Abu Dhabi Art 2021 promises plenty of opportunities for change after the pandemic

The event runs from November 17 to 21, with a year-round programme of talks and installations

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The halls of Manarat Al Saadiyat have been repopulated with artists, gallerists, curators and visitors as Abu Dhabi Art returns to a physical format this year.

Taking place from November 17 to 21, the art fair remains intimate and navigable in scale, with 49 galleries participating in 2021, 14 of which are new, and a number of non-commercial curated sections.

“It’s been a challenging year for many,” said Dyala Nusseibeh, the fair’s director. "It’s been a march towards completely unexpected consequences from the pandemic, and so it’s all the more meaningful to have this moment to come together."

More than 600 artworks are on display in booths across three galleries in Manarat Al Saadiyat. Regional galleries such as Agial Art Gallery from Beirut have returned despite the difficulties gripping Lebanon with works from sculptor Muatasim Alkubaisy, while Galerie Le Violon Blue from Tunisia has a large-scale painting by Iraqi artist Abdalrazzak Sahli.

Among the standout booths is Athr Gallery from Jeddah, showcasing ink on paper works by Yemeni artist Sara Abdu, collages by Saudi artist Mohammed Al Faraj and mixed media pieces by Lebanese-British artist Aya Haidar.

Athr is also presenting Haidar’s installation piece Highly Strung, produced out of a durational body of work in which the artist stitched acts of invisible labour, such as “ironed”, “baked birthday cakes” and “dusted books” – often done by women and mothers – onto children’s clothing for 365 days. At Abu Dhabi Art, the clothes have been hung on washing lines as a physical reminder of these unseen, unrecognised domestic duties.

A number of galleries from the UAE are also taking part, including Carbon 12, with a selection of architectural wooden sculptures by Sarah Al Mehairi; The Third Line, which features works by Farah Al Qasimi, Jordan Nassar and Farhad Moshiri; Salwa Zeidan, which has an eye-catching installation of assembled sculptures by Hussain Sharif; and Green Art Gallery, with works by Michael Rakowitz, Elias Zayat and Chaouki Choukini.

Meanwhile, Lawrie Shabibi has dedicated its booth to Iraqi artist Mehdi Moutashar’s mesmerising geometric works, while Custot Gallery is showcasing paintings by Etel Adnan, who died this week in Paris.

Elsewhere, galleries from East Asia and South Asia have also set up their booths, with Artside Gallery, Gallery Lee & Bae and Gallery Tableau from South Korea, and The Guild, Exhibit320, Gallery Espace, Galerie Isa and Threshold Art Gallery from India.

From Europe, Galleria Continua from Italy has a mixed selection of Shilpa Gupta, Anish Kapoor, Nikhil Chopra and JR, while first-timer Colnaghi from the UK has an impressive selection of Christo’s preparatory sketches for his large-scale artworks, including the Abu Dhabi Mastaba.

One of the highlights of Abu Dhabi Art 2021 is Simon Njami’s curated section Kind of Blue, which aims to bridge the gap between Africa and Middle East.

Speaking to The National, Njami explained how he brought the galleries and artists together for his section, the title of which is a reference to a Miles Davis jazz album. The curator compared organising the presentation with developing a piece of music with different voices and instruments.

“What ties them all together is that they’re trying to find a new language, but nobody can say, just by looking at their works, that it is African. Yet they are all of African origin,” he says.

Kind of Blue includes works by Bili Bidjocka, a Cameroonian artist living in France who employs symbols from Greek ruins as a kind of a syllabary. His beaded embroidery works, shown by Galerie MAM, allude to a contemporary mythology that the artist creates.

At Sabrina Amrani Gallery from Spain, there are the detailed works of Tunisian artist Nicene Kossentini, whose minimalist works of overlapping Arabic script consider ideas of visibility and invisibility, along with pieces by Joel Andrianomearisoa from Madagascar made from the fabric of scarves owned by his grandmother. “Andrianomearisoa works with memory, with nostalgia, but he is also seeking for a lost paradise,” Njami said.

Other artists in Kind of Blue include Afri Art Gallery from Kampala’s presentation of Charlene Komuntale and Richard Atugonza, who are both playing with the creation and dissolution of identities, and Abdoulaye Konate, represented by Primo Marella Gallery from Italy.

According to Njami, Konate, who is from Mali, is “trying to revamp an ancient myth of Mali on a conceptual and formal level” by going back to the tradition of textile in Mali and using fabric as a way to paint.

The pandemic has brought around many changes, and also opportunities, such as the change to better digitally
Dyala Nusseibeh, Abu Dhabi Art director

For Njami, the concerns confronted by artists in Kind of Blue have particular resonance to the region as well, as new countries such as the UAE are seeking to establish their place in the world. “For a certain period of time, this region has been focusing on the West, which I could translate as a kind of ‘complex’, thinking that it is the ultimate model,” he said. “This is something important that Africa is dealing with – the notion of identity in contemporary times. How can I translate this modernity into contemporaneity?”

Another must-see at Abu Dhabi Art 2021 is the Beyond: Emerging Artists section, curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, who also curated the UAE National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019.

The duo have been involved in the local art scene for years. In putting this recent exhibition together, Bardaouil highlighted the individuality of each artist’s practice within the region, as they defy generalisations of art from the Gulf. “There is no narrative that can define or put into a particular box the art of a particular region. It boils down to the individual, to the person, and to the specific context in which they think and work, as well as the opportunities that trigger their practices,” he said.

The artists for Beyond are Hashel Al Lamki, Maitha Abdalla and Christopher Benton, who have each presented an immersive project that deals with complex Gulf histories, geographies and folktales.

Al Lamki’s Neptune, for example, is an otherworldly presentation of sculptures and paintings, showing the artist’s experimentation with material, including discarded batteries, popcorn and stickers. His canvases show abstracted landscapes, some shimmering with glitter, others lush with dark foliage.

Abdalla’s project, painted pink as a reference to the colour of her childhood bathroom, expands on her fascination with Emirati folklore and the use of performance, shown via video documentation, to understand ritual and the body.

Meanwhile, Benton’s The World Was My Garden uses the date palm as a starting point to delve into lesser-known histories of the slave trade in East Africa and the Gulf, as well as the cultivation of the product in the US.

Overall, the fair, which also has a virtual counterpart, returns as part of a rise in reopenings in the art world over the last year. Nusseibeh acknowledged how the pandemic has shifted the way galleries think about art fairs, with dealers becoming more selective and strategic about where to travel and which events to participate in.

“The pandemic has brought around many changes, and also opportunities, such as the change to better [online presence].”

Abu Dhabi Art will take place from November 17 to 21 at Manarat Al Saadiyat. More information is at abudhabiart.ae

Updated: November 16, 2021, 11:33 AM