Art Dubai 2021 highlights: What to see and do as the fair returns with adapted format

From big-ticket items to a sculpture park, here's what not to miss at Dubai's biggest art fair

Hussain Sharif's 'Faces #2' will be on show at this year's Art Dubai. Courtesy Salwa Zeidan Gallery
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It is no surprise that Art Dubai 2021 is a rather different fair to its predecessors. Not only has it been adapted to meet Covid-19 guidelines with purpose-built structures in a new location, it has also scaled down.

With the number of participating galleries cut by almost half compared to previous years, Art Dubai will welcome 50 galleries this year, mostly from countries in the Global South. In addition, participating galleries have been charged a reduced fee, and, unlike the typical model, will pay a percentage towards it only after sales have been completed.

When it comes to programming, Art Dubai has dropped its usual curated sections and postponed its performances to 2022. However, it will still present its annual Campus Art Dubai show, which focuses on emerging artists, and will hold the Global Art Forum later this year.

Another new development for 2021 is the extended runtime for the fair, which will now last for six days instead of four. As Art Dubai begins on Tuesday, March 29, here are a few highlights from the galleries and fair's programme.

Hussain Sharif works on view

The brother of UAE contemporary art pioneer Hassan Sharif, Hussain was part of the same group of avant-garde artists that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. During that period, he also helped other artists develop their practices through workshops before moving on to a career in theatre design and as a cartoonist.

In his practice, Hussain has produced art that plays with materiality, scale and repetition, creating installations that feature discarded objects arranged on the floor. His body of work, however, has not been as widely shown as his brother’s.

For Art Dubai, Salwa Zeidan Gallery is showing a work from 2017 titled Faces #2. The installation comprises several food cans flattened and stripped of their labels, laid out on the floor. The artist has intervened with the material by cutting out holes to make the pieces appear as masks or faces.

Big-ticket art by Anish Kapoor, Yayoi Kusama and Rasheed Araeen

Anish Kapoor's 'Random Triangle Mirror', 2019. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua

Among the big-ticket items coming to Dubai this year are Anish Kapoor's Random Triangle Mirror from 2019 at Galleria Continua. The artist's concave mirrors are among his most recognisable creations, and other versions have appeared at Art Dubai previously. In 2018, one of Kapoor's mirrors (Pale Tangerine to Dark Purple) sold for more than $490,000 at Christie's.

In addition, Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Nets painting from 1997 will be on view at Custot Gallery's booth. Part of a series, these abstract works express Kusama's visions, as the artist saw the nets extending into the physical world, covering her surroundings. On the secondary market, Infinity Net paintings have fetched millions, specifically the monochromatic White No 28 from 1960 that sold for $7.1 million.

Norungi, a vibrant and geometric sculpture by Rasheed Araeen, a Karachi-born artist whose works have been shown at the Tate in London, is presented at Aicon Art, while a large-scale painting by Syrian artist Safwan Dahoul is on view at Ayyam Gallery's booth.

A new Sculpture Park in the DIFC

Dia Al Azzawi's 'White Obelisk' will be installed in DIFC for the fair's duration. Courtesy of Meem Gallery

Usually held at Madinat Jumeirah, Art Dubai has moved to the Dubai International Financial Centre this year, setting up purpose-built structures under Gate Avenue.

The plaza around the Gate Building will be transformed into a curated Sculpture Park with large-scale installations of different works on sale, including Dia Al Azzawi's White Obelisk, a totem-like sculpture that bears features of a human face, from Meem Gallery; Bernar Venet's towering 8 Acute Unequal Angles from Custot Gallery; and Costas Varotsos's Horizon from Giorgio Persano Gallery.

Ithra Art Prize 2020 unveiled

Fahad bin Naif, the Saudi Arabian artist who won the 2020 Ithra Art Prize. Courtesy the artist

Launched in 2017, the Ithra Art Prize recognises artists living in or from Saudi Arabia, with the winning work displayed at Art Dubai each year. With last year’s fair going virtual due to the pandemic, the Ithra Art Prize 2020 has not been displayed in public until now.

Architect and urban designer Fahad bin Naif is the recipient of the prize for his installation Rakhm, which translates to "incubation". Examining the environmental micro-economy in urban spaces, bin Naif has created a plant nursery modelled on those found in the kingdom, where native plants are grown.

The artist has specifically structured the nursery to be closed to visitors, so that viewers can only see the foliage from outside. By locking out the public, bin Naif offers commentary on our own relationship to nature, especially in the region, where the connection between human inhabitants and local plant-life has, at times, been severed.

Spotlight on video art

A rendering of the Art Dubai tents that will be erected at DIFC from March 29 to April 3. Art Dubai  

With its performance programme postponed, Art Dubai has focused on a film programme with 10 screening stations set up across the venue. It includes titles produced by more than 20 regional and international artists, including Ahaad Alamoudi, Jonathas de Andrade, Nikhil Chopra, Berkay Tuncay and Tsedaye Makonnen.

The video stations have been separated according to theme, which are reflected in the films shown. These categories range from Nature to Dystopias and from Journeys to Animations.

A specific station features the Art Dubai Portraits series, which was produced by the fair and shows interviews with various artists in their studios.

More galleries from the Global South

 Yayoi Kusama’s 'Infinity Nets' will be on view at Custot Gallery’s booth at this year's Art Dubai. Courtesy Custot Gallery Dubai and the artist

Over the years, Art Dubai has worked to establish itself as a hub for works from the Global South. Previous fairs have devoted sections to galleries from Latin America and Africa, for example. The trend seems to be underlined this year, in part, because of travel restrictions from Europe and the US, with most of the participating galleries from the broader region, Africa and South-East Asia.

In this list is Experimenter gallery from Kolkata, a regular at Art Basel and Art Basel Hong Kong. It is presenting the works of Ayesha Sultana, Praneet Soi and Prabhakar Pachpute, among others.

There are also two galleries from the Philippines, Silverlens and Tropical Futures Institute, as well as a number from Africa, including Gallery 1957 from Accra, Addis Fine Art from Addis Ababa and Circle Art Gallery from Nairobi.

Art Dubai app

Rasheed Araeen's 'Norungi', from 2017, will be on display in the UAE as part of Art Dubai. Courtesy Aicon Art

To help navigate its new layout and location, Art Dubai has launched an app for visitors. Users must create a profile, which will then allow them to access their invitation card or ticket.

Through the app, users can book a time slot to visit the fair, which allows organisers to keep track of how many people are present on the ground. The app also gives information on the exhibiting galleries and artworks around the fair, as well as a guide to other cultural events happening in the UAE.

VIP visitors can use the app to access their invites to the fair’s private events and tours.

Art Dubai will take place from March 29 to April 3. More information is at