Art Dubai 2024 to put migrant experience and artistic healing in focus

City's landmark cultural showcase looks to uproot perceptions about what it means to be a migrant and act as a conduit to collective healing

The art fair will be taking place at Madinat Jumeirah between March 1 and 3. Pawan Singh / The National
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Art does not exist in a vacuum, and neither can an art fair.

Seventeen years on, Art Dubai has sought to stand by this edict, reflecting on the shifting concerns that resonate within the Middle East and the wider Global South.

This year's event will highlight art's role in nurturing hope and healing during a time of conflict – indirectly touching on the Israel-Gaza war. It will also focus on the impact of extreme weather as well as the migrant experience, exploring its mercurial perceptions of identity, belonging and culture.

These focal points come as part of the fair’s drive to stay rooted within its geography. This ambition has been a keystone philosophy for the event since its inception, Pablo del Val, artistic director of Art Dubai, tells The National.

“It has always been reflecting the DNA of the city,” Del Val says. “What’s the point of doing an art fair in this part of the world if you’re going to bring the same stuff you see in any fair?

"We try to reflect who the local communities are, what they are looking for, what is their state of mind, their aesthetics and beliefs and try to bring that.”

To identify these points, Del Val says regular conversations are held with players from across the local and regional community. A handful of the 100-plus galleries participating this year are making their debut as a result of talks that began eight years ago, around the time Del Val joined the Art Dubai team.

This year’s event will be taking place at Madinat Jumeirah between March 1 and 3 with previews being held on February 28 and 29. It will be hosting almost two dozen local galleries, a record number. The fair will also present works with a wider price range, from those that come from the upper tier of the art market to works by newcomers with more affordable price tags.

The strength of an art fair is its relationship with the local market, visitors and collectors, Del Val says. “And I think now it is super connected," he adds.

"No one living in Dubai will have a feeling that they are somewhere else [while at the fair], they will find someone who really addresses their daily life.”

Besides the strong local involvement, the fair will also have a robust representation from across the Global South, with 67 per cent of participating galleries hailing from there. Even galleries arriving from the US and Europe will be dedicating at least half of their booths to non-western artists, he says.

“This appeals to everyone,” Del Val says, adding that whether someone is from the West or the East, they want to come to Dubai to find artwork that no one else is offering.

The eclectic representation also attempts to uproot the Global South from connotations bound by geography. Instead, the artists and artworks that will be presented at the fair seek to underscore a much more fluid definition of the term, showing how it rings across the migrant experience. The galleries and artists taking part in Art Dubai and its many sections are yet to be revealed, but Del Val offered a sneak peek of what to expect.

“The Global South can be vague,” Del Val says. “Who are some of the most exciting French artists now? For me, they are the Maghrebis. For me, the outskirts of Paris can be the Global South. If you go to Los Angeles and you see all these youngsters in communities that don’t speak English, that is the Global South.

"It's the story of migration in the end. The goal is how to bring these cultures that have not been in the mainstream, who are dealing with non-western readings and histories, and are spread out around the world. I think this experience of being a migrant and surviving is something extremely exciting because we all go through that, and every Dubai resident goes through that."

As the selection of galleries aims to trace and redefine the concept of the Global South, the commissioned works within Art Dubai will try to address a reality of the region that cannot be ignored. It's now more than 100 days since the conflict between Israel and Gaza began, with more than 24,000 killed. The war has had seismic repercussions across the region.

While Art Dubai is under no illusions that art can offer real-time solutions to crises such as the one unfolding in Gaza, and in many cases does not explicitly make the connection, the fair will be attempting to underline how modes of expression can help nurture an environment of healing and resolve during tumultuous times.

The fair’s Bawwaba section will be dedicated to artistic healing, exploring it across multiple facets. The section is curated by Emiliano Valdes, chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Medellin, Columbia. Bawwaba, meaning gateway, will comprise several exhibitions of artists from the Global South, with artworks made in the past year.

“The section is like a dialogue between Latin American artists and South Asian artists," Del Val says. "It discusses healing through different ways, from ancient times and how certain tribal rituals and concepts are reused in contemporary times. The idea of the shaman, the healer, how communities together will react towards adversity.”

The section will be presented in an area of Madinat Jumeirah that has never been part of the event before.

“You're going to see all 10 presentations in a circle, meaning that they are connected, they are facing each other,” explains Del Val. “And then in the centre is like a piazza. You can walk around and see the connections between one another. If you stand in the middle of the section, and you rotate yourself, you can do a perfect reading of what's going on.”

The section will also be an ad hoc stage for a commissioned programme. It will also deal with the concept of healing and will involve artists who are going to be performing and acting in engaging performances “that will invite visitors to heal”.

Art Dubai has also been working on bolstering its digital section. The pavilion will be returning for the third year and will be curated by Auronda Scalera and Alfredo Cramerotti, co-directors of Infinity Art Museum, the first museum in the metaverse.

The section will explore how technologies such as augmented and virtual realities, artificial intelligence and NFTs are impacting the art world. It also seeks to show that despite the novel means of creation and presentation, digital artworks aim to tap into much of the same aspects of art as their more traditional counterparts.

“It’s going to be full of immersives, full of mainstream artists that you may heard of and others that you will discover,” Del Val says.

He cites Krista Kim as an example. The Korean-Canadian artist will present Heart Space, a digital installation that will prompt visitors to form connections through their heartbeats. Each visitor will see their heartbeat rendered with mesmerising patterns on the installation’s LED canvas.

Kim’s Heart Space is not directly part of the digital pavilion but will be at the Julius Baer Lounge at Art Dubai. Yet, the spirit of the work reflects upon how the fair intends to present digital art that inflicts the senses all the same.

While the digital pavilion sets its sights forward, many of the talks at Art Dubai will be concerned with re-examining historical connections that have been scarcely explored.

The fair's Modern and Collector Talks, presented in collaboration with Dubai Collection, will explore the artistic connections spurned during the Cold War. Aimed at stepping away from western focal points, the conversations will examine how Soviet education initiatives and exhibitions influenced artists from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The talk is an aspect of Art Dubai Modern, which will be curated by Christianna Bonin, assistant professor of art history at the American University of Sharjah.

It will trace artistic connections that were established by artists from the region, such as from Syria and Iraq, who had gone to study in the Soviet Union.

“There is this entire story that isn't being told, which is, who are the ones that didn't go to the West?" Del Val explains. "Then you understand that people could go to these countries because there were policies, there were grants and there were relationships between certain states and the West. For example, between Lebanon and France.

"But what about if you were from Syria, Iraq, Mozambique or Uganda? You went to the Soviet Union, either Moscow or Kyiv. It's completely different to be educated looking at the Louvre or to be educated looking at the Hermitage [state museum in St Petersburg]. Understanding of these politics and all these cultural moments is fascinating.”

Finally, the fair’s flagship conference, Global Art Forum, will examine how extreme weather can lead to change across multiple frontiers, from the social and scientific to the cultural. The forum, curated by Shumon Basar and Nadine El Khoury, will take place on February 29 and March 1.

Speakers will include Stephanie Rosenthal, director of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi; Samir Bantal, director of the thinktank AMO at Rotterdam’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture; Anne Holtrop, founder of Bahrain architecture company Studio Anne Holtrop; and artists Monira Al Qadiri and Gabriel Alonso.

The full list of speakers, along with artists and galleries participating at Art Dubai, is expected to be revealed in the coming weeks.

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Updated: January 19, 2024, 8:50 AM