Year on year the numbers of visitors, industry attendees and galleries at Art Dubai grow. It is testament to the success of the event and an indication that the community as a whole enjoys and demands a thriving art landscape in the UAE.
But, by many accounts, Art Dubai, which closed its eighth edition yesterday, is still a boutique fair with much fewer galleries than some of its international rivals. As such, it maintains a familiar, almost homely atmosphere for many and gives an annual opportunity for art enthusiasts from all corners of the globe to catch up and swap notes.
Here is our pick of the fair’s best bits.
1 Najat Makki’s Coin Museum
As part of the non-profit section, 12 artists produced a commissioned work to sit within the grounds of the fair. One of the strongest was Najat Makki’s small booth made to resemble a mini coin museum. Her wonderfully rich, dreamlike paintings hung on the wall and in the centre was a display cabinet filled with coins that she has collected throughout her career. Makki studied metal coins to doctorate level at the Faculty of Arts in Cairo and her paintings featured circular forms and her trademark female figures. Makki is one of the UAE’s greatest artists and it was a real pleasure to see such a focus on her work.
2 Mona Hatoum’s Hair Necklace
The original Hair Necklace, made from the artist’s real hair in 1995, is part of the Centre Pompidou’s permanent collection in Paris. So to see the second edition, which was commissioned last year by Galerie Chantal Crousel at a commercial art fair, was a pleasant surprise. It is truly a museum-quality piece and was, naturally, snapped up by a private collector from the French gallery for a figure ranging between €120,000-150,000 (Dh608,000-760,000).
3 Silent Fortune Telling In a continuing international project, the artist Annabel Daou explored notions of power, fascination and simultaneous fear of knowledge about the future, cynicism and belief, in an interactive installation called Fortune. Everyday, Daou invited fair visitors to sit with open palms for a silent palm reading. In a “line for a line” exchange, she wrote to the participant telling them where they were coming from and where they were going. Linked to her artwork that showed in Tanja Wagner gallery’s booth, Daou is interested in attempts to crystallise the intangible in words.
The story of this late Algerian painter would touch even the hardest heart. She lost her parents when she was 8 and was raised by her grandparents on a farm. She was later adopted and moved to Algiers, where her entirely self-taught talent was spotted and eventually took her to Paris. There she met Picasso, who envied her for being able to paint in a childlike fashion with such adherence to form. She was considered a master by the age of 17. Baya is sometimes referred to as the Frida Kahlo of the Arab world. Her work is in all major institutions but rarely exhibited in the region. The Tunisian gallery El Marsa held a solo show of her work in Art Dubai’s new modern section and it was welcomed with appreciation.
5 Maitha Demithan’s live portraiture
Another artist from the Projects, or non-profit programme, the Emirati Maitha Demithan spent nearly all of the fair in a small black booth in between the two contemporary gallery halls, inviting visitors to have their faces, arms or hands scanned. The end result was this spectacular composite portrait showing the many different faces that passed through the fair.
6 Art meets literature
One of the things that made the exhibition by the winners of the Abraaj Group Art Prize stand out – other than the five different but interesting projects – was a bank of iPads installed for public viewing and containing abstract writings and poems by five authors invited to respond to the five artists’ work (even though it wasn’t yet produced when they started the project). The idea was experimental and the results were really interesting.
7 Gallery Kashya Hildebrand
The juxtaposition of two female artists in this curated booth created a really powerful message. Lalla Essaydi and Simeen Farhat both work with calligraphy to redress the position of the female in male-dominated Arab and Pakistani societies – and the gallery placed them together to open a dialogue about repression and Orientalism. Essaydi’s work is particularly powerful as the great measures she takes to put together her photographs – covering her models in henna or constructing a bed of real bullets – show her dedication to her work. “Women all over the world all have a similar response to feminism, alienation, isolation – so I think everyone can relate to it,” says Hildebrand.
One of the most daring booths was Experimenter Gallery from Kolkata. The gallery, which is only five years old and in its fourth year at the fair, decided to go with a solo show from the emerging artist Hajra Waheed. A Montreal-based artist who grew up in Saudi Arabia, Waheed has imagined nine fictional characters who are searching for something but get lost along the way. The black-walled booth was filled with the observations of the fictional journey of just one of these characters, including notes, sketches, photographs and a stop-frame storyboard for a film. In an environment where most galleries choose their star pieces and aim to boost sales, this choice shows guts – and we think it paid off.
9 Musical drawing
In the Sheikha Manal Little Artists Program, the guest artist Dylan Martorell was doing children’s workshops in musical drawing. He placed aluminium and copper tape on the floor and electric wires attached to the paper with crocodile clips. Through the connection of the graphite from the pencil and with the human touch to complete the electric circuit, the kids were able to create music as they drew.
10 Communes, IE & ET Organism by Tiffany Chung
This beautiful image was one of my personal favourites. Chung is a Vietnamese artist who won a prize at last year’s Sharjah Biennial and whose work is widely appreciated in this region. She uses felt pen on vellum, a material like tracing paper, to map out patterns that resemble urbanisation but at the same time look like microorganisms, which gives a different perspective on the sociopolitical structure of cities.