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Sydney Morning Herald Column

Art Dubai 2023

Published March 21, 2023
Digital imaging takes flight at Art Dubai

Introducing the 16th edition of Art Dubai, Artistic Director, Pablo del Val, spoke about an art fair dedicated to ‘the Global South’. This new-old concept term has been around for decades but has gained momentum recently, as a way of dividing the developing world from its developed counterpart.

Marwan, ‘Untitled’ (1978), at Sfeir-Semler

At first, I thought this was a clever way of accounting for the scarcity of über galleries among this year’s exhibitors. All fairs seem to crave the participation of these high-profile international dealers, but if they choose not to come to Dubai, who needs ‘em?

There is, however, a positive vibe about del Val’s Global South, which seeks to forge a pathway for an art market less dominated by the commercial interests of Europe and the United States. The economic model of the Global South begins at the base of the Mediterranean and the United States’ border with Mexico. It incorporates most of the Middle East, Africa, South and South-East Asia, Latin America and the Pacific. It includes China, but excludes wealthy countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

When one applies this model to the art market, there is a good argument for including Australia within the Global South. One of the UK’s leading art market reporters, who recently visited Sydney and Melbourne, told me she was amazed at the low prices of Australian art. Being at the bottom end of the market means that Australian dealers often find it too expensive to participate in overseas art fairs, and are rejected when they apply for flagship events such as Art Basel.

Refik Anadol’s AI generated swirls stole the show

Del Val says he would love to see more Australian art galleries at Art Dubai, but the sole representative this year was Yavuz Gallery, which was an avid participant in art fairs long before it opened a branch in Sydney in 2019. Committed to “intercultural dialogue”, Yavuz showed new paintings by Indonesian artist, Zico Albaiquni.

The 2023 fair was divided into four sections. The largest, Art Dubai Contemporary, featured 76 galleries from around the world. Art Dubai Digital, was a self-contained showcase of high tech art, an area in which the city is rapidly becoming a major centre. The third, Bawwaba, which means ‘Gateway’ in Arabic, featured solo presentations by 11 artists, addressing “socio-cultural issues”. The last, and to my mind, most interesting section, Art Dubai Modern, saw galleries hosting a series of specially curated exhibitions by leading modern artists from the Global South.

This structure was notable for what it didn’t do: namely follow a familiar formula of splitting the fair into two tiers, with wealthy galleries in one zone and emerging ones in another. In each section there was a mix of new galleries and long-established ones. This arrangement respected Dubai’s character as a melting pot, with a huge foreign population and a cast-iron commitment to progress and innovation. It also reflected del Val’s contention that Middle Eastern collectors are not impressed by talk of good investments or well-padded CVs. He says they are more prone to follow their personal taste, forming an immediate relationship with a work for a variety of reasons, from local content to boldness of colour. Unlike so many of their westerm counterparts, they are focused on works rather than reputations.

I’m unable to confirm such generalisations, but Dubai’s rapid rise from a desert village to a thriving cosmopolis has demonstrated a unique character. The city-state’s success been predicated on strong, entrepreneurial leadership, and an understanding that the fabulous wealth that has accrued to the ruling dynasty must be shared with the population in the form of public facilities and infrastructure. In the 21st century Dubai’s autocratic system is an anomaly, but a remarkably stable one.

Natvar Bhavsar, ‘Gomatee’

Whatever the local taste, the modern and contemporary sections of the fair were dominated by galleries from India, Africa and the Middle East, including 24 from Dubai alone. Many of the European galleries confirmed the local focus by showing work by artists from these regions. One of the highlights of the Modern section was DAG’s solo show by Natvar Bhavsar (b. 1934), the Indian artist who came to prominence in the United States in the wake of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Gregory Halili’s moths at Silverlens

Bhavsar’s experience is typical of artists from non-western countries in that he had to relocate to America to achieve success. Other artists featured in this section had similar stories. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1922-2019), showing with The Third Line (Dubai) and Ota Fine Arts (Japan), went back and forth between the United States and her native Iran. The expressionist painter, Marwan (1934-2016), showing with German gallery, Sfeir-Semler, was born in Syria, but made a career in Berlin.

In the Bawwaba section, Silverlens of the Philippines, presented a striking series of drawings of moths on translucent capiz shell, by Gregory Halili, that alluded to the fragility of ecosystems around the world. Next door, the French gallery, Parliament, hosted an impressive exhibition by Morrocco’s Achraf Touloub, whose quasi-abstract images explore the atomisation of contemporary communities. Maryanto, of Indonesia, showing with Singapore gallery, Yeo Workshop, took on the depredations of the palm oil industry, in a series of powerful graphic works.

Achraf Touloub, ‘Vies parallèles’ (2021) at French gallery, Parliament

The contemporary galleries featured many newcomers such as Efie Gallery, which is based in Dubai, but dedicated to African artists, the most notable being El Anatsui of Ghana, who was the big name among a group of emerging talents. Kristin Hjellegjerde is a European gallery with branches in the UK, Germany, Norway and the USA, that takes a completely global approach. The gallery’s stall at Art Dubai, included artists from Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Italy, South Africa and Iraq.

When it came to Art Digital Dubai, I’ve never seen a more broadranging selection of new media art. Although the vogue for NFTs has had its boom-and-bust moment, there are still many dealers that expect to make their fortunes with this medium. Add new fields such as AI and the Metaverse, and it’s easy to see why many believe this is the future of art.

El Anatsui’s ‘Basket Mouth,’ at Dubai-based African gallery, Efie

The main attraction was Refik Anadol, whose monumental AI work occupied the central foyer of the National Gallery of Victoria during the 2020 NGV Triennial. At present, the California-based Anadol has an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. His colourful AI generated swirls of condensed imagery were being shown by PILEVNELI from his home city of Istanbul.

Italy’s Galeria Continua featured work by Loris Cecchini, in which an algorithm spun organic patterns from a single modular shape. One could buy the moving image on a screen, and the original metal module, packaged like a rare piece of jewellery in a wooden box. British artist Brendan Dawes at Gazell.io (Baku/London), showed an elaborate series of algorithmically generated images based on the Iranian epic, the Shahnama, developed in collaboration with a choreographer.

Alexis Christodoulou’s work at UAE NFT

The financial backer of UEA NFT took the time to explain to me the investment he had made in the Metaverse, the marketing strategy he is using, and the reason why he believes it will turn into a multimillion-dollar proposition within the next few years.

It will operate like a club, in which one pays a joining fee, then may construct an imaginary environment, either off the shelf or to one’s own design. In turn, you can sell your designs and ideas to other club members. It’s a potentially limitless field of invention in which players create their own heaven or hell, as they see fit. It’s a community, but also a world of one’s own. I can see the commercial appeal but dread the social implications of millions of people addicted to their self-made worlds. It’s a disturbing thought at a time in which our ties to reality are already fraying.

The broader cultural aspirations of the UAE are represented in very different ways by the commercial extravaganzas of Art Dubai and the galleries clustered in a development called Alserkal Avenue; the spectacular Louvre Abu Dhabi; the privately funded Art Jameel, with branches in Dubai and Jedda, Saudi Arabia; and the Sharjah Biennial. Taken together with the new museums and cultural enterprises in Qatar and elsewhere, it adds up to the most lavish, ambitious investment in art and culture to be found anywhere in the world today.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye featured the Sharjah Biennial

Whereas the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a universal museum for the 21st century, with a partner relationship to the Louvre in Paris, the 15th Sharjah Biennial is an utterly contemporary affair, concerned with the cutting-edge issues that dominate present-day art.

This year’s display includes work by wellknown Aboriginal artists – Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Queenie McKenzie and Eubena Nampitjin, along with Destiny Deacon, Tracey Moffatt, and two Australian artists of Asian origin, Sangeeta Sandrasegar and Hodar Afshar. Each artist is represented by the equivalent of a solo exhibition. We owe this unusually generous grouping to curator, Sheika Hoor Al Qasimi’s longstanding interest in Australia.

Many of the other works in a Biennial with the theme: Thinking Historically in the Present, dealt with topics such as racism, police violence, the legacy of colonialism, dispossession, and so on. It’s not exactly what one might expect to find in a state run by a single family, and the dubious human rights record common to all the Gulf States. It either suggests that contemporary art is shining a light in the darkness or is largely irrelevant to the way power and policy are exercised. I’m inclined to be generous and go with option one, as there are many other countries that simply wouldn’t tolerate such political statements. The UAE has found that tolerance is not only good PR; it’s good for business, and good karma. It’s an irony that one can travel to Sharjah to embrace all those issues banned from schools in Florida.

 

 

16th Art Dubai, 1-5 March

15th Sharjah Biennial, until 11 June.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 18  March, 2023