x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

ArtInternational Istanbul is expanding the reach of UAE art

A new international contemporary art fair opens in Istanbul this week - and UAE involvement is not only key to ArtInternational Istanbul, but a reflection of its status in the art world.

To judge the vibrancy of the UAE art scene in 2013, there’s only one place to go this month. And strange as it may seem, that place is Istanbul, the city that straddles Asia and Europe. When a new international contemporary art fair opens there tomorrow, it will feature two galleries from Dubai.

ArtInternational Istanbul’s board of patrons boasts collectors, advisers and prominent arts supporters from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Isabelle van den Eynde – whose gallery has been in Al Quoz since 2006 – is on the selection committee. Even the list of partners includes a Jumeirah Group hotel.

“It does seem like the entire art community in the UAE is going to Istanbul,” says the art collector Paula Al Askari, one of the patrons from Abu Dhabi. “But art fairs are playing a really strong role in developing the sense of a Middle Eastern art scene, which has expanded to include non-Arab countries in recent years.”

And Al Askari should know how important an art fair can be, not just to galleries but to the cultural vibrancy of a city. As a patron of both Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art, she’s watched with some pride as, slowly but surely, “a whole ecosystem was created between auction houses, collectors, art lovers and museum directors”.

Similarly, ArtInternational Istanbul’s mission statement is to bring together leading international and local galleries, and offer unrivalled access to exciting new art from Turkey, Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

The Dubai-based Lale Ansingh, whose PR company has worked on ArtParis Abu Dhabi and ADMAF, is another patron of the fair who is perfectly placed to understand its importance – she is of Turkish origin herself and moved to the UAE 14 years ago.

“Each time there is an art exhibition in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, the number of connections with Turkey seems to increase,” she says. “In Istanbul, there are lots of art galleries who love to exhibit work from the UAE, so it’s very promising and exciting. I really believe in the intersection between the two countries – be that in art, politics, trade or tourism.”

That sense of exchange, thinks Ansingh, is crucial to the success of an art fair. They’re no longer simply big art exhibitions, but a place at which people can swap ideas and contacts. To that end, in Istanbul there will also be a programme of talks with collectors, galleries and artists – the idea being that a participating gallery in, say, New York, might make permanent links with a Dubai-based artist or gallery.

As Al Askari says: “Art is no longer western-centric. There is a big interest both from major institutions and smaller galleries in the West in adding to their Middle Eastern collections. And these connections were often initially made at art fairs in places such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai.”

Like Ansingh and Al Askari, Barrak Alzaid – the director of Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, who will take six artists’ work to Istanbul – is excited by the possibilities for sharing and exchange.

“You want to create a meeting point for as many different perspectives on contemporary art as possible,” he says. “In Istanbul, there’s a particular focus on Middle Eastern art and on collectors concerned with the Middle East, which is great. I see our participation as a way to anchor that interest but also to cultivate a broader audience.

“For example, Isabelle was on the gallery selection committee. And that’s not a question of choosing a who’s who; it’s about inviting people who are intent on forwarding the position of art in the Middle East and also bringing ideas back to their home countries.”

Certainly the intention seems to be to change the perception of contemporary Middle Eastern art in the West, so that it reflects more than just narrow, political, post-Arab Spring ­concerns. 

“The work we’ll show at Istanbul is incredibly complex and nuanced,” agrees Alzaid. “Hassan Sharif, for example – probably the father of conceptual art in the UAE – has built up a formidable body of work encompassing a range of media since the 1980s, using everyday objects which have little or no material value. And we try really hard to give audiences the tools to read his work. Each of our artists presents an aspect of Middle Eastern culture, but actually it’s just a reference point, a way in. You can see them as collage, pop art, whatever you like.”

•ArtInternational Istanbul runs from tomorrow until Wednesday in Turkey. Visit www.istanbulartinternational.com

artslife@thenational.ae