Abu Dhabi Art, which has just opened at Manarat Al Saadiyat, feels special for a reason not to do with the quality of the artworks. With the emirate easing Covid-19 safety restrictions, visitors seem thrilled to see art – and one another – in person.
“Art connects us, brings us closer and makes life have a deeper meaning. We missed this during Covid,” said Dubai artist Patricia Millns at the fair's VIP party on Tuesday. “Abu Dhabi Art tonight brought us back together in person to experience, with fellow collectors and patrons, that joy.”
There were fewer international visitors to the preview days, which contributed to a sense of family that has grown up around the fair. Though art fairs tend to operate as globally orientated events, drawing in outside galleries and collectors, Abu Dhabi Art and the exhibitions that are opening alongside it this year emphasise a local longevity.
The fair’s Beyond section, curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath – long-time habitués of the UAE – shows three artists familiar to the UAE circuit and to the fair itself: Maitha Abdalla, Hashel Al Lamki and Christopher Benton. All three are Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship alumni, and Abdalla and Al Lamki are members of the former Bait 15, having shown frequently in the capital.
The city itself is on view: in a series of videos at the fair by Mays Albaik, a Palestinian artist born in Abu Dhabi, the urban fabric of the "on-island" city sidles its way into the rarefied Manarat Al Saadiyat space. Albaik is also presenting work at Louvre Abu Dhabi’s inaugural Art Here exhibition, its selection of works for the $50,000 prize with the watchmaker Richard Mille.
A particularly popular stretch of the fair is the aisle that houses most of the Alserkal Avenue galleries – rather like in a mall, one visitor observed, in which all the different types of shops are grouped together. The focus here is on local artists, such as Vikram Divecha at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Sarah Almehairi at Carbon 12 and Farah Al Qasimi at The Third Line.
The exception was Green Art Gallery, which brought two stunning works by Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, as well as modern pieces by Syrian painter Elias Zayat and French-Lebanese sculptor Chaouki Choukini.
The younger works are almost Art Dubai choices for the fair – operating at a lower price-point than Abu Dhabi Art usually offers, and earnestly reflecting the contemporary: all made during and immediately after the period of restrictions on movement, evidenced by the investment of time, labour and attention.
Alserkal Avenue has recently won praise for its support for its galleries, whose business was initially strongly affected by the pandemic. Hovering around the Dubai aisle at the fair, the patron of the Avenue, Abdelmonem Alserkal, highlighted the importance of supporting emerging artists.
“It was heartening to see friends and colleagues from across the region and beyond come together for Abu Dhabi Art, which plays a crucial role within the UAE’s arts ecosystem," he says. "The fair showcases some of the region’s foremost artists, including some represented by Alserkal Avenue galleries, and also champions local, emerging talent.”
In the Beyond section, other visitors traded gossip about new opportunities coming down the line for UAE cultural producers, particularly now that construction and hiring is under way for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
Rumours of new galleries setting up shop in Dubai also floated down the corridors.
Looking at the pace of future programming, the Covid-19 lesson that we all need to slow down feels like a New Year’s resolution that’s already been furtively dropped. Alserkal Avenue’s collaborations with Expo 2020 Dubai; Warehouse421’s performance symposium and discursive plans in the works; the gearing up again of the Saadiyat Museums project – a lot of pent up energy is rearing into view.
This year’s Abu Dhabi Art, with its Covid-19 restrictions and home town feel, feels like the calm before the storm: the last gasp of the good intentions of the pandemic, when everyone simply feels happy to see each other once again, ahead of what will no doubt be a busy year.
See more photos of Abu Dhabi Art here: