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Exhibition review: Art Dubai.

In March 2009, artists, curators, and critics from across the world gathered in Dubai to participate in the annual contemporary art fair, now known as Art Dubai (March 18-21). The fair, which was established in 2007, was the central event in an impressive series of programmes, exhibitions, and projects which were held across the UAE, incorporating principally the 9th Sharjah Biennial (March 16--May 16), the Bastakiya Art Fair (Dubai) (March 15-22), the Abraaj Capital Art Prize (Dubai), and the Global Art Forum (Doha and Dubai), all international in scope, but focusing on the MENASA region--the Middle East (West Asia), North Africa, and South Asia. Art Dubai itself, perhaps the most glamorous of all these events, attracted a healthy audience of collectors, both private and museum-based, who found themselves stretched to attend everything on offer. For those who tried, however, there were also exciting speakers to be found in debate alongside the numerous Art Projects taking place literally beneath Art Dubai, as well as a wide range of exhibitions across Dubai and Sharjah. Anyone attempting to explore the full programme of events would undoubtedly be left exhausted, but even just managing a small selection was a rewarding way to explore the varied work that is being produced in the region today.

This year there were 69 participating galleries at Art Dubai, slightly more than in 2008, with a high proportion of the exhibitors either originating from West Asia and South Asia, or specializing in artists from this region. Some of the most successful displays were those that presented artists whose work was concerned with issues--political, cultural, or social--that were rooted in the region. The young Dubai-based photographer Maitha Huraiz (b. 1989), represented by the gallery Elementa, presented one of the most striking works in the entire fair with her photograph from the series Behind Closed Doors (2008). The artist is the figure in the image. In this domestic setting, she sits quietly on the sofa while her face is blurred. The grainy texture of the photographic surface and the gentle colours in which the work is printed are soft and feminine, yet they present a powerful comment on the anonymity and powerlessness of many women in West Asian homes. Work by Huraiz was also exhibited at Gallery XVA, one of the participating galleries in the Bastakiya Art Fair (formerly known as the Creek Art Fair).

Photography featured strongly throughout the fair with works by Reza Aramesh, Atul Bhalla, and Simryn Gill standing out. Atul Bhalla (b. 1964), based in New Delhi, had works shown by Anant Art Gallery and by Elementa, focusing on issues concerning water. His works seemed very much at home in this water-hungry consumerist city, which is situated on the edge of a desert. In Two Waters (2008) the viewer, faced with the peaceful juxtaposition of water and a sandy, well-trodden shoreline, was reminded however unintentionally of the beach and shoreline only a few hundred metres away from the exhibition hall in which the work was displayed (figure 1). The beach, both a private and public space, is often a contentious site in Dubai, with reports that focus on the lack of cleanliness of the water. Bhalla's work highlighted an uncomfortable ecological issue which could only be exacerbated by the very presence of the art fair.

The works of Simryn Gill (b. 1959) and Reza Aramesh (b. 1970) share a contemplative aspect, yet in all other respects are radically different. Gill's series My Own Private Angkor (2007), presented by the Australian gallery Breenspace, consists of figureless interiors of empty homes, whose existence seems to be threatened by time and the silent creeping vegetation outside. The title of the work invites comparison with the site of Angkor Wat, whose ruins sit waiting for the natural world to consume them. Gill's gelatin silver prints are expressively toned and have a rich, velvety texture.


Reza Aramesh, a London-based Iranian artist, is also concerned with interiors, but his sharp, black-and-white prints are filled with the bodies of amateur actors recreating painful scenes from earlier documentary photographs depicting often contentious regional issues. Aramesh then places these figures within the incongruous settings of English country houses and museum galleries, the elegance of the settings contrasting painfully with the roles the human figures enact.

Aramesh was one of many Iranian artists represented at Art Dubai. Well established figures such as Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (b. 1924) and Rana Javadi (b. 1944) were exhibited alongside younger artists including Nazgol Ansarinia (b. 1979), one of the winners of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize. This valuable prize, which is open to artists from the MENASA region, is awarded based on a project proposal made by the artist in collaboration with a curator. The three winning works were displayed during Art Dubai, and exemplified the fusion of creativity and intellectual excitement that we have come to expect in Dubai.


Ansarinia, working with Leyla Fakr, created a "traditional" Persian carpet in which the floral and abstract patterns have been replaced by scenes of everyday life in Tehran. The work Rhyme and Reason (2009) challenges the viewer to reconsider and reassess this familiar object while at the same time suggesting new ways for a tradition to reinvent itself in the 21st century (figure 2).

The two other prize winners contributed to a diverse display. The Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman (b. 1961), known for his video installations, presented a work titled Strange Space (2009) in which we see the artist crossing the desert, blindfolded and barefoot. The projection recalls an ancient Mesopotamian folk tale in which the hero wanders through the desert in search of the heroine, who is blinded by his love for her. Alongside this was the poetic installation Walking on the Sky--Pisces (2009) by the Algerian artist Zouleikha Bouabdellah (figure 3). The viewer walks into an open-air pavilion, which displays celestial constellations illuminated on the ceiling, which are at the same time reflected in the mirrored floor across which the viewer walks. The particular constellation is Pisces, which plays on the conceit of fish "swimming" in the mirrored floor, as if they are in water underneath glass. The whole work is inspired by the story of King Solomon who is said to have created a glass floor over water, complete with fish, to convince the visiting Queen of Sheba that she was about to step into water, and so she had to raise her dress in order to prevent her robes from getting wet.


These three prize-winning works, richly varied yet equally exciting, represent the very real desire behind Art Dubai to provide a space for engagement between artists and curators, to educate visitors and to contribute to the development of the arts in the region. This is also apparent in the Global Art Forum, a four-day programme of speakers that ran alongside Art Dubai, covering a range of topics, from the role of the private collector and the function of the biennial to more focused discussions concentrating on the arts in Russia, Tehran, and Abu Dhabi. The speakers were drawn from local and international institutions and consisted primarily of curators, writers, and artists. In particular, recurrent themes focused on the role of the museum versus the private collector as a patron of the arts in a recessionary climate --something that was echoed in the discussions of the gallerists within the art fair. The transcripts from most of the 2008 Global Art Forum discussions were recently published, and it is hoped that the organizers will do the same this year.

One of the most striking installations of the fair was at the stand of Green Cardamom, who were showcasing the work of Hamra Abbas (b. 1976). Her work, Ride 2 (2008), a red fibreglass winged horse with the face of a woman, almost flew out at the passers-by. Abbas also featured at the Sharjah Biennial, which for the first time, was held to coincide with Art Dubai. The Biennial, which ran until May 16, 2009, comprised an extensive programme of events, combining the main exhibition Provisions for the Future, curated by Isabel Carlos, with a series of films, performances, and displays around the city. Many of these events took place in March at the same time as Art Dubai, causing something of a difficulty for many, and the general feeling was that most people chose to base themselves in Dubai, only visiting Sharjah briefly. However, the dense timetable of events and discussions at Sharjah focused far more strongly on the arts from the Arab world than did those at Art Dubai, allowing a more in-depth regional experience.

Hamra Abbas was the winner of the Jury prize at the Sharjah Biennial, for her installations God Grows on Trees (2008) and In this there is a lesson for those who reflect (2009). While both are concerned with religion, more specifically Islam, the former presents an extraordinary series of 99 portraits of children from many of the different madrassas in Pakistan. Abbas photographed the children and later used these photographs to create the painted portraits. The artist has stated that she wanted to document as faithfully as possible these individuals, almost as a balance to what she sees as the sensationalist interest taken by the West in these faith schools as the sources of fundamentalist Islamic teachings, which she also compares to the 19th-century Orientalist interest in the harem. The work is deeply thought-provoking, not least because its method of production mirrors that often employed by 19th-century Orientalist painters. Also, in appearing at an international biennial, the work feeds into the very sensationalism it tries to highlight.

Two more artists represented India: Sheela Gowda (b. 1957) with her outdoors installation, Drip Field (2009) and Mysore-based N.S. Harsha (b. 1969) with his work Nations (2006), an installation of sewing machines, each apparently creating the flag of one of the 192 countries that participate in the United Nations. The threads from each machine intertwine with those of its neighbour, and thus every country is interconnected, feeding from the same sources and materials. Other artists featured in the exhibition included the photographer Ziad Antar (b. 1978) who, over the course of two years, has photographed many of the deserted and ruined buildings in Beirut in a series called Beirut Bereft, producing a deeply moving set of architectural studies.

Alongside the two main events of Art Dubai and the Biennial was the "fringe event"--the Bastakiya Art Fair--held in a part of the city that recreates "old Dubai". The area saw traditional courtyard houses with numerous rooms filled with small but varied displays. Some of the houses are occupied permanently by galleries, but others are rented out for the duration of the fair. Several artists and galleries participated, and it provided welcome relief from the glitz and glamour of the larger neighbouring fair.

Of particular interest was the display of original artwork for Bollywood film posters, covering a wide period from the 1950s to the '80s. Each unique item had been collected in India by Angela Hartwick, and she has created a small but important group of works often overlooked by collectors who have traditionally preferred to acquire the film posters instead. Dubai itself, however, was captured concisely and precisely by the Egyptian artist Rania Ezzat in her Untitled work of a tower of workmen's yellow plastic helmets (figure 4). The tower rose well beyond the boundaries of the small courtyard in which it was displayed, and echoed the numerous skyscrapers that now define the city's skyline. The workers' helmets, however, remind us of the human cost of this rapid expansion.


Dubai has its detractors, but it is undoubtedly a city that provides a platform for art and artists to flourish. This is perhaps because Dubai itself is undergoing a transformation--it is creating itself into the city it wants to be and it is as fascinating as any of the artworks on display. While it may still have a way to go as it seeks out an identity, this process of continual transformation generates an energy that enables others to create, display, and discuss, providing a valuable meeting point for those whose work focuses on this part of the world. Art Dubai has this year confirmed itself as a central feature in the arts calendar and we can now look forward to 2010.
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Author:Gordon, Sophie
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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Next Article:Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West.

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