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Art Dubai returned this March with its eleventh edition. With ninety-four galleries from forty-three countries, this edition promised to be the most globally inclusive yet. When I last reviewed this fair in 2014, I appreciated its foregrounding of marginal perspectives, with art from Nigeria, Syria and Iran. Art Dubai, aware of its key position within the Middle East region, kept its gallery list short and its vision trained on key non-profit projects, the fair always emphasising its level of inclusion. Especially rewarding was the Marker section that served as an introduction to countries and even entire regions beyond the dominating Euro-American ambit. However, Marker has been scrapped. When questioned about this absence at the Press Conference, Director Myrna Ayad responded that since this year’s edition was satisfactorily global, there was no longer a need for such a section. After all galleries from Peru, Algeria and Uruguay were participating for the first time. So, in other words, when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.
Marker was officially described as a ‘curated programme which focuses […] on a particular theme or geography […] to exemplify the fair’s role as a site of discovery and cross-cultural exchange, […] a feature of Art Dubai’s extensive not-for-profit programming’. It was a subsidised section initiated in 2011. The organisers did much service by presenting artists, artist-run spaces, foundations, and a handful of galleries (often times functioning within weak cultural-economic infrastructures) that cannot afford participating at fairs. Further, Marker was executed without a whiff of exoticism. Experienced curators familiar with the country or region were invited to hand-pick art spaces that, however nascent, deserved recognition, visibility, and grounds for networking and funding opportunities on Dubai’s all-inclusive turf. The fair thus delivered on the promise of Dubai as a strategic geographic and economic hub that warrants the attention of audiences and institutions from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Europe and beyond. Over five years, the range of practices and operating models from Indonesia, West Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus, Latin America, and the Philippines, respectively, has been noteworthy. When I spoke to the curator of the 2013 edition, Bisi Silva, (Founding Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos), she mentioned the project’s overwhelmingly positive impact.
The fact that for the first time an African region other than North Africa was being featured prominently, made Marker pioneering and innovative. The public response to art from West Africa was tremendous. As for our commercial success, one of the organisations sold over eighty percent of artworks they presented. A record by any standard. Four years on, people still come up to me to say how much they enjoyed the exhibition.
Though it is no surprise that Art Dubai wants to prioritise its commercial aspects as any other business enterprise would, the extinguishing of Marker and the conversations that bubbled around it, may or may not be a loss. Silva did not mourn the demise as she hoped this would mean an opportunity for something else to take its place.
Back at the press conference, as I listened to Ayad’s response, I wondered about the next most extensive non-profit sphere of inclusion that Art Dubai has—the Global Art Forum (GAF). Since 2007, GAF has brought together numerous individuals from various fields beyond the art world to engage in spontaneous conversations. I asked its long-time commissioner, Shumon Basar, how GAF has been a successful catalyst in sparking unlikely partnerships and critical collaborations over the years. Basar replied, ‘Partnerships?! Like marriages…and stuff? A lot of people have fallen in love under that tent’. He asked me to clarify my question. I gave an example of our lack of cultural mobility within South Asia—our travel privileges and potential creative collaborations, afflicted by political whims for decades. I elaborated, ‘curators and artists from Pakistan cannot travel freely to Bangladesh and vice versa. How then does Dubai and GAF become this neutral zone where we can come and engage with one another?’
Over a decade, GAF has no doubt been in an influential position to inspire offshoot initiatives within the UAE and Gulf-region. These are the sort of events that push an ordinary fair into something more meaningful; a forum that takes into account shared histories and common struggles across geographic zones, and likely catalyses words into collective action. But beyond the backslapping intellectual club of self-indulgent artists, economists and historians, what is to be made of a platform so prominent, whose commissioner thinks of partnerships in a such a limited manner? Unfortunately, his long-winded response did not reveal anything that would indicate the potency of creative dialogue to overcome national barriers.
This year’s forum centred on trade, which on paper was a concept worth exploring. But after patiently sitting through a few sessions, it became clear whom this platform served. And readers can safely estimate the depth of conversations echoing within the famous GAF love-tent. Migrant workers rights anyone?
The fair’s other influential sphere is Art Dubai Modern. Tehran to Tunis, this section offered audiences an opportunity to look closely at historical currents outside of Euro-American Modernism. Among fifteen galleries vetted by Art Dubai, Gallery One from Ramallah presented artworks by cultural practitioner Sliman Mansour (b.1947), and Tafeta (London) exhibited works by Nigerian artists Ben Osawe (1931-2007) and Muraina Oyelami (b.1940). While navigating through Modern, I thought how incredible it was that the market should open avenues for writing art history anew. Realistically, however, the market-fair-ground is an uncritical space. On what basis were these artworks being shown, in what sense were they significant in their own contexts, and why must we take only the dealer’s word for it?
Seeing numerous artworks and gauging emerging artistic narratives from various regions in the absence of historical, socio-political contexts was troubling. I asked Dr. Iftikhar Dadi, who informally led a tour through Modern, if it concerned him that these works were being received in a commercial space for the first time rather than in an institutional sphere, where there would be an obligation to produce supportive scholarship. He invoked the example of an obscure artist whose canvases would have deteriorated in some basement if it were not for the interest of the art market.
I realised later that Dr. Dadi sits on the board of Art Dubai Modern that vets galleries for participation, alongside Catherine David. I raised the question of the co-option of scholars and curators by commercial forces to a panel of dealers at the ‘Modern Symposium’, held off-site in Al Serkal Avenue. There was no acknowledgement of how problematic this could be.
You decide what art the museum collects and exhibits—under the influence of a cartel of multinational art galleries and auction houses who manipulate and define today’s art market.
Guerilla Girls, ‘The Advantages of Owning Your Own Art Museum’, 2016
It was as if my inner thoughts had escaped and manifested into a booming female voice that interrupted our tour. I broke from our group to gingerly enquire if this was a scheduled performance or a renegade intervention in progress. As it turned out, artist Manuel Pelmuş had conceived Private Collection (2017) as an ‘ongoing action’ asserting its presence right in the midst of the booths, as opposed to external public space. His performers recited captions of artworks that have disappeared from the public realm, many possibly languishing at free-ports in Singapore or Switzerland, and at least one painting by an Egyptian master, which is believed to be destroyed. Thereupon, these young women attempted to release the memory of disappeared artworks into the public domain by adopting different postures evocative of forms and figures in the named artworks. Pelmuş’s subversive occupation of the commercial-sphere that so pronounced issues of cultural ownership and financial speculation, was unnerving to say the least. According to Pelmuş, some galleries did not appreciate this action-performance. ‘A certain dealer even called upon the directors of the fair requesting security to remove us, even though we were permitted to be there. He claimed that our presence ruined one of his sales.’ Apparently, Pelmuş’s action had sown doubt in the mind of a buyer, within a system so fragile that a mere hint of art-as-potential money-laundering surrogate could burst the market-bubble. Private Collection was one of five specially commissioned performances by guest curator Yasmina Reggad under Art Dubai Commissions, and it reminded me of why I appreciated Art Dubai on previous visits. Through such non-profit initiatives, this fair should continue to welcome bold creative responses that challenge opaque machinations of the art world, that dare to lift the veil concealing its taboos and conflicts.
Outside the fair, Al Serkal Avenue offered much rigour through conversation-forums and thoughtful exhibitions. Two that stood out were Salvation featuring Sara Rahbar at Carbon 12, and Inside the Fire Circle by Mounir Fatmi at Lawrie Shabibi. Salvation ran counter to Rahbar’s refreshing forthrightness. While the artist herself was overtly questioning and a pleasure to converse with, her sculptural works were subdued yet complex critiques of allegiance to nation, military, and the incalculable human loss wrought by physical and psychological destruction, the consequences never far from home.
The exhibition at Lawrie Shabibi was even more unsettling, as Fatmi creatively responded to the life of the white American civil rights activist, John Howard Griffin. Through a set of ten singular portrait-shots of the activist, transitioning light to dark in gray-scale, Fatmi responds, in particular, to Griffin’s autobiography Black Like Me. Published in 1961, Griffin documented the discriminations and rejections that he faced first-hand after undergoing experimental treatments that turned his skin from white to dark enough to pass off as a black man seeking employment. Fifty-six years since Griffin’s publication, we have circled back to the same juncture where we must urgently consider our own positions on race and privilege.
A third show worth mentioning, simply because it makes the case for Dubai as a neutral hub for inclusive dialogue, was the Pakistani exhibition Sleepless Constellations at the Indian gallery 1 x 1. Curated by Salima Hashmi, daughter of the famed poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, she showcased the oeuvre of multi-generation artists from Pakistan. Hashmi kindly indulged me with a no-holds barred conversation on the ongoing Indo-Pak border tensions, their impact on our cross-border mobility that immeasurably hampers our engagement with one another, in turn disabling us from exhibiting and discussing art-practices from either country. Dubai, however, had instantly dissolved our borders. And this is the advantage that Art Dubai must acknowledge and seize, and not just for India and Pakistan.
Manuel Pelmuş, Public Collection of Modern Art, 2017. Actors performing at Art Dubai ‘Modern’ section. Art Dubai ‘Commissions’ 2017. Courtesy Manuel Pelmuş and Alexandra Pirici.
Sara Rahbar, Unraveling, 2016. Bronze and collected object, 53 x 20 x 9cm. Courtesy the artist and Carbon 12, Dubai.
Sara Rahbar, Flag 53, Shelter Me, 2016. Mixed media, 155 x 112 cm. Courtesy the artist and Carbon 12, Dubai.
Mounir Fatmi, Inside the Fire Circle. Installation view, Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai.