Back to the Future


Left: Christie's Amy Cappellazzo; Roger Mandle, executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority; and Art Dubai director Antonia Carver. Right: Artist Ilya Kabakov and chief boatbuilder David Harold. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

THERE WAS A BUZZ in the air last week at the fifth edition of Art Dubai, with a new director, journalist Antonia Carver, and the fair’s proximity to regional regimes toppling one after another. I arrived at midnight on Sunday and my Syrian taxi driver sped us down the nearly empty multilane Sheikh Zayed Road through a corridor of skyscrapers, with the two distinctive towers, Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab, lit up on either side like alien beacons. Built from the desert up within the past decade—kitschy new villas, high-rises, luxury hotels, and an overwhelmingly multinational population—it looks like the future.

The next morning as I sat watching the boat traffic on the Creek, the medieval origins of the city as a major trading and commercial center, my transplanted Italian friend Tatiana Antonelli noted, “All the Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans with any money are here now; it’s the Switzerland of the region.” From there I set off to the industrial quarter Al Quoz, where new galleries are keeping low profiles among the warehouses, and I got hopelessly lost on the way to Traffic Gallery for the Magic of Persia prize exhibition of Iranian finalists, nearly missing a panel on “Cultural Brokering.” There, Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary brought it all together: “The network is powerful, but it is one person, one spark, that makes the difference.” According to Carver, it is mostly women who drive the local art scene: “It’s dominated by women—many Lebanese and Iranian—probably 75 percent of the patrons are female.”

That evening kicked off with a number of gallery openings, including the new Lawrie Shabibi gallery, partnered by former Christie’s Middle East head William Lawrie, inaugurating with an exhibition of sculptural paintings by Lebanese market star Nabil Nahas. The trick was to make the rounds in two hours, so we chose to go directly to the DIFC (Dubai International Financial Centre) gallery hub, complete with a new Christie’s showroom. As we ascended the escalator, I noted its resemblance to a shopping mall. “It is—an art mall. Dubai is a shopping paradise,” press impresario Ben Rawlingson Plant pointed out. “The culture minister said, ‘In five years there will be galleries here,’ and so it was.”

Left: Curator Abaseh Mirvali and artist Shirazeh Houshiary. Right: Dealers Asmaa Al-Shabibi and William Lawrie.

In “Hidden Love,” the XVA Gallery was featuring Halim Al Karim, one of the artists who will represent Iraq in the Venice Biennale, the country’s first pavilion in thirty-five years. The big draw was the traveling exhibition “Edge of Arabia,” meandering through a raw multilevel space in the complex. Visitors had to check in to be added to the list of nationalities on an electronic board and receive a visa stamp. Curators Stephen Stapleton and Bashar Al Shroogi were dressed in matching formal blue caftans. There was a flurry of excitement as an ex–prime minister of Pakistan came through. Al-Shroogi, director of the Cuadro gallery next door, explained: “He is a very good client of mine.”

It seemed as if there was nothing but VIPs populating the city that night. Later we were shuttled by golf cart to the dinner hosted by Canvas publisher Ali Khadra on Jumeirah beach, where the seven-star Burj Al Arab shimmered just offshore. “The economic crunch is the best thing that could have happened to the art market here. It was difficult in 2009, and then people started asking why they were buying art instead of just speculating,” William Lawrie explained. “There are even more and younger collectors now; it has really matured in the last two years.”

The guest list was a who’s who of the global art world, with nearly fifty international museum curators in town. MoMA PS1’s Klaus Biesenbach and Peter Eleey showed solidarity with almost matching baby-blue pin-striped jackets. I sat next to Saad Salaam, nephew of a former Lebanese prime minister. Surrounded by members of the ongoing Middle Eastern diaspora, I felt like we were in the eye of the storm. Alma Lawrie, William’s wife, quipped, “I am just fed up with taking holidays in war zones.”

Left: Canvas publisher Ali Khadra and Creative Time director Anne Pasternak. Right: Curator Stephen Stapleton and dealer Bashar Al-Shroogi.

The Art Dubai press conference started late the next morning after a surprise visit by the king, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, which caused a traffic jam outside the Madinat Jumeirah resort. It seemed that most galleries brought their Middle Eastern artists to cater to the market, and many shared the same ones. Milan dealer Nicolò Cardi—still high from the Armory Show, where he turned over his booth twice—was excited by the clientele: “There are so many curators here: Francesco Bonami, Massimiliano Gioni, Germano Celant, Sheena Wagstaff . . . ” Word was that you had to be a familiar face to gain the trust of local collectors. According to Nicole Rampa, of Zurich’s Galerie Kashya Hildebrand, the key is to get in with the royals, who feel competitive with other fairs and are invested in Art Dubai’s success. First-timer Storm Janse van Rensburg, of South Africa’s Goodman Gallery, had a major American museum put a work by Hasan and Husain Essop on hold. “But the local collectors don’t seem to know who William Kentridge is,” he reported. Never fear: Next thing I heard, a UAE museum had expressed interest in remedying the situation with an exhibition.

At the swish patrons’ preview that night, everyone was dressed to the nines (and tens). “It makes Miami look like a barn dance,” van Rensburg commented. While scoring Chinese dumplings at the buffet spread along the waterfront terraces, I ran into former Art Dubai director John Martin. “Of course it is better this year— there are more collectors!” he said. “It is the most glamorous art fair in world.” Many of us then decamped down the beach to the gigantic wavelike Jumeirah Beach Hotel, where we were taken by golf cart to the rooftop 360° club for the Harper’s Bazaar party. There, curators Victoria Brooks and Andrew Bonacina whooped it up with Charlie Koolhaas on one side of the round bar, while artists Jane and Louise Wilson hung out with Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer and the MoMA contingent on the other.

Wednesday was Ladies’ Day at the fair, but the Tenth Sharjah Biennial drew the crowds to the smaller, drier emirate for its opening. Aided by a late night at the beach, my clever strategy to arrive at the Sharjah Art Museum after the official sheikh entourage had departed meant we had the exhibition, and the fantastic permanent Orientalist collection, practically to ourselves. Then, with artists Emilia and Ilya Kabakov in tow, we made off for the Maritime Museum, where their Boat of Tolerance was ready to be launched into the water. On the way, Emilia recounted the other places they’ve done the project, including Cuba, and reminisced about meeting Fidel Castro at Siberia’s Lake Baykal in 1961, where, as a fifteen-year-old girl, she had to be whisked away when the Cuban party got too wild. We arrived just in time for a dramatic performance: As the crane started lifting the work, the vessel split down the middle. “Don’t talk to me until it is in the water,” Ilya said nervously while keeping his eyes glued on it. One of the boatbuilders, a student from Manchester College, said he was confident the gap would close as the ship settled, and when we parted it was in place, with only the sails, made by local schoolchildren, left to be raised.

Left: Art Dubai's Stephanie Sykes and Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar. Right: Artist Navid Azimi Sajadi and Serpentine codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist.

The next day, as on the others, there were tons of activities from which to choose at the fair alone: Michael Danoff spoke about the art of building a private collection, followed by author Sarah Thornton in conversation with collectors Susan and Michael Hort. At the underground Art Park, I caught part of the Bidoun Video screening “Sports!” moderated by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie and Negar Azimi. The fair itself had a newly curated character, with many stands dedicated to solo exhibitions and the new “Marker” section for experimental projects, and the official announcements of new Arab pavilions for the Venice Biennale added to the frisson. Of course, there was no avoiding politics, and that day also featured the declaration of a boycott against the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project, spurred by a Human Rights Watch report on the exploitation of labor.

That evening I attended a cocktail party at the residence of Justin Siberell, the US Consul General, in the tony Umm Suqeim quarter, where Sharjah’s Sheikh Al Qasimi held court on the terrace and all the embassy people were in from Abu Dhabi, the larger, oil-rich emirate. “The Abu Dhabi fair, showing the likes of Picasso and other blue-chip art,” cultural attaché Robert Arbuckle informed us, “is much more representative of the local taste.”

The final day I visited the latest Delfina Foundation artist residency, hosted by local arts organization Tashkeel in a traditional mud house in historic Bastakiya. On show were installations by current inhabitants Abbas Akhavan and Tobias Collier, as well as artists placed in other countries. Dappled by patches of shade and sun, the neighborhood was wonderfully peaceful, like an abandoned casbah, the mood interrupted only by the muezzin’s call to prayer. But the party wasn’t over yet: Curator Miranda Sharp and I headed to the other, more chic side of town for the fair’s official fete on the Madinat Jumeirah’s Fort Island, where we found ourselves amid an angry, if very distinguished, crowd that finally mobbed the gatekeepers to get in. Watching a UK foundation director doing his best attempt at a Michael Jackson imitation, designer Oliver Knight observed, “I think the art is just foreplay for getting drunk.” A global phenomenon, I suppose. A pity we never made it to the beach party.

Cathryn Drake

Left: Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, and Antonia Carver. Right: Artist Jane Wilson, Maureen Sullivan, Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer, and artist Louise Wilson.

Left: Dealer Nicolò Cardi. Right: Dealer John Martin and artist Princess Wijdan Ali.

Left: Curators Victoria Brooks and Andrew Bonacina with writer Charlie Koolhaas. Right: Barjeel curator Mandy Merzaban with artist Shezad Dawood.

Left: Artists Fereydoun Ave and Reza Aramesh. Right: Artist Samia Halaby and dealer Hisham Samawi.

Left: Artists Moataz Nasr and Sama Alshaibi with curator Reem Shather-Kubba. Right: Dealer Mona Hauser and artist Halim Al Karim.

Left: Felicia Nwankwo and artist Jacob Jari. Right: Artist Tobias Collier and curator Miranda Sharp of Delfina Foundation.

Left: Artist Nathaniel Rackowe and Abbas Akhavan's Well. Right: Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan and Antonia Carver.

Left: Curator Gaby Scardi with collectors Giorgio and Anna Fasol. Right: Artists Hesam Rahmanian and Bilal Aquil.

Left: Collector Shereen Al Fahim and designer Nadine Kanso. Right: Dealer Irene Sutton and artist Raafat Ishak.

Left: Designer Katrin Greiling, artist Timo Nasseri, and critic Marisa Mazria Katz. Right: Artists Shahrzad Changalvaee and Iman Raad.

Left: Dealer Robin Start; Fuad Therman, CEO King Abdulaziz Centre; curator Mona Khazindar; and Nasser El Nafissee of Saudi Aramco. Right: Curator Brigitte Schenk.