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Miami's Zoom art fair brings Middle East to a wary US

The brash Art Basel Miami Beach art fair is back – and still ignoring the Middle East, for which a fringe event, Zoom, seeks to make up.
Ahmed Mater's Illumination VII & VIII (2009) at the Zoom Contemporary Art Fair in Miami, which attempts to address the neglect of the Middle East by Art Basel Miami Beach.
Ahmed Mater's Illumination VII & VIII (2009) at the Zoom Contemporary Art Fair in Miami, which attempts to address the neglect of the Middle East by Art Basel Miami Beach.

The glitzy, theatrical and unashamedly bold Art Basel Miami Beach has returned for another year. Attracting more than 250 of the world's leading galleries, the fair presents works by more than 2,000 contemporary artists to an international audience.

In an annual assault of art fairs, Art Basel Miami Beach remains unique. From dinners given by the dealer Larry Gagosian and Wendi Murdoch, the wife of the media mogul Rupert, to photo opportunities with the designer Calvin Klein, art ping pong tournaments with the Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon and intimate hotel gigs from LCD Soundsystem, Miami acts as a party for the super-rich.

Part of Art Basel Miami Beach's success is its ability to adapt. Last year's criticisms of the fair's layout have been addressed this year with a new, grid-like format, which includes palm trees and more space to chat and browse.

It's a fair that doesn't sit still. Miami's appetite for novelty grows ever greater. Outside the convention centre walls, the city pulsates with museum and gallery shows, 15 satellite art fairs, and public art installations. Its dynamism means that there is always an element of surprise.

This year, the city welcomed Zoom, a new art fair showing the work of Middle Eastern artists.

An important addition to Miami's annual cultural offering, Zoom attempts to address the decided lack of Middle Eastern presence at Art Basel. While other emerging markets, particularly Latin America, have blossomed under Art Basel's guidance, the Middle East feels under-represented.

"It's to do with the economy," says Zoom's director, Angeliki Georgiou, of the marked exclusion from the main body of the fair. "Fairs have been reluctant to show anything new in a difficult climate and have adopted a more conservative approach. They take art that they know they can sell. Miami is a gateway to Latin America so concentrating on this market was a safe bet for them."

The implication is that for Art Basel Miami Beach directors, Middle Eastern art is not without its issues. This sense of unease manifests itself in Zoom's setting- a hotel located near the sprawling conference centre hub has a makeshift quality.

Such griping aside, the fair provides a platform for internationally acclaimed artists including the Egyptian Khaled Hafez, the Iranians Shoja Azari and Sara Rahbar, the Moroccan Zoulikha Bouabdella, the Turk Nazif Topcuoglu, and the Iraqi Halim al Karim, Zoom is also a showcase for the work of Lebanon's Ayman Baalbak and Saudi Arabia's Abdulnasser Gharem.

Representing the UAE are Dubai's ARTSPACE Gallery, Carbon 12 Gallery, Green Art Gallery, and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.

"There's a huge buzz in Miami," says the Carbon 12 director, Kourosh Nouri. "There is also huge choice. For galleries and collectors, it's absolutely the place to be. We are showing Sara Rahbar and we are seeking more exposure for her work.

"For us, it was about seeing Miami in action and checking out the future."

The director of London's Edge of Arabia gallery, Stephen Stapleton, agrees: "We would like to bring Edge of Arabia here as a kind of touring exhibition. For us, it's just really valuable to test the waters and meet people."

He adds: "What's interesting is that the American art scene is very different from that in Europe in terms of its relationship with the Middle East. It's a lot further behind in terms of people understanding or engaging or relating to the artists. The Middle East is very fringe in the US."

In light of its peripheral status on the US commercial scene, Zoom was always going to grapple with the not inconsiderable challenges of breaking into a reluctant market, swimming against the tide of judgements coloured by political distrust and a lack of exposure to Middle Eastern work.

"A lot of American collectors are a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of art from the Middle East", says Nouri. "What I show, and what my fellow gallerists from Dubai show, is still very challenging."

With such a hesitant American collector mindset, however, is it counterproductive to have a fair focusing on Middle Eastern art in Miami? Could Zoom, by separating regional art away from the main fair, be inadvertently giving it an outsider quality?

"The answer is a straight yes," says Nouri. "When you create a fair with geographic borders it can struggle. At Carbon 12 we speak a universal language despite the origins of the artist. For us it would be a contradiction to take part in an art fair just because it was Middle Eastern. We did Zoom because it is in Miami."

For Stapleton, it's about finding a middle ground. "People always complain about being pigeonholed, but Zoom is useful for an emerging community, particularly in terms of the networking here. It's good to meet other gallerists and especially the New York galleries representing predominantly Iranian artists working in the West. Their scene is very different from ours. What we have to remember is that this is such a young scene and we can't just throw some of the artists into the monster that is Art Basel. They are tigers and they will kill us."

While acknowledging that setting up Zoom was "a risk", Georgiou sees the potential in tapping into the millions of Arabs who live in Latin America. "This is an introductory art fair that is quite small - only 20 exhibitors. We are taking baby steps but someone had to take these steps and that's where we come in," she says.

Accompanying the exhibitions is a series of debates, aimed at enlightening the new market and opening it up. "We have to educate and change the negative perception that some collectors have here because of the press they have been inundated with on the political front. It was a must to have an educational component," says Georgiou. In addition, the discussions help to clarify issues facing the Middle Eastern arts scene, including concerns over infrastructure and steady growth.

Visitor numbers show signs of improving as Zoom continues. The same is true at Art Basel Miami Beach, where the crowds on VIP opening day were down on last year.

Gone are the days of frantic shopping and running down aisles to purchase works put aside specifically for the lucrative first four hours of the day. But there is a new mood of exuberance in the air; the cautious spending and price negotiation of the past two years replaced by higher prices, and sales closer to the asking price.

This buoyancy filters through to Zoom. Reaction from visitors has been overwhelmingly positive. One curator from the Museum of Minneapolis was impressed with Yellow Cow by Ahmed Mater.

"He was talking about the mosque issue in New York and discussing how in the past few years everything has been so politically charged and so negative," says Stapleton. "And he appreciated that the artwork was reaching out beyond the polarisation and saying something new. He could see the humanity and humour of people through the art."

Anecdotes like that encourage optimism for Middle Eastern gallerists in the future. They also have an immediate knock-on effect in Miami. "Positive critical reception is key", says Georgiou. "It tells people there is something here that they really shouldn't miss."

Updated: December 6, 2010 04:00 AM