Reflections on Art Dubai

by Atteqa Ali, Zayed University

In the last decade and since Art Dubai has been around, a lot has changed. Beginning in 2007, Art Dubai has offered opportunities to artists and arts organizations in the region to present work. Dubai has become a center for art. New York can no longer lay claim to being the only place one needs to visit to know about contemporary art.

Although art fairs, and Art Dubai in particular, are considered to be no more than glitzy, “fluffy” events, there is much to be said for what they mean. Art Dubai offers a safe haven for those interested in the art of the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) area. Much of this volatile region is difficult to traverse. Dubai provides a relatively secure zone where people from different parts of the world can meet. Last year, about 25,000 attended the fair.

However, beyond considerations of safety, Dubai and the other Emirates are crossroads for contemporary cultures, as they have been in the past. The idea of coming together in one place was investigated in an event that took place the week before the art fair. March Meeting 2014 happened at the Sharjah Art Foundation and provided an opportunity for the global art world to congregate. Sharjah Art Foundation is quickly establishing itself as a leader in the presentation of contemporary art.

The exhibitions in Sharjah are not directly for commercial purposes, setting up a clear difference with regard to Art Dubai. However, as noted above, there is much more to Art Dubai than galleries selling their wares at the art fair. Art Dubai is organized in a manner that allows ideas to develop and debates to ensue. There is a “think tank” quality to the event.

This year, as in previous editions of the fair, visitors could attend lectures in the Global Art Forum. The presentations ranged from the academic discussions to practical concerns. Significantly, three curators of past and upcoming biennials in Europe discussed their ideas in a panel that Hans Ulrich Obrist moderated. He is widely considered as a top curator of contemporary art.

Adam Szymcyzk, the curator of the upcoming Documenta in 2017, one of the most important exhibitions of contemporary art, stated that it is quite telling that they were sitting in Dubai and having a discussion. Although he did not want to give away names, Szymcyzk did note that his organization of Documenta will keep in mind the pluralistic nature of art today and will include many artists from outside of Europe and the United States.

In fact, how could it not? Art is thriving in areas well beyond the scope of the West. Art Dubai makes that apparent. A quick look at the galleries present in the fair shows that there are sophisticated voices existing in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, and in many other places. The Marker project, as part of the non-profit programming of Art Dubai, was organized this year by a group of artists called Slavs and Tartar. The project focused on Central Asia and represented the region through a curated presentation of art spaces.

This and a number of other initiatives add to the exhibition feel of Art Dubai, rather than it simply being a commercial affair. As such, this event is not just a marker of the growth of contemporary art in the region; it is a catalyst for its future development.