Art Dubai, which takes place from 16-19 March at the plush hotel Madinat Jumeirah, is pretty much like any other globally-rated art fair on the surface – rows of booths, sharp-suited male dealers and their Prada-clad counterparts, important collectors surrounded by just perceptible exclusion zones.
There are the usual silver sandals, high-end handbags and champagne stands galore. But what does set it apart is the origins of its participants. Don’t come here for the heavy hitters of the Western art world – though there are some of those on show in both gallery and artist terms. Do come instead for a voyage of discovery in a region where a differently-focused art world is beginning to take shape.
This year, Art Dubai celebrated its 10th birthday, and to its credit, didn’t make much of the fact. Instead, it put its best foot forward in terms of putting on a good show. While it could certainly have expanded hugely by now (there are, apparently, no shortage of dealers keen to take part) it has limited itself to 94 galleries. What matters is the 40 countries they come from, including cities from Accra to Vilnius, which can lead to some unexpected revelations.
Who’d have thought, for example, that one of my favourite pieces would come from Saudi Arabia at at the dynamic Athr Gallery based in Jeddah? But Saddek Wasil’s twisted metal figures set into found pieces of crumbling masonry (backed with beautiful tiles from Mecca) are wistful evocations of isolation and loss. Like many artists in the region, Wasil has a day job (he’s a doctor), and makes his art in his father’s garage in his downtime. It’s not Giacometti, for sure, but neither is the $4,200 (£2,900) price tag.
While the idea of censorship is always the elephant in the room in this region, there were no silver stickers this year (they’ve been used in the past to cover regionally inappropriate bits and pieces). Galleries are circumspect, of course; London’s Victoria Miro, for example, bringing exclusively non-figurative work by Idris Kahn and Kusama.
But The Third Line, Dubai’s oldest gallery, was happily showing the work of Youssef Nabil, who’s not known for pulling his punches. The Egyptian photographer’s hand-coloured work has Salma Hayek in full belly dancing regalia, casting a seductive spell over French actor Tahar Rahim, as well as Arab men in local dress (dish dash, Keffiyeh) pictured holding hands lovingly in a dreamy desert setting.
Over at Cairo’s young Gypsum Gallery there was another political reality in Mahmoud Khaled’s gloomy colour photographs of the interior of a once-grand, now dilapidated department store in Alexandria. They spoke of both Egypt’s colonial past, as well as its desperately uncomfortable present.
Istanbul’s Rampa gallery took a different angle. “People love decorative work in this region,” said a representative. We were standing in front of a large-scale work by Selma Gürbüz, a contemporary artist (born in Istanbul, trained in Exeter) of ink-blocked dancers in 18th-century dress on heavy Japanese paper. At $77,000, it was one of the more expensive pieces I’d seen, though prices at the exclusive Modern section of the fair (just 15 galleries) go rather higher. The Dubai-based Meem Gallery sold Faiq Hussan’s faintly Cubist Bedouin, an oil on wood painting made in 1950, on day one to an unspecified museum for $250,000.
OTA Fine Arts from Tokyo had decided to go for the big ticket pieces too. There were two works by Kusama on its stand – a large 2013 all black canvas with a paint-rippled surface, selling for $750,000 and a particularly showy pumpkin sculpture, Starry Night, covered all over with glittering mini mosaic tiles and with an asking price of $550,000. While that piece is what one might expect at Dubai, it was the proliferation of other quieter work that was the cause for celebration.