Relocated and reimagined: Abu Dhabi Art Fair's emergence

At the fair's new home on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi Art last week attracted 50 elite galleries from around the world, helping to sow the seeds of the capital's ambitions to become a world-class cultural hub.

Work by the artist Jemimah Patterson on display at Abu Dhabi Art on Saadiyat Island last week. Andrew Henderson / The National
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Her blue eyes are instantly recognisable, the languorous pose and coquettish tilt of the head reminiscent of her role as Cleopatra in the 1963 film of the same name.

When the late Elizabeth Taylor was invited to Iran in 1976, she was already an established Hollywood icon, but in the streets of Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, she became an anonymous tourist, dressing in the chadur to enter a mosque or playfully posing as an odalisque in a portrait session at the Tehran Hilton.

Her two-week tour of the country as the companion of Ardeshir Zahedi, the Iranian ambassador in the US, was captured by his cousin Firooz, then a budding art student and a keen amateur photographer.

Firooz Zahedi, who went on to shoot magazine covers for Vanity Fair and Esquire, and later created the poster image of Uma Thurman for the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction, credited Taylor with giving him the impetus to pursue a career in photography. For her part, Taylor was grateful for the chance to be invisible and see "a country blessed with rich and colourful culture" for the first and last time.

But that trip, preserved in a set of prints on sale and on show at last weekend's Abu Dhabi Art, says much more than mere Hollywood-celebrity-meets-Persian-culture. It speaks to that odd and fascinating relationship between East and West.

Thirty-five years on, that connection is being played out on a different stage - at the art fair that aims to sow the seeds of Abu Dhabi's ambitions to become a world-class cultural hub.

And once more it was the West flocking East, including such renowned galleries as White Cube, Gagosian and Xerxes, all eager for a slice of the action in what is still a relatively new and emerging market.


It is two days before the art fair opens to the public, and the imposing, undulating silhouette of the UAE Pavilion looms on the Saadiyat Island horizon.

A frenzy of activity surrounds what is very much a construction site: workmen are busy welding the last of the building's roof panels, more men are perched atop diggers frantically scrubbing the pavilion's glass front.

Inside, a form of chaos reigns: booth dividers are being given a lick of white paint, some oddly shaped hexagonal chairs - which may or may not be an exhibit - are propped against a wall. In short, there is work to do, a deadline to be met.

This, of course, is the first time the fair has been held on Saadiyat, taking its place on the island of enlightenment where Abu Dhabi's ambitious plans for a cultural district will eventually emerge.

The change of location from Emirates Palace, and the hype surrounding the new venue, shipped from Shanghai where it showcased the UAE's entry in the 2010 World Expo, has given a much-needed boost to both the art fair and the galleries taking part, following the recent announcement of delays to the construction of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, one of Saadiyat's flagship projects.

A Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) spokeswoman last week confirmed that "all the museums are continuing. When you see the scale of [these projects], it is only natural to take the time to build world-class establishments. Now that the fair has moved to its cultural home, the market will keep growing."

Most of the 50 galleries taking part had already shipped their artworks before the news broke and for many, it was too late to rethink the collections they will present at the fair. And strategy it is, for while the eclectic gathering - from galleries to artists and collectors - all have a passion for art, there is no mistaking the main reasons they have come to the Emirates: to show and, of course, to sell.

"In the beginning I just wanted to sell but now I want to have more of a presence," says Salwa Zeidan, whose eponymous gallery in Abu Dhabi has participated since the inaugural art fair in 2009. Her focus has always been to promote and encourage Emirati artists.

Now, after four months of preparation, and just 24 hours before the fair opens, she hurriedly wraps the last of her 21 artworks in protective bubble wrap and watches them being loaded onto the back of a truck outside her gallery.

Her regular customers include Emiratis and expatriates and she thinks the UAE is more conducive to networking for artists and gallery owners than more established markets elsewhere.

"In Europe," she says, "the inner circle is often closed. Maybe this market is more accessible. There, they appreciate art, but they are not buying as much as before."

The showpiece of her stand is Rays of Light by Rita Grosse-Ruyken, a gold bowl tempered so finely that tiny sensors nestled in its base echo every vibration. With a price tag of Dh14.8 million, it is not going to suit every pocket, but it is clear Zeidan is hoping it will be plucked out by an institution.

She is not the only one: there are big hitters everywhere, from the two Anish Kapoors at the Lisson Gallery, the Frank Stellas at Waterhouse & Dodd to the Keith Harings at Tony Shafrazi's booth and Louise Bourgeois's Cell (Black Days), a claustrophobic cage filled with mementoes from her childhood, at the Hauser & Wirth stand.

In the fair's first year, its joint managers, TDIC and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), scooped up a proliferation of artworks, from oil barrel sculptures by Iranian artist Shiva Ahmadi to a Mona Lisa series by the Chinese artist Yan Pei Ming.

Reflecting on this commercial landscape, David Zwirner has taken what he deems a safe gamble by bringing not one but three paintings by the same artist to his stand. Indeed, any one of the works brought here by the New York gallery owner would sit comfortably in, say, the Louvre or Guggenheim.

A series of 10 chronological "date paintings" by the Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara is a clever move; not only is it a rarity to get a series of On Kawara's musings on the passage of time but the decade showcased is the 1970s, a formative one for the UAE. The gallery's Kristine Bell says: "On Kawara put together this decade recently. They are all vintage paintings, but he assembled them to make a meaningful grouping. He normally only does that for institutions."

A $380,000 work called Mappemonde is already on reserve for a Dubai-based collector. But it is the gleaming white marble sculpture Little Manhattan that is the jewel in the crown.

Yutaka Sone spent two years carving the intricate map from a single piece of 2.5m-long marble, working from satellite images and photos taken during flights over New York. Weighing 2.5 tonnes, it had to be carefully manoeuvred into place in the pavilion.

"We are really hoping not to have to take it back to New York with us," says Greg Lulay, the gallery's director. "We do fairs all over the world and this is very different to Art Basel, where people have seen and done [the contemporary American painters] John McCracken and Rob Ryman. This is a new opportunity to educate people. People only know about art history by going to museums. But ours has to be a commercial choice. We are very much interested in educating the public, but ultimately we are in the business of selling art."


With Abu Dhabi aspiring to be among the top five cities in the world by 2030, how do the emirate's artistic ambitions fare? Museums aside, simply providing a forum to buy and sell art is not enough, according to the culture expert Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World.

"A healthy art world is more than just the art market," she says. "An art world requires artists, critics, curators, collectors and dealers. One of the things that makes the Emirates interesting to me is that artists are finding a home here. Emiratis were originally very minimalist in their possessions and for them [that transformation to] a collecting culture is a dramatic shift."

Interestingly, Thornton also believes that "it is smart on Abu Dhabi's part to slow down the museums. We are in a situation where there are Arab uprisings all over the place and it makes no sense to be putting a lot of money into things that [only] appeal to the elite." It might be best, she says, to "get a collection in place first and then build the museums."

What is clear on the ground is that there has been a movement away from the focus on the museums and towards private collectors this year - who are, it transpires, out in force at the fair and appear willing to buy.

Prominent among those buyers is Abu Dhabi's royal family. But a fair is, of course, not sustainable on royal benevolence alone and, accordingly, some of the big sales are made to individuals: Leila Heller Gallery in New York sells a Shiva Ahmadi barrel for $25,000 to a Middle Eastern collector, the Tunisian Galerie El-Marsa sells a Rachid Koraichi for $125,000 to a new buyer in the region and artist Thameur Mejri's My Best Friend is a Butcher goes to a government official for $15,000.

Heller had originally planned to showcase stellar works from Marcos Grigorian and Shirin Neshat, but when word reached her about the delay in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project, she hastily rejigged her offering and instead brought the Liz Taylor series of prints that have attracted such attention. It was a gamble that paid off, as she sold several for $30,000 each.

"The Middle Eastern market is extremely strong right now," she says. "It has a big following in London and Paris, where they recognise the importance of the region in terms of culture."

But knowing what to bring to Abu Dhabi is a balancing act. Her son Alexander says: "If there is no interest in a work, that does not just upset you, it upsets your consigner, who most of the time is a buyer as most of the big works we sell come from collectors."

Zwirner says: "Last time we were focused almost exclusively on the Guggenheim, but this time we are meeting collectors or people who want to be collectors. There is enormous potential in the region and we don't want to be the last guys to arrive."

Abu Dhabi differs from most fairs, he says, in that they are generally "front-loaded", meaning the majority of sales at those fairs take place on the first day. In Abu Dhabi, it can take a month for the true impact of the fair to be felt.

"Last year any business we did happened on the last day," he adds.

One focus this year has been to promote emerging artists by offering affordable artwork in signature booths in the main Manarat Al Saadiyat building.

Jemimah Patterson, a heavily pregnant British painter and sculptor, was one half of identical, conjoined twins and the theme of duality plays out in her work with figures painted onto glass and reflected in mirrored boxes.

Last year one collector bought her entire offering of 10 pieces; Dr John Loy, an Abu Dhabi-based nuclear physicist, and his wife Annice, missed out then, but are determined not to for a second time. The couple snap up one of her works for about $5,000.

They tell Patterson how much they adore her work, give her a hug and make her promise to update them with news of her baby. It is a touching moment rarely seen in the maelstrom of the international art fair.


"Does anyone know whose work that is? Can someone find out?" Jeff Koons is on a mission. He has spotted a work in the Emirati Expressions exhibition, which runs alongside Abu Dhabi Art, and is determined to discover the name of the artist. Mira Al Qaseer is the answer and Koons repeats it several times, as if committing her name to memory.

There is something very surreal about Koons, one of the best-selling and well-known artists in the world, being in awe of an Emirati student photographer at the beginning of her career.

"Mira's work is really fantastic," he says again of Bait Yadi, her photograph featuring an old-fashioned chair in front of a window. "The chair has such an expression to it. It is a piece I am going to carry with me."

If there is one thing Abu Dhabi Art sets out to do, it is surely this: to open a world of possibilities to young artists and to give them unparalleled access to mentors such as Koons, now in his third year as patron of the fair.

For as much as it is about bringing the world to Abu Dhabi, it is equally about sending out its own progeny to compete on an international level.

Koons says: "I have seen tremendous growth this year. There is more vibrancy, more galleries, more artists exhibiting their work. It is becoming a place where art is a communication. [The pavilion] gives a sense of what is to come. Communities in this region are growing and flourishing. That is something I do not see in the United States."

Around the fair, Emirati artists are selling well. A piece called Historical Identity by Fatema Al Mazrouie garners $22,000; two photographic works by the Saudi artist Reem Al Faisal go for $14,000; Hassan Sharif fetches $41,000 for one of his works while Faiza Mubarak sells Cubes for $25,000.

Zeidan, the gallery owner who is promoting these artists, says: "I want to bring good artists who deserve to be in the light, plus I want to show the capacity of my gallery and be exhibited with international artists. Emirati artists have potential - and I believe in them."

Generally, art from around the region is gathering interest, although there is surprisingly little work inspired by this year's Arab Spring.

Jason Bereswill, Shafrazi's signature artist, exhibits the awe-inspiring Protests at Tahrir Square, using a satellite image from Google Earth as an underpainting to show swarms of Egyptians streaming through the streets across the city. The brushstrokes in his Libyan series are hurried, frantic; little wonder as they are based on TV images of Muammar Qaddafi being killed just a month ago.

Jeffar Khaldi's Mad Rebels in Isabelle van den Eynde Gallery is more of a tongue-in-cheek take on revolution, appropriating imagery from the Mad Max series of films to represent the fallen dictator and Libyan rebels. And in Le Baillonne by Tunisian artist Saoubi, the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who set fire to himself in protest, is visited in hospital by the former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the trigger for nationwide protests.


It is the final hours at the fair and a new intensity pulses through the aisles. Lulay, who had been furrow-browed about the lack of sales at David Zwirner, is locked in talks about Little Manhattan with an Emirati woman and a TDIC adviser. He won't reveal the outcome but is beaming: "We are very happy."

Meanwhile, Nicholas Logsdail of London's Lisson Gallery looks disgruntled: "This is our first year here and [as such] it is an investment in the future, but the market needs enormous improvement to be significant."

One unnamed gallery makes as little as $6,300 over the course of the fair, barely making a dent in its costs. Holding out for an 11th hour sale paid off, however, for Galerie Thaddeus Ropac from Paris. It sells four Antony Gormley sculptures for between $200,000 and $300,000 each. Leila Heller sells works worth about $120,000 - not enough to cover costs - but will leave Abu Dhabi in an upbeat frame of mind.

"I want to end on a happy note" she said, "You meet new clients, you have interest in the works, you hope it turns into sales. That is why we come."

Tahira Yaqoob is a senior features writer at The National.