First look: What's there and who's at the Art Dubai 2024 contemporary section

With the stage almost set for the fair's return, The National tours one of its most popular sections

Brandon Tay’s 3D model at Art Dubai. The artist imagines what would happen if species' DNA was crossed. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Art Dubai is back this week. Before it opens to the public on Friday, The National goes behind the scenes for a sneak peek at what to expect.

Hours before previews begin on Thursday, the stage is almost set for the 17th year. This is especially true of the contemporary and Bawwaba sections.

The latter is dedicated to the concept of artistic healing. It features 10 solo exhibitions and feature works created in the past year.

Curated by Emiliano Valdes, chief curator of the Medellin Museum of Modern Art, Colombia, the pieces span various mediums and styles. Yet they all revolve around the idea of healing, from personal and spiritual perspectives, as well as in social and political contexts.

Blueprint 12, for instance, highlights the works of Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai. The Indian artist, who lived in Afghanistan before moving to Germany in the wake of the Taliban takeover, is presenting a series of paintings inspired by a garden in Kabul, where women would congregate to discuss everything from social issues to political thought.

“While [most] gardens were only open to women and children once a week, there was this one garden that was only for women," Ridhi Bhalla, co-founder of Blueprint 12, says. "She used to often go there with a journal. It was the one place you’d see women unwind and talk."

The works are dedicated to the memories the artist has of that garden. They are made with paper mache. With two-dimensional depictions of cypress and fig trees, presented along with pale gold and black designs on top of the natural hue of the paper, the artworks are mesmerising. Some feature silhouettes of a woman, presumably Ahmadzai herself, alongside floral patterns.

“From a poetic sense, visiting the garden, hearing stories from other women, it became a healing process to actually engage in these works,” Bhalla says.

Nika Project Space, on the other hand, is presenting a sprawling installation by Palestinian artist Mirna Bamieh. Sour Things: The Kitchen touches on fermenting practices in Palestine and the wider region. With jars of pickling vegetables displayed on a kitchen counter, the work presents a metaphor between the process of fermenting and healing or, as the Nika Project Space puts it, “the deep-seated desire for control in the face of worldly uncertainties".

The contemporary section, meanwhile, is hosting 70 gallery booths representing countries and artists from the UAE, Palestine, India and Lebanon, to name a few. The section provides insight into specificities, trends and practices that are unfolding in different parts of the world.

Yeo Workshop from Singapore is presenting an exhibition of six artists from South-East Asia. The artists span several generations, presenting new twists to age-old crafts or imagining new frontiers to art that combine the physical and digital realms.

Citra Sasmita’s embroidery Realm of Nothingness, for instance, reflects on Hindu scriptures and artworks. Featuring exclusively figures of women, the Balinese artist tacitly points out that many of the traditional works are bereft of female representation.

“Citra is an emerging artist, and she’s currently showing at the Diriyah Biennale in Saudi Arabia,” Charmaine Kok, gallery associate at Yeo Workshop, says. “A lot of the paintings that she references, as well as the Hindu scriptures, mainly only depict men and their heroic stories. But where are the women? She's including women in those narratives.”

The embroidery is a departure from the paintings that Sasmita is known for, but that is the reason that Kok said Yeo Workshop sought to bring it to Art Dubai.

Realm of Nothingness is in harmony with its adjacent work, a textile piece by Santi Wangchuan. The Thai artist reflects on the traditions of weaving nets.

Kok adds: “It’s kind of dying craft and he’s one of the last people trying to protect it and is teaching people to continue to use traditional techniques.”

The work is vibrant with colour and features dangled interwoven synthetic materials. “He uses recycled clothing that he got from his neighbourhood,” Kok says.

Among the most arresting works at the booth is Brandon Tay’s Model B: Orchid Mantis, a 3D-printed sculpture that blends the forms of an orchid and a mantis. The artwork is also fitted with an LCD that features a dynamic video loop. The Orchid Mantis is one of several characters Tay has created, each with their own Wikipedia page that dives into their intersecting stories. “He's thinking of what happens if we cross the DNA of different species,” Kok says. “This digital element in the middle, the video, is almost like the spirit of the creature.”

From Ramallah, Gallery One is presenting the works of two Palestinian artists. From Samira Badran, there is a range of paintings she created in the 1970s and layered video works she produced in more recent years.

“The video art will be displayed alongside the sketches she produced for the work,” George Al Ama, of Gallery One, says. “Between the oil paintings and etchings, as well as the video, visitors will have a comprehensive understanding of her output.”

The gallery is also presenting a series of contemporary works by Manal Mahamid, which show the artist’s tendency to use symbolisms such as cactus fruit and the gazelle to address the struggles Palestinians face against Israeli violence and erasure.

“One of her main motifs is the Palestinian gazelle,” Al Ama says. “There was a huge effort for the animal to be listed in the official flora and fauna encyclopedia as the Palestinian gazelle. It is, after all, its official name in Latin. The Israelis tried to have it renamed as the Israeli gazelle.”

The gazelles are painted in various styles. Mahamid also represents the animal in sculptural form. Deconstructed into pieces, the work touches on how the gazelle was subject to various conflicting interpretations and transformations. Mahamid’s newer body of work, referencing the cactus fruit, or the sabbar, is also displayed, alluding to the fruit’s symbolism of resilience for Palestinians.

Athr Gallery presents works by a Palestinian artist who recently acquired Saudi citizenship. Ayman Yossri Daydban often reflects on notions of identity with his works, recontextualising images, posters and other mediums with subtitles, cutouts and other artistic interventions.

“Earlier in his life, he moved to Jordan [from Palestine] and then moved to Saudi Arabia, living in Jeddah for most of his life. He’s still based in Jeddah,” Ola Sephiran, of Athr Gallery, says. “His work revolves around the sense of belonging, looking for his own identity.”

A series of vintage film posters is on display. By cutting out various strips, it aims to evoke notions of censorship, as well as public interaction. A stainless steel sculpture, meanwhile, is bent and reshaped, using a heat gun to imply the stripes and triangle of the Palestinian flag.

Colombian artist Miler Lagos also utilises various media to evoke new meanings. The artist’s work was brought to the fair by Bogota’s Galeria Espacio Continuo. Among the artworks are two large circular pieces crafted using newspapers and magazine clippings, in a pattern that alludes to the rings of a tree.

“The rings of the tree, they contain the memory of the earth,” Katerine Hernandez, the gallery’s director, says. “We used to believe that the newspaper was a container of human memory. Of course, now with fake news, it is a different story.”

Lagos often refers to the human relationship with the natural environment in his works and often uses paper to highlight that connection, which is often an antagonistic one.

The large works are at the centre of the booth, made of crumbled paper and coloured and coated with epoxy resin, which is poisonous if its fumes are inhaled. The works look at how humans have come to view water as a commodity, polluting and reckless using it.

Art Dubai runs at Madinat Jumeirah from Friday to Sunday

Updated: February 29, 2024, 10:00 AM