"It's a series of interlinking narratives about cases which were heard or experienced through walls," says the Beirut-based Lawrence Abu Hamdan about Wall Unwalled, the work he produced as the winner of Abraaj Group Art Prize this year at Art Dubai. "Walls are always fictional elements – they are always transgressible. There's no wall on earth that's still impermeable. What kind of new subject emerges when walls are multiplying, are more fortified, but are also, more and more, in their material function?"
Walls separate public from private, country from country. At their most utopian, art fairs are known for traversing boundaries. Art Dubai's reputation has been built on its internationality: galleries from Karachi, Addis Ababa, Tehran, Dubai, London, and New York all convene in Dubai, where the region's artists and curators travel to meet them.
In its 12th year, the fair returns to a more stable art market than that of the two years before, but one in which nationalism and regional flux are throwing sand in the gears of globalisation.
Some buyers will be absent from this year's fair, while other art scenes are flexing new muscle. Misk, the Saudi art foundation, is the main sponsor of the Modern section of the fair. The King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture (Ithra) inaugurates the Ithra Art Prize, awarded this year to the Saudi artist Ayman Zedani, and the Jeddah art gallery Athr is taking on a more prominent role, hosting two concurrent pop-up exhibitions at Alserkal Avenue and Warehouse421, in addition to its stall at the fair. Zedani says of his work, a series of 16 concrete sculptures titled Mem that can be rendered at various sizes – here it is produced at two-and-a-half metres high: "This is the first time people can interact with the work by entering into it. Before, it was only observed as a whole, but now the work surrounds you." The work will be permanently installed at Ithra after Art Dubai.
Focus on Modern art
Art Dubai also functions as a springboard for other activities in addition to the buying and selling inside Madinat Jumeirah – this includes the commissions at Alserkal Avenue, the Sharjah Art Foundation shows, and related events – plus non-commercial activity at the fair itself. Since she started last year, Art Dubai director Myrna Ayad has given the Modern section increased attention.
This year it hosted the publication of Modern Art in the Arab World, which the scholar Nada Shabout edited for MoMA, as well as its Modern symposium. It also hosts a historical show curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, which, like Shabout's book of primary documents, is an important scholarly addition to a field whose discovery has been largely market-led. Bardaouil and Fellrath's show, That Feverish Leap into the Fierceness of Life, surveys five artists' schools – in Khartoum, Casablanca, Cairo, Baghdad and Riyadh – across five decades. "There's a tendency to think of Modernism in the Arab region as a monolith," says Bardaouil. "We wanted to show the diversity instead. Of course, there are commonalities, but each scene was responding to its own socio-political setting and the cultural traditions that had been built up in each region."
The exhibition focuses not on individual artists, but on situations where artists banded as groups, either issuing manifestos or teaching and exhibiting as such, and created paintings that in each case bend the international tenets of Modernism – a move away from strict representation, a belief in the social and political potential of art – to local specificities.
The artists of the 1950s Baghdad Group for Modern Art, for example, looked to the calligraphy of the 13th century artist Yahya Al Wasiti for inspiration, using his style as well as his humour and focus on everyday life, as in Shakir Hassan Al Said's watercolour of women grinding flour or, in a painting by Faraj Abo, a milkman delivering a suggestively shaped bottle to a woman in a village. In Morocco, two decades later, the School of Casablanca married a 1970s Pop aesthetic with forms and motifs from traditional Berber textiles, exhibiting these in public squares to abolish the hierarchy embedded in art galleries and institutions.
Introducing Arab modernists
The work of the group Dar Al Funoon Al Sa’udiyyah, which formed in Riyadh in the 1980s, was a real revelation. “Though these artists exhibited abroad, and knew about international artists, very little is now known of this group,” says Bardaouil. An enormous mauve painting of an undulating desert horizon – a gauzier version of the Casablanca abstractions, of which Bardaouil says they were feasibly aware – was its principal member Mohammed Alsaleem’s attempt to represent his daily viewpoint on the world from a subjective standpoint.
The role of Art Dubai in introducing Arab modernists was elaborated by the extensions of this show into the commercial section of booths. Ubuntu Art Gallery and Karim Francis Art Gallery, both based in Cairo, are also showing work from another of That Feverish Leap's schools, the Contemporary Art Group of Cairo, specifically of the painter Samir Rafi. Ubuntu offers an extraordinary painting, executed in Algiers, in which Rafi used the stripes of a traditional Algerian rug to function almost as prison bars or means of occlusion overlaid on two mythological figures. Karim Francis Art Gallery has earlier paintings by Rafi in a mini-exhibition, complete with catalogue, on the Contemporary Art Group.
Within the fair's contemporary section there are some beautiful works on show: a pinky sunburst of lines, Farsi and glitter from 2017 by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai; a floating orb by Olafur Eliasson at i8 Gallery from Reykjavik; or an expansive, almost city-like medley of forms by the painter Wosene Worke Kosrof at Addis Fine Art from Addis Ababa.
The Abraaj Group show feels more welcoming this year, moving away from the warren-like feel and towards a more open presentation of its strong list, curated by Myriam Ben Salah. The Abraaj Group Art Prize is in its 10th year and has been a crucial mode of supporting Middle Eastern art, with a number of former winners, such as Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme (a duo) and Yto Barrada now exhibiting at major biennials. The Abraaj Group announced at the fair a partnership in which its collection of the winning works in the Art Prize will be on long-term loan to Jameel Art Centre – giving Art Jameel access to a significant record of the last 10 years of art in the region.
Global Art Forum
Abu Hamdan will also participate in the Global Art Forum, traditionally the fair’s intellectual heavyweight and constant source of surprise. The forum’s co-commissioner, Shumon Basar, explains that “this year’s programme looks at automation from the perspective of art-making and cultural production. Artists often find flaws or new uses for technology that run counter to what they were intended for. Given the ubiquity of automation, we felt it was important to address it from a critical standpoint.”
The fair also sees a new project in Dubai for the GCC collective – in what Basar calls "a kind of Homeric homecoming" – whose work addresses Khaleeji culture. The eight artists are producing Good Morning GCC, a fake daytime television show within a purpose-built green screen studio near the Global Art Forum. Barrak Alzaid, one of the members, speaks about the project in relation – again – to access. "We were struck by the idea of the public," he says. "And what is more public than the idea of television audiences and daytime talk shows?"
Art Dubai is at Madinat Jumeirah on Thursday, March 22, (4pm to 9.30pm, last entrance at 9pm), Friday, March 23 (2pm to 9.30pm, last entrance at 9pm) and Saturday, March 24 (noon to 6.30pm, last entrance at 6pm). The Global Art Forum runs from today until Wednesday, March 21 to Friday, March 23, from 2.30pm onwards, also at Madinat Jumeirah