International artists, gallerists and creatives have descended on Manarat Al Saadiyat once again for Abu Dhabi Art, which opens on Wednesday at 5pm.
From Marrakesh to the metaverse, the event brings together a striking array of thoughtfully curated gallery sectors, workshops, talks and installations, transforming the capital into a captivating celebration of art.
This year, arriving at the event in the heart of Saadiyat Cultural District is a poignant experience, with views overlooking the Zayed National Museum, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Natural History Museum, which are all starting to take shape, as Louvre Abu Dhabi celebrates its fifth anniversary.
Rita Aoun, Executive Director of Culture at the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi, says the district shows Abu Dhabi’s commitment to creating thought-provoking intellectual and artistic platforms.
“Over the past 14 years, Abu Dhabi Art has been one of the key platforms of the Department of Culture and Tourism, and it has significantly supported the development of Abu Dhabi’s creative industries. How did it do it? By being a catalyst for nurturing and attracting artists, cultural practitioners, and creators," Aoun says.
“The way we try to do it is to have a curated programme across galleries, across public engagement, but also across artistic commissions.”
This year, Abu Dhabi Art features more than 80 galleries from 28 countries representing 300 artists, through 900-plus artworks. Abu Dhabi Art's Director Dyala Nusseibeh says this number is a huge leap. “This year, we've expanded enormously from what is normally around 50 galleries as an art fair, which is very small in terms of global fair, to 80 galleries, which is an incredible jump. And this in part is due to the participation and contribution of three amazing curators,” says Nusseibeh.
“This is the second time we've come together as a fair during and after the pandemic. And there's really a moment of people rejoicing and being able to see art first hand, although of course, the metaverse has expanded in this time."
Among the highlights is Focus: New Tomorrow, a collection of galleries and artists from across Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, curated by art historian and philosophy professor Rachida Triki. Triki tells The National she is really happy to be able to bring together works from across the region, which is something that has not been done for “many years”.
“I think it's a very good choice,” Triki says. “These galleries have chosen modern and contemporary artists, and for me the concept is to explain a short history of art in these countries.
“I chose the concept of New Tomorrows because when the three countries became independent, their local artists chose to create new ways to distinguish themselves from Orientalism or Exoticism, and construct new things for their countries.”
Among the galleries present is the French La La Land, which features artists from across North Africa, such as Slimen Elkamel, whose magic realist works leap to life across a sprawling 11-metre wall. La La Land’s general director, Ilyes Messaoudi, says the larger piece is on sale for $120,000, and points to another going for $80,000.
"He just finished this at the fair today," says Messaoudi. “It’s our first time here as a gallery, so I’m happy to be here.”
Meanwhile, in the auditorium, the UAE social enterprise 81 Designs and Moroccan artist Bouchra Boudoua showcase a series of embroidered ceramics. Titled Autumn Harvest, the collection of earthy ceramic pieces were produced by the artist together with local potters in Morocco, before being transported to to Ain Al Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon — where Palestinian refugees added embroidery using raffia fibre.
Another of this year’s guest curators, Jade Yesim Turanli, has created a gallery sector shedding spotlight on Turkish art. Explaining her approach, Turanli says: “I specifically picked the galleries that nurture their artists careers, and have a path towards the future.
“But other than that, they all have a global vision, and they're all open to creative platforms. And I believe one of the key missions of Abu Dhabi Art is creating platforms for dialogue and participation."
Turanli’s selection of art takes a decidedly global approach, which is reflected in the selection of galleries throughout the fair. On one hand, the UAE has a strong showing, with Salwa Zeidan Gallery selling a selection of installations and paintings by pioneering Emirati artist Hassan Sharif and Etihad Museum Art Gallery featuring striking works by Abdul Qader Al Rais, among others.
Elsewhere, Khalifa Gallery brings together a mystical selection of Egyptian artist Sayed Saad El-Din’s creations, while Seoul’s Keumsan Gallery hosts pop art depictions of Martin Luther King Jr and Kim Jong-un.
London’s Grosvenor Gallery has a collection of works by the Iranian master Parviz Tanavoli, dubbed the “father of modern Iranian sculpture”. Gallery director Charles Moore says: “It's a fun mixture of media basically, starting from very early 1960s copper sculpture, which is very rare to see, let alone in a commercial fair.
“There are also some ceramic works by him from the early 60s as well, and we move through some later bronzes, and then tapestries and rugs that were produced in the mid-70s, and 80s — which were done by regional weavers in Iran.
“Tanavoli made a series of screen prints, which were then sent out to these weavers. And then the designs were sort of carried out on old looms, in these villages and towns out in the countryside.”
Fellow director, Conor Macklin, adds: “In the 60s, like Warhol was doing with American images by bringing mass culture into his art, Tanavoli was doing the same thing in Iran using traditional images of lions and animals, like birds in cages, and things from local folklore and Iranian heritage — and bringing them into 60s and 70s pops of colour.”
The presence of so much modern and contemporary art from Iran, the Arab world and North Africa is telling. Earlier this month, Christie's announced it had raised $3 million through the sale of Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art. At the time, Christie's associate specialist of Middle Eastern Art, Suzy Sikorski, told The National: “There is a much larger volume of people that are interested in art for the Middle East, internationally.”
Moore says that there is a wider trend in the art world, where international museum curators are trying to include more artists of regional importance, especially within the context of the global mid-20th century.
Macklin adds: “I think what's happened is that we had the first wave of private collectors who are at the forefront, but now we're seeing a new wave of institutional buying. With that comes with the new selection of buyers as well. The first wave was modern, but also contemporary, because there was a euphoria about contemporary, but now there's like a second wave of modern and institutional art.
“I think what you have to remember is in the Gulf region, there's always demand for museums to be filled. And where do you start? Because there's a line between antiquities and in Iran they've got a huge history of antiquities; in some countries, they don't. But post-Second World War, you have all these artists that had a voice.”
Abu Dhabi Art also strives to support up-and-coming artists from the region who are finding their voices. Asides from the fair's Beyond: Emerging Artists programme, showcasing work by Sarah Al Mehairi, Majd Alloush and Mohamed Khalid — who all live in the UAE, Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation is also exhibiting the winning Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award submission for the first time ever.
Titled Urban Fabric, the series of four sculptures resembling pieces of thread were created by NYUAD students; Roudhah Al Mazrouei from the UAE, Gerald Jason Cruz from the Philippines and Jennifer Tsai from Taiwan.
While Manarat Al Saadiyat features a host of other galleries, workshops and talks, the fair stretches beyond Abu Dhabi, through the Artist Commissions in Historic sites programme, which enables international artists to showcase their work in some of the emirate’s most storied locations.
This year’s commissions include works by Abdullah Al Saadi, Marinella Senatore, Shilpa Gupta and Conrad Shawcross, who will have work shown in Al Ain, Al Hosn and Manarat Al Saadiyat.
Conrad Shawcross's work Patterns of Absence (Bb36D10) — Desert Beacon is on display at Al Ain Oasis. Reflecting the space and form of the desert, it is the latest of the artist’s explorations of light, filtered through a series of stained glass windows, activated by the sun. Formed of two slowly counter-rotating discs, each is filled with more than one hundred thousand holes, through which beams of sunlight flicker and dance.
Shawcross says he wanted to create a work that responded directly to the desert context. “I have never realised a work in this type of environment and so I was extremely excited to further explore the possibilities of this ultimate minimal space," he says. "I am happiest when working at scale, and with light, so the opportunity of responding to the vastness and intense light of the desert was extremely exciting."
Abu Dhabi Art will open to the public at Manarat Al Saadiyat at 5pm on Wednesday and run until November 20. Entry to this year’s event is free of charge. Tickets can be booked upon pre-registration via tickets.abudhabiart.ae