Art Dubai: Identity and Revival

If Art Dubai has long been considered to represent the Global South, this year’s 11th edition seemed skewed in favour of art from the Middle East. It’s hard to say why there was such scant representation from South Asia or even Africa, but the fair’s selection committee ensured that there was enough variety from galleries around the world, which made this edition, comprising 94 galleries from 40 countries, an enjoyable and highly successful experience for collectors.

The late Emirati artist Hassan Sharif’s gigantic installation Cotton Rope, (2016), in Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde’s booth set the tone for the fair. Long woven ropes suspended from a stainless-steel structure that was attached to the high ceiling reminded viewers of Sharif’s primary role as an experimenter from the UAE. His use of readymade objects created a link between his community and daily life expanded the discourse about art and aesthetics in his region.

A different kind of experimentation could be seen in Brazil-born Daniel Boccato’s drawings and sculpture at the Kasia Michalski’s Gallery booth from Warsaw. Boccato’s childlike mixed media drawings on paper, which were mounted on burlap, and his rough-hewn sculptures devised from fiberglass and epoxy had a refreshing presence in the hall, piquing institutional interest.

Similarly, the legendary Pakistani-born and London based Minimalist Rasheed Araeen’s sculptures were a highlight at the fair. Shown by Aicon Gallery, New York, collectors who had been brought in expressly by Art Dubai’s new director Myrna Ayad snapped up his large-scale colorful wooden pieces.

Whilst Iran’s Mohsen Gallery presented Mojtaba Amini’s sculptures of animal hide and burnt wood – both bemoaning and reviving lost Iranian culture – a solo representation from Ayyam Gallery, Dubai, presented Iraqi artist Sadik Kwaish Alfragi’s long term concern with “the problem of existence.” Alfragi drew much attention from European collectors for his large map, In Search of Lost Baghdad, (2017) and a sculpted charcoal-coloured silhouette that represented the impact of war and desolation on the human psyche..

From Cairo, the Gypsum Gallery also showcased a single artist. Ahmed Morsi’s surreal Daliesque paintings ignited one’s imagination. The strange ghost like figures and paintings that resembled scenes from a bad dream are currently featured in a solo exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum. At Art Dubai, viewers and collectors were able to see only a few works from the oeuvre of this important figure in the development of Egyptian modernism.

For Rana Samara from Palestine, whose paintings were shown for the first time by the Palestinian Zawyeh Gallery, attention came in droves. Her large-scale works alluded to scenes of intimacy in a bedroom, a notion that is often hard to come by in cramped living conditions where personal space is highly coveted. On the other hand, Tarik Kiswanson’s abstracted metallic sculptures took on the issue of Palestinian identity and the notion of a lost home. Seen at the Carlier / Gebauer booth from Berlin, Kiswanson, who was born to Palestinian émigrés in Sweden, utilised abstractions of traditional Palestinian embroidery to devise highly-layered sculptures in which reflective surfaces added to the complexity of defining identity in the diasporic world of immigrants.

Reflective surfaces could also be seen in the work of Bangladeshi artist Rana Begum – sculptures that occupied the entire booth at The Third Line Gallery, Dubai. Begum, who was the winner of the Abraaj Prize awarded annually at the fair, garnered much praise for these metallic pieces. Meanwhile, in Ahmed Mater’s installation at the Athr Gallery booth, Jeddah, one looked through a series of glass sliders in wooden boxes to capture scenes from life in the desert.

Modernists like Dia Azzawi offered woven tapestries and brought renewed interest into the pioneers of modern Arab art. In the separate Modern Section, where gallerists often complained of being isolated from the central area, collectors found plenty to acquire. Rarely seen works by Hadi Hazavei and Massoud Arabshahi from the Shirin and Shahrivar galleries in Teheran were admired for their abstract techniques and Islamic iconography, whilst collectors acquired work by the Nigerian modernist Muraina Oyelami from the Tafeta Gallery, London.

If the success of a fair is measured by sales and the presentation of insightful art, Art Dubai 2017 came through with flying colours on both counts. It was particularly successful in the way it created a platform for cross-cultural dialogues and the discovery of new artists — but triumphed in its selection of work from the Middle East.

The 11th edition of Art Dubai ran from 15-18 March. For more information:

Bansie Vasvani

1. Rana Begum, No. 695. Abraaj, 2016. Installation at Art Dubai 2017. Coloured glass panels. Courtesy of the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo by Photo Solutions (8).