With its sixth edition, the Art Dubai has confirmed its role as the most important catalyst for what goes on in art in the city and as a Middle Eastern meeting place of the international art scene. According to the organizer, the fair drew about 22,500 visitors, including 75 museum groups, this year – a new record attendance. Sales were apparently also successful, but we will not go into that in greater detail here, because reliable figures aren’t available anyway.
With 75 galleries from 32 countries, the number of exhibitors is somewhat lower than last year. According to Antonia Carver, who replaced founding Director John Martin in the three-member Directorate in 2010, this is because some applicants wanted larger stands and the traditional site of the fair in Madinat Jumeira permits no spatial expansion.
The art fair thus remains pleasantly assessable; it’s easier to concentrate on the art being shown. Our feeling was that, of the four editions of the Art Dubai that we have seen so far, this one had the greatest consistency of quality. There was a great diversity of artistic positions, but orientation of the offerings as a whole seemed more homogeneous. Based on the experience of past years, it seems that many galleries have attuned even more to the expected or suspected preferences of collectors from the region.
The organizers of the fair are aware of the dangers of a one-sided focus. That’s why they strive to constantly expand the catchment and scope of the exposition. In her concluding statement, Antonia Carver said, “In 2012, we reached out beyond our established base in the Middle East and South Asia, building new links for both the local arts scene and our visiting galleries, recognizing that it’s fundamental to always bring new blood into the fair. … Looking ahead, we are aiming to develop our relationship with the African contemporary arts scene, reflecting on existing cultural links and shared histories.”
The section “Marker”, introduced in 2011, was one of the measures serving this purpose. Last year, it made it possible for experimental art spaces from Asia and the Middle East to have a presence at the fair. In 2012, Marker was more concerned with enhancing relationships to a market with a huge potential: five commercial galleries from Indonesia were invited, and Alia Swastika curated the section (more on this in the photo tour).
In 2012, Art Dubai and its diverse partners again realized an extensive accompanying program. As in 2011, the six-day Global Art Forum began in Doha and was continued in Dubai. Along with panel discussions and lectures with more than 50 participants on the theme “The Medium of Media”, for the first time projects were commissioned that began before the meeting and continued after it. In the framework of the Art Dubai Projects, special commissioned works were created; Performances and Actions were staged; and a residence program was initiated. Envisioned for the future are initiatives throughout the whole year (for example, an Arabic Art Glossary), working residences for curators and artists, and educational seminars. With these kinds of “institutional elements”, the Art Dubai aims to contribute to building infrastructure for the arts in the Emirates and the region.
Against the backdrop of such a wide range of activities, the primary purpose of the fair sometimes seems to pale in general perception: to sell art. The Art Dubai is not a curated biennial like that in neighboring Sharjah, whose editions beginning in 2003 launched the much-cited art boom in the Gulf region in the first place. This may sound self-explanatory, but in talks and reviews it is astonishing how palpable expectations were to see the “Arab Spring” reflected in works at the fair. Contributing to this may be that already last year some works were quickly retitled to display sympathies for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt – or to achieve a gain in significance for oneself. There is no doubt that many of the Arab artists represented at the fair are following events in the region very attentively and that this clearly leaves traces in some works. But apart from the fact that a serious artistic addressing of such extremely complex processes requires time, one wonders why a fair aiming at sales and borne by galleries of extremely various origin in a Gulf Emirate should propagate and pay tribute to the uprising against authoritarian regimes in Arab countries…
Another primary theme of many reviews is censorship, which affected some galleries again this time, and not only newcomers, but also native galleries. This is the shadow side of the royal glamor in which so many like to bask. A photo with the ruler and other sheikhs may markedly improve the sales chances of the viewed art, but in exchange one must first submit to the censors. Usually the works singled out are not removed by an order from the very top, but in advance by court officials who decide what must not appear as a background in pictures with Their Highnesses. This can be an invocation of the wrong Imam before a wrestling match, the wrong name for the Gulf, or a motif considered salacious. In 2008, even a stuffed camel pressed into a suitcase aroused displeasure. In an article recently published in the Emirates, the censorship was officially explained with the requirements of court protocol. Consequently, censorship will probably remain a constant accompaniment of the Art Dubai.
Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt
Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.
6th Art Dubai
21 - 24 March 2012
PO Box 72645
United Arab Emirates