now in its fifth year, was ‘a great matter’ because it shed light on previously forsaken local art, putting it on par with high calibre work of international artists. More importantly, this year’s Art Dubai not only brought the region together with a carnival-like atmosphere, but firmly established the fact that it has a thriving indigenous art scene.
Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, a homegrown art space in Sharjah, explains that the UAE art scene is not a new phenomenon. In fact it began over 30 years ago. “We have to really acknowledge the work that the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan did when he established the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi in the 1970s,” he says. “Back then, art was not a priority, but that was a major step forward. Abu Dhabi was a pioneer on the arts scene.
“There’s also the work of Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al Qassemi, the ruler of Sharjah. He established the Sharjah Museum and the Biennale 20 years ago. And in Dubai, there was this beautiful organic growth of galleries. There were less than five galleries just 10 years ago and today there are over 40.” Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai, agrees that the art scene in the Middle East has changed dramatically in the past decade. “When I first moved to the UAE, the art scene tended to be a little bit under the surface, or taking place in specialised institutions like the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, or places in Sharjah,” she says. “But it was very localised and not internationalised, and that’s changed greatly over the past 10 years.”
She adds that the UAE has also experienced an increase in interest in contemporary art. “The change has been radical, “she explains. “In Dubai, that change has mainly come about through galleries. We have over 40 galleries now and two art centres. What’s more the Sharjah Biennale has moved its dates to coincide with Art Dubai. We’re also working with Doha and Abu Dhabi.”
A total of 81 galleries from 34 countries attended Art Dubai this year and just one-third of the participants came from the Middle East. One-third were from Europe; and the rest from the United States and Asia.
The variety of work on show was vast. Paintings, sculpture, photography, mixed media and video installations were featured. Some of the galleries had representatives attending for the first time. Both curatorally focused and single-artist galleries were featured too.
There was work from both emerging and well-established artists, with a particular emphasis on conceptual art. “I’ve spoken to other exhibitors and there’s a sense that since Art Dubai started five years ago, there’s been a definite improvement and a move towards more conceptual art,” says Nayla Hadchiti, who works with the CRG Gallery in New York. “The fact that some galleries chose to represent a theme or one artist shows that there’s been thought put into participation in this show, and it’s a step in the right direction.”
Sossy Dikijian, the art director at ARTSPACE, a Dubai-based gallery which was exhibiting the work of contemporary Middle Eastern artists like Zakaria Ramhani, Khaled Hafez, Charbel Samuel Aoun and Nadine Hamman, amongst others, at the show, says Art Dubai has evolved dramatically since its inception. “The quality of work is different this year,” she says. “Artists are more edgy; the first year of Art Dubai featured edgy European stuff, and a focus on calligraphy, which is typical of the Middle East.
This year however, regional artists are stepping out of their comfort zone.” The source of these changes she says is not just the maturing of the art scene which has gone from regional to international, but also the wave of political change which is sweeping over the region. The ARTSPACE pieces on display at the event for example had strong political connotations and many were inspired by Egypt’s recent revolution.
“I think people will be more open to expressing what it is they want to,” says Dikijian on the effects of the regional unrest. “Iranians have always been very political in their work, but we’ve rarely seen it with Middle Eastern artists. These changes are really going to allow them to paint how they feel, and not just produce decorative art. “As well, top museums and collectors around the world are buying Middle Eastern art, and finding the pieces both engaging and current. These are times that will be documented in history, so it’s a positive step for artists to break free from the constraints they’ve had.”
Carver too draws a link between international interest in Middle Eastern art and political events. “It started with political matters, after the events of September 11, 2001, and continued to grow,” she says. “Maybe the current unrest will help push things forward; if things improve in Egypt for example and the country opens up, artists will have more possibilities to get their work out. Restrictions are being pushed so that artists have more freedom to create; this will lead us to discover more artists, and that can only be a positive thing.”