x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Middle Eastern artists gather force at Frieze Art Fair

As the Frieze Art Fair kicks off in London today, a survey of the Middle Eastern artists who are capturing the art world's attention.

The Turkish curator Vasif Kortun ranks 83 on the ArtReview Power 100 list.
The Turkish curator Vasif Kortun ranks 83 on the ArtReview Power 100 list.

Frieze Art Fair kicks off in London today, an event that stands its ground among the most contemporary of art fairs. That means no dead artists and experimental concept-driven works are tolerated, or even encouraged.

But between the harsh lights, hand-wringing gallerists and baffling installations is a now regular occurrence that always manages to create a big noise.

The ArtReview Power 100 is due for publication in the November issue of the celebrated UK-based art magazine. But by tradition, the line-up tends to surface on the opening day of Frieze, timed to elicit plenty of teeth-gnashing among fair-goers. The list has been released annually since 2002.

It gives a rundown of 100 individuals in the art world who, according to the ArtReview editor Mark Rappolt, "effect things on a world scale, not just locally".

The National has managed to get its hands on the Power 100 and the Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei - imprisoned then released earlier this year - tops the table. But we're pleased that the list also contains several key figures from the Middle East.

The Lebanese artist Walid Raad sits at 76. The Turkish curator Vasif Kortun, who curated the UAE's national pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, comes in at 83. There's also a shared spot at 90 between two Qatari royals, Sheikh Sa'ud bin Muhammad bin Ali Al Thani and Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Rappolt explains that ArtReview relies on a 26-strong anonymous committee, from China to South America, to come up with its 100. Each member puts forward several names for consideration every year, with regional representation coming from Dubai, Cairo and Beirut.

Rappolt explains that those who straddle the intersection between art and life are prime candidates for the Power 100.

With that in mind, he notes that the committee has had its eye on Raad, who also bagged the Hasselblad Prize in 2011, for quite some time. "He formulates a practice that directly involves real life, in the way he confuses reality and fiction in his work."

Raad uses video, photography and performance lectures, via his fictitious collective The Atlas Group, to explore the ways that mass trauma, such as the Lebanese civil war, results in the erasing of certain periods of time and thought from collective memory.

In March, Raad led the signing of a petition protesting against the working conditions of those building the new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island. "But he made the list also because of the way Raad reconsiders the role of the artist," says Rappolt.

Although last year's list featured Jack Persekian, the former director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, who is noticeably absent this time around, the Middle Eastern presence is certainly more robust for 2011. Rappolt attributes that to, in part, the recent uprisings around the region.

But economic muscle is also a big factor, and two Qatari mega-collectors, Sheikh Sa'ud and Sheikha Al-Mayassa, are there because of the sheer volume of work they're collecting, he explains. In July, The Art Newspaper pipped Qatar as having the world's biggest buyers of contemporary art, collecting and commissioning both for institutions and royal collections.

Kortun, on the other hand, comes in at 83 largely for his work with SALT - two non-profit spaces in Istanbul that opened in April to house an exhibition area and a specialist research library for public access.

"Institutions like SALT seem quite prominent in the Middle East; the kind that don't necessarily use a western model of an academy or a gallery," says Rappolt. "They mix up those structures so as to invent new ways of working. Townhouse gallery in Cairo is another good example."

Kortun also curated the UAE's national pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year.

There's no doubt that the Power 100 will be seen and much quibbled over at Frieze. Some take the list quite lightly, while others - we're sure - don't. Many question what a league table has to do with art. Many note that the Power 100 has developed some power of its own to hoist or flatten the chances of a person being bestowed with that much-coveted epithet: "important".

But this year's list does go to show that the international art press has, at the very least, got an eye on what's happening in this part of the world - beyond just buying power.