Abu Dhabi Art gears up for Saadiyat fair opening

After the official opening bash, the capital's annual art fair gets into full swing with an international list of exhibitors taking part.
Martin Creed’s Work No. 1267, 2011  can be seen at the Hauser & Wirth exhibition as part of Abu Dhabi Art.
Martin Creed’s Work No. 1267, 2011 can be seen at the Hauser & Wirth exhibition as part of Abu Dhabi Art.

Leading collectors, artists and exhibitors are heading to Saadiyat Island this evening as the capital’s art fair kicks off for its third year.

Following a lavish VIP bash tonight, Abu Dhabi Art (ADA) will open its doors to the public tomorrow. The 50 exhibiting galleries hope to catch the eye of the Gulf’s healthy collector base as well as of the acquisitions teams buying for Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim-to-be.

After two years based in the Emirates Palace hotel, the art fair now shifts to Abu Dhabi’s in-construction cultural district. ADA is based between Manarat Al Saadiyat, an arts venue on the island, and the pavilion that housed the UAE’s participation at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. This glittering, wavelike building was designed by Foster+Partners and has been reconstructed, panel by panel, on the island.

For 2011, representatives of galleries from Hong Kong, New York, Tunis, Dubai, Dublin and beyond are heading to the UAE capital. Some are returning, others are newcomers; but in an attempt to carve out an identity in a region positively blooming with art fairs (the MENASA Art Fair took place in Beirut over the summer and Art Dubai ­returns in March), “international” is fast becoming ADA’s tagline.

“We try to avoid this split between notions of international, regional and local,” says Rita Aoun Abdo, the executive director of the Tourism Development and Investment Company’s cultural department, the body behind the fair.

“We try as much as possible to create a vibrant art scene that celebrates the multicultural nature of the UAE capital and its place as a platform of exchange. This, I feel, is the identity of Abu Dhabi Art – you cannot describe it as a local or regional fair.”

A notable first-timer to Abu Dhabi Art is the UK’s Lisson Gallery, a high-profile outfit that represents several contemporary big hitters, including the likes of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the performance artist Marina Abramovich and Haroon Mirza. Lisson was notably absent from Art Dubai’s line-up of galleries earlier this year, so its return to the region is welcomed.

Several big names have signed up for another year: Larry Gagosian – a vocal advocate of the event and a seasoned exhibitor – is back, his gallery on Madison Avenue home to a stable of 20th-century masters such as Joseph Beuys, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and Roy Lichtenstein. Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac’s selection includes work by the British sculptor Antony Gormley (of Angel of the North fame), while Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont returns with several pieces by the American post-pop art star Jeff Koons, who will, no doubt, be hanging around Abu Dhabi throughout the week.

But for all the internationalism that ADA hopes to convey, a number of galleries hailing from outside the region are dedicated to art from the Middle East. Rose Issa Projects, based in London, is one of Europe’s biggest exponents of Arab and Iranian art and makes its ADA debut this year.

“Every year we do a first and for us ADA is our first for 2011,” says Rose Issa, the director of the gallery. “I’ll support any art fair in the Arab world.”

Issa is confident about the pieces she’s bringing, and has several collectors from around the region flying in for opening night. On her booth are works by Farhad Ahrarnia, Selma Gürbüz, Fathi Hassan and Chant Avedissian, with whom the gallerist has worked with for the past 17 years. “He’s an Egyptian artist who has paid homage to all the elements of culture in his country – be that pharaonic, Islamic, Ottoman, socialist – as well as the thinkers, politicians and singers of the Arab world.”

Issa attended ADA 2010 as a visitor and remembers the event as “beautifully organised but a little isolated”. Her concerns lie in how accessible the event will be from Saadiyat and how much it can “mobilise” art to the public after opening night.

But the move to Saadiyat Island does signal phase two of the art fair as well as of the city’s cultural ambitions. As collections for both the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi grow, and a series of programmes over the past year has revealed the directions that both museums will take when they open to the public, connecting the art fair with these projects is something that the ADA team is keen to emphasise.

“The most important thing is not to see this as just an art fair but as two elements in harmony,” says Aoun Abdo. “We live in a commercial world and art is part of the wider economy; market is a key element in contemporary art and a good art fair should focus on the necessity on this relationship. But it’s important to engage with it symbiotically, and so the fair needs to be a vehicle to inspire and engage the audience to be part of a vibrant art scene and really live it as part of their daily life.”

The accompanying events programme has expanded significantly this year. Tairone Bastien, the public programmes manager, explains that in addition to a new section of film screenings and a modified version of the UAE’s participation in the Venice Biennale this year, the main drive is to get artists, curators and gallerists interacting with the public. To achieve a fast-paced, bouncy dialogue, 15-minute interviews will be taking place in the fair every evening: “These are casual, quick conversations with people who are participating in the fair. It’s a really good element that’s outside of the formal auditorium.” This will be bolstered by a programme of more heavyweight panel discussions between artworld luminaries.

Ultimately, a truly good art fair is an expression of the city that hosts it. Frieze is very London, Art Basel is very Basel. As Abu Dhabi itself attempts to carve out an identity and its place on the international art map, this art fair can and should become an engine for it.



Design gets a regular spotlight at Abu Dhabi Art and, following last year’s slightly bewildering pairing of emergent Emirati designers with the Brazilian duo the Campana Brothers, for 2011 it’s looking good.

The Emirati shoe designer Sultan Al Darmaki recently had one of his creations acquired by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Examples of Darmaki’s work will be on show as part of Design Studio, alongside work by numerous international furniture and fashion designers.

The National spoke to Rolf Sachs, one of Germany’s most influential designers, who was commissioned to create a table for Abu Dhabi Art by Leila Taghini-Milani Heller Gallery.

“The table has an oil surface, which gives an incredible feeling of flatness and depth,” says Sachs. “But underneath the table we have a membrane in the middle, which beats like a heartbeat and causes a slight wave to ripple over the oil surface.

“It’s always about trying to find new barriers to break through in design that are not decorative.”

Sachs exhibited a similar piece at the Milan Furniture Fair earlier this year. But, he says, this piece has a certain pertinence to the Gulf: “Oil is the heartbeat of the region.”


Abu Dhabi Art is open to the public on Saadiyat Island from November 16 to 19. Entry is free and workshops are Dh50 each. Call 02 657 5900 to book


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Published: November 15, 2011 04:00 AM


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