The UAE has become a bustling art centre in just a few short years. Alice Johnson looks at the birth of the art scene in Dubai and how it has evolved into a vibrant creative hub.
Eight years ago, the art world’s creators, critics and curators flew around the world visiting art fairs and venues, seeking out the globe’s best talent. However, they might not have even stopped in the UAE at this time. Today, the art sector is booming in the UAE and particularly in Dubai with the launch of Art Dubai in 2006. The international art fair has gone from strength to strength since its inception seven years ago, attracting artists, galleries and industry peers from across the globe.
In 2013, Art Dubai welcomed more than 75 galleries from 30 countries to its base in the Madinat Jumeirah arena, displaying works by more than 500 artists valued at approximately $45 million. A total of 28 galleries also made their debut at Art Dubai this year, with contemporary pieces depicting life, death, nature and realism at its best from March 19 to 23. Galleries from London, Paris, Madrid, Hong Kong, Beijing, Berlin, Melbourne, New York, San Francisco and Thessaloniki – amongst others – joined regional galleries from Damascus, Beirut, Dubai and Tehran. Winning works by photographers who entered the Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA) were showcased at the fair in a special new partnership this year; alongside photographic works by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, himself (patron of the award). New works by winners of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize were also unveiled at a special exhibition during Art Dubai.
“The growth of Art Dubai over the past seven years reflects the rising prominence of the UAE as a centre of art and cultural discourse. We see Art Dubai as a powerful venue for regional and international talents to reach out to new audiences, explore new markets and connect with likeminded collaborators. At the same time, through the Global Art Forum we act as the catalyst for discussions that ripple far beyond the region and extend far beyond the visual arts,” Antonia Carver, Fair Director, Art Dubai, said at the close of the event.
The fair was visited by its patron His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai on Thursday March 21. Sheikh Mohammad toured the gallery exhibitions, spoke to Emirati artists and viewed the activities on offer at the fair. Abdul Qadar Al Rais, widely regarded as the foremost veteran of contemporary art in the UAE, told Al Shindagah not long after speaking to Sheikh Mohammad that the fair has grown exponentially since he started exhibiting his work in 2007.
“Every year it has become better and better,” he said of the contemporary arts fair, “The space has also become better than before.” While not every year produces ‘great’ works of art, he continued, the 2013 fair for him showcased many ‘special’ pieces. Al Rais exhibited three pieces of his work at the Hunar Gallery stand. The abstract floor-to-ceiling oil paintings were inspired by current affairs, and remain “a record of what’s happening these days in the Arab world,” he said. In one piece Al Rais mixes the contemporary with the modern, with his usage of Arabic calligraphy scripted as a feature of the main theme. The calligraphy, he said, provides commentary on the human rights situation in Syria, since its revolution commenced.
The renowned Emirati artist has completed more than another 10 pieces in the collection shown at Art Dubai. “Now is a very good time to show the pieces,” he said, “Art lovers have come from around the world to Dubai – it’s the best time to show my best pieces.” Visitors from India, he continued, were looking “more seriously” at his art this year.
Art Dubai isn’t just about the display of pieces, however; which was nowhere more evident than during the 2013 edition. A wide variety of ‘fringe’ events and attractions were held concurrent to the gallery exhibitions, including the Global Art Forum. Opening at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, the Global Art Forum is slated as ‘one of the region’s leading platforms for cultural discourse’, which brings together protagonists from the art world for a week of debates and discussion (it was also free for visitors). The Forum was complemented by the Terrace Talks – a series of one-on-one conversations by key players from the region’s art scene.
Each year, the ‘Marker’ curated section of stands focusses on an individual theme or place. This year’s edition featured works of upcoming artists and organisations from West Africa, which exhibited colourful, unique works from the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Lagos; Espace doual’art in Douala; Maison Carpe Diem in Segou; the Nubuke Foundation from Accra; and the Raw Material Company based in Dakar.
New to the 2013 edition was the ‘Sculpture on the Beach’ programme, comprising of 11 large-scale works by artists on the nearby Mina A’Salam beach. ‘Weave 2’ – a signature piece by contemporary Emirati artist Hassan Sharif (2012) – was exhibited alongside works from international artists.
The Sheikha Manal Little Artists Programme was also launched this year, featuring tours, activities and educational programmes conceptualised for both children and teenagers. The Little Artists Programme is held under the patronage of Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Women’s Establishment, and Wife of HH Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs UAE.
Art Dubai is one of the main attractions of Dubai’s Art Week’ – an umbrella initiative encompassing the fair alongside Design Days Dubai (the only fair in the region dedicated to collectible design) and SIKKA, which focusses on contemporary performance art and visual communications. Coinciding each year in March, the three now globally-renowned events provide an expert eye on the region’s contemporary art scene; all wrapped up in the same busy, bustling, artsfocussed few weeks.
With Art Dubai spreading out from its Madinat Jumeirah base to Al Quoz and the Gate Village in DIFC through its Galleries Night, its reach can literally be seen spreading across the Emirate. Next year’s event is already set to be bigger and better than ever, adding weight to the UAE’s status as an arts hub for the region.