Who’d have thought it: a cultural scene emerges from the dunes…’ or how about, ‘There are not just glass towers in Dubai…’ So on and so forth. How often does that well-worn opening line get an airing in the culture pages of the world’s magazines at this time of year?
Yet at the closing of this year’s Art Dubai, this stock opener was still to be seen, leading us to only one conclusion: that finally, Dubai has emerged.
Now five years in, and its first outing this year with Antonia Carver in the director’s seat, Art Dubai consolidated its firm fixture on the international scene as it came to a close last weekend. With 82 participating galleries, a quick stroll through the Madinat ballrooms – the nucleus of the fair, and slightly more crammed in than ever – was to nip between the cultural export of 34 countries.
While Art Dubai has always prided itself on a pan-regional perspective, there were some welcome newcomers, giving that sentiment a little more push. L’Atelier 21 from Casablanca extended the fair’s reach to Morocco for the first time, bringing with it a number of exciting names in North African talent. We were particularly taken with Majida Khattari’s ‘La Favourite Déchue’ (‘The Favourite Fallen’, 2010), a photographic depiction of a power struggle between two women in a harem, and a play on typical Orientalist depictions of the Arab world. Similarly, not to be waylaid by a revolution, Tunisia’s Galerie El Marsa returned and brought along excellent new works by its North African stable of artists.
On home turf, both Carbon 12 and Green Art Gallery put together formidable booth collections and attracted good sales. Green Art Gallery’s booth was dedicated to Iranian artist Kamrooz Aram’s diverse body of work, including large paintings that hum with iconography reclaimed from Persian history and internal harmonies. Over at Carbon 12, the twisted cartoony canvases of German subverter Andre Butzer attracted plenty of attention.
The five winning works from this year’s Abraaj Capital Art Prize were also unveiled at the event. The prize sees artists submit proposals for the most ambitious – and therefore costly – project they can dream up. The nominated artists are then commissioned to produce the work ready for the fair. Shezad Dawood recreated the infamous ‘Dream Machine’ by Beat collaborator Brion Gysin from ’60s Tangiers. This spinning can, pocked with star-shaped holes, houses several central coloured lights and is believed to induce lucid dreaming in those who close their eyes and stand close enough to its spinning centre. We gave it a try and were more charmed by the flashing colours than carried away to lucid heights. Nonetheless, we did almost have a hands-on experience with Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s The Bridge hanging in the fair’s entrance. This huge sculpture, of interlocking thin black metal tubes, suggested an incredible wire-frame staircase floating in the air. Unfortunately, it was at such a height that cranial collisions were – as we learnt – inevitable. It did set the whole thing shaking and shimmering rather spectacularly, however.
Another strong year and an excellent, international turnout – while selling art is the name of the game, Art Dubai’s special projects of talks, music, performance and radio dispatches from artists’ studios around the region – not to mention the lovingly selected line-up at the Global Art Forum – continue to define this as much more, and a festival of the arts.