Global Affair

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie at the 8th Art Dubai

Left: Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk and Centre Pompidou deputy director Catherine David. Right: Dealers Asmaa al-Shabibi and William Lawrie.

A FRIEND WHO goes to far more art fairs than I do once told me the atmosphere of Art Dubai was so gauche and ostentatious that it made the flash of Art Basel Miami Beach look as bookish as Documenta. A curator for a mainstream American museum, he meant it in a disparaging way, of course, and for a good long decade, Dubai has inspired exactly that animosity and ill will. It is in many ways a fake and wretched place, and Dubai bashing is not only easy but also self-evident. The rest of my friends—including those who live there, grew up there, and have gone there for work, autonomy, or escape—tend to skip the polemics, save the withering language, and shorthand the whole discussion to “Dumbai.”

On the merits of Art Dubai in relation to the competition, there are those who know better. I can only really compare the fair to itself. I remember very well how the majority of participating galleries brought something gold to sell in 2007, when Art Dubai first sputtered off the ground as the Gulf Art Fair—and everyone imagined that it would fail. From a later edition, I still have a Khalid Mezaina–designed “Khalid Says Relax” T-shirt, from the fair’s DBX pop-up shop, and a fine metaphor for a time when all of Dubai had been knocked down by the financial crisis. In that uneasy lull, the fair had begun supporting local talent (in art and design alike) by nurturing a slew of noncommercial projects on the side. It is not insignificant that Art Dubai’s current director, Antonia Carver, came wholly from that side, and has continued to develop (and find outside funding for) educational and curatorial programs that are as responsive to the local community as they are plain in their purpose of window-dressing the down-and-dirty business of the fair.

Left: Dealer Nadine Begdache. Right: Experimenter cofounder Prateek Raja, artist and filmmaker Shaina Anand, and curator Amal Khalaf with artist and architect Ashok Sukumaran.

What makes the earlier analogy confusing to me now, and possibly obsolete, is the fact that this year, the uncontested highlight of Art Dubai, which ran through the third week of March, was actually a conversation about Documenta, which brought Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor, and Adam Szymczyk—artistic directors of Documenta 10 (1997), Documenta 11 (2002), and Documenta 14 (forthcoming in 2017), respectively—to the stage of the Global Art Forum, the fair’s annual talks program. Moderated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, they engaged in a completely serious, totally generous exchange of ideas on how shifts in the curatorial craft are woven through Documenta’s past, present, and future, and through the event’s relationship to the wider world. Even on the other side of the all-powerful profit margin, in the depths of the sales halls, the real discovery, in the booth of London’s Grosvenor Gallery and coinciding with a stunning retrospective that just opened in neighboring Sharjah, was the rigorous and playful work of minimalist sculptor Rasheed Araeen, best known until now as the founder of Third Text. To call Art Dubai a thinking man’s art fair, as the Art Newspaper did last week, might go a touch far—seeing a painting by the vastly overrated Ahmed Alsoudani on one side of Gladstone’s booth, a brass concave dish by Anish Kapoor on the other, spoke of baser instincts on display. But nothing about Art Dubai’s eighth year out was outrageously dumb or vulgar.

Still, the fair does bear the inevitable burden of being twinned, by scheduling convention, to programming in Sharjah, where the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) is working with very different stakes and on a much more intimate scale. This time around, Art Dubai followed SAF’s annual March Meeting, an event of dramatically uneven quality in the past that was exceptionally strong this year, buttressed by a slate of new exhibitions, all solo shows delving into the art of Araeen, Wael Shawky, and Abdullah Al Saadi, among others. Tightly focused on artists and their work and closely tied to curator Eungie Joo’s forthcoming biennial, which opens in Sharjah this time next year, the March Meeting cultivated a spirit of genuine critical inquiry, alongside palpable urgency and a strong sense of problem-solving, boundary-breaking purpose. To go from there to the fair was schizophrenic. Even the Global Art Forum—beautifully arranged by Shumon Basar, Omar Berrada, and Ala Younis—came across like a canned, clipped, overly stage-managed daytime talk show by comparison. A curator from Istanbul, moving from one city to the other, said that after an “inspiring” and “amazing” March Meeting in Sharjah, “Dubai feels like a joke.” Harsh? Yes. True? Absolutely.

Left: Aspen Art Museum’s Michelle Dezember. Right: Curators Ava Ansari and Molly Kleiman with dealer Shirin Partovi Tavakolian.

And yet, Art Dubai made some robust structural changes this year, many of which were intended to encourage serious and sustained engagements with artists, one at a time and with history in mind. I caught up with the fair on Tuesday morning, when I slipped into a surprisingly well-attended press conference just as Fred Sicre, managing director of the Abraaj Group, Art Dubai’s primary corporate sponsor, was dropping the phrase “empowering potential” a dozen times or more. Then he raised eyebrows around the room announcing a shakeup to the annual Abraaj Group Art Prize. Instead of awarding $100,000 apiece to five artists for the production of new work, as of next year, Abraaj will limit the prize to $100,000 for just one artist, putting the rest of the money toward a scholarship fund. Instead of enlisting a curator to shepherd a handful of works to completion and assemble a group show, he or she will now be tasked with placing a single project in the context of the winning artist’s work over time—“to show the artist’s journey,” said Sicre.

From the beginning, Art Dubai has set itself up in the sprawling Madinat Jumeirah hotel complex, which a colleague from London once described to me as a sci-fi simulation of Venice, Las Vegas, and some lost or imagined city in China (replete with lagoons, canals, islands, bridges, boats, and a fleet of bleeping golf carts). Now the fair is split in two, with contemporary on one side, near the souk and Madinat Jumeirah proper, and modern on the other, in another hotel, Mina A’Salam, which is closer to the beach. With just eleven booths tucked into a quiet (“too quiet,” reported one dealer), cream-colored, wall-to-wall carpeted room, the modern section consisted solely of one- or two-artist presentations. The idea, said Carver, was about “getting to know an artist’s practice,” identifying “the tipping points in their careers,” and following them “from emerging to more mature.”

Left: Dealers Alia Fattouh and Jane Lombard. Right: Sharjah Biennial 12 assistant curator Ryan Inouye.

“Art Dubai has become a point of discovery for the Arab world, opening to Asia and also to the art scenes of Africa. This makes it one of the most globalized fairs in the world,” Carver explained, using terms like “collegiate,” “investigative,” and “exploratory” to describe the working method of her team. “Dubai has been a trading city for such a long time. Now we see this running through the cultural sphere, not only in the exchange of ideas, but also in the production of ideas. That’s an important shift,” she said, and then dispatched us all to the preview: eighty-five galleries, thirty-four countries, over five hundred artists (“half of them women,” she said, “which is indicative of the art world here and in the region”), and some forty to forty-five million dollars in art for sale.

By evening, the press preview morphed into the patrons’ preview, and the sad rumpled clothes of the critics’ corps gave way to some audacious finery, decadent jewels, and copious champagne. Perched at one of the magazine booths, I watched a succession of tribes go by: a blur of men in white thobes; Eungie Joo and her crew from Sharjah (including M+ curator Doryun Chong and the artists Danh Vo, Haegue Yang, and Eric Baudelaire); and the designer Rick Owens surrounded by five black-clad beauties—men, women, expertly draped, drifting slow figure eights around Michèle Lamy, Owens’s strikingly face-tattooed and arm-bangled partner, and a young lanky soul, totally androgynous, lagging behind in a pink leather ball gown.

Over a low-key dinner, some Europeans—a dealer, two museum directors, and a delightfully undiplomatic lawyer—pondered the problems of dirty money, conflicts of interest, and an unregulated art market. (Later, an Iraqi gallery owner laid out her own spectrum of dubious wealth: arms, drugs, and blood diamonds were very bad; pharmaceuticals were on the fence; tax evasion and corruption through contracting and procurement were unremarkable; robber barons and industry titans were business as it’s always been.) Festivities like these are essential ingredients in the fair’s social mucilage, and throughout the week there were dinners at Pierchic for Abraaj and Marian Goodman (ahead of her London gallery opening next fall); lunches at the beachside home of collector Dana Farouki for the New Museum and the Delfina Foundation; and ritual outings to the older, more threadbare districts of Dubai for Pakistani kebabs and dance parties at the Eritrean Social Club, notoriously creepy but loved by all.

Left: Dealer Mohammed Hafiz. Right: Writers Butheina Kazim and Mishaal al-Gergawi.

On Wednesday, the Global Art Forum—taking on histories, timelines, and pivotal dates—got off to a rocky start. Salem al-Moosa, a businessman, was affable enough on the ad hoc development of Dubai in the 1970s. But then he veered off into jaggedly jingoistic terrain. “The rulers of the Emirates and Kuwait were builders,” he said. “Go elsewhere in the Arab world and you find only demolishers. In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. In Egypt, they only just saved their necks.” Then, in lieu of questions (this forum’s existential weakness), he screened an infomercial for Falconcity, some real-estate folly with a fake Paris, a fake New York, and—because those bombastic builders can’t help but envy those bad-ass demolishers—a fake Beirut. Appalling, I thought. “Scandalous,” said a curator beside me. “And please, they’ve demolished plenty in Kuwait,” said an artist (from Kuwait) behind us. Saving that fumble was a formidable session on the fourteenth-century scholar Ibn Khaldun, where Shuddhabrata Sengupta of the Raqs Media Collective very delicately turned Moosa’s talk around to consider the day laborers and construction workers who did (and still do) the actual, back-breaking building on the ground.

On Thursday, Documenta reigned supreme. On Friday, I wondered: How’s business? Dealers across the board told me it had been quiet and slow, with a lot of works on reserve but few confirmed sales. “On the first day, it was like selling bread,” said one. “But we haven’t sold anything since then.” Several gallery owners told me they’d sold nothing from their booths but had made sales from their stock. Institutional interest had been high, particularly in the modern section. “But it takes time,” said one dealer who has been participating in Art Dubai for seven years. “You have to stick it out.” “The big curators came by,” said another, name-checking Obrist, Enwezor, and Tate Modern director Chris Dercon. “They are friends. We have a nice chat. But the curiosity of the younger curators is less.” She paused. Did it make any sense to use the energy of those curators as indicators of the fair’s success or failure? Why had their curiosity waned? Had the promise of emerging markets dimmed in Art Dubai’s time, coinciding as it has with the fall of the BRICs and the MINTs, the rise of the Fragile Five, and troubled economies all around? “It couldn’t last,” the dealer said finally. “The fashion for art from these parts of the world had to end.” And in her voice, I thought I heard something that sounded like relief.

Left: Dealers Umer Butt and Hetal Pawani. Right: Artist Abbas Akhavan.

Left: Artist Rokni Haerizadeh. Right: Traffic’s Rami Farook and Nina Trojanovic.

Left: Whitechapel Gallery curator Omar Kholeif. Right: Artists Anup Mathew Thomas and Bouchra Khalili.

Left: Dealer Sayantan Mukhopadhyay. Right: Curator Mayssa Fattouh and architect Adib Dada.

Left: Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Right: Forum Fellows Ania Szremski, Azar Mahmoudian, Yasmina Reggad, and Amanda Abi Khalil.

Left: Curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Adam Szymczyk, Okwui Enwezor, and Catherine David. Right: Art Dubai director Antonia Carver. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

Left: Artist Rodney McMillian with writer Ntone Edjabe. Right: Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme with dealer Andreé Sfeir-Semler and curator Jean-Marc Prévost.

Left: Curator and Forum Fellows lead tutor Tirdad Zolghadr. Right: Artists Amina Menia, Ruanne Abou-Rahme, and Basim Magdy.

Left: Asia Art Archive’s Hammad Nasar and art historian Salwa Mikdadi Right: Writer and historian Marina Warner with Global Art Forum codirector Omar Berrada.

Left: Hammer Museum curator Aram Moshayedi with artist Fereydoun Ave. Right: New Museum curator Natalie Bell.

Left: Outside Art Dubai Modern. Right: Writer and Global Art Forum commissioner Shumon Basar.

Left: Carnegie International curator Tina Kukielski with MoMA curator Eva Respini. Right: Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick with MACBA director Bartomeu Marí.

Left: Artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective. Right: Art Dubai Projects curator Fawz Kabra with artist Mounira al-Solh.

Left: Dealers Conor Macklin and Charles Moore of London’s Grosvenor Gallery. Right: Artist, curator, and Global Art Forum codirector Ala Younis with playwright Sulayman al-Bassam.

Left: Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan with Abraaj Group Art Prize curator Nada Raza. Right: Dealer Claudia Cellini of the Third Line in Dubai with artist Payam Sharifi of Slavs and Tatars.

Left: Michèle Lamy and fashion designer Rick Owens. Right: Sharjah Art Foundation deputy director Reem Shadid, Sharjah Museums department director general Manal Ataya, and Sharjah Art Foundation director Hoor al-Qasimi.