After a morose 2009, the 37th edition of Paris's flagship contemporary art fair FIAC looked stronger than it has for years, with 194 galleries from 24 countries, broadly split between the established names at the Grand Palais and younger galleries in a marquee in the Cour Carrée at the Louvre. There was also an outdoor sculpture trail in the Tuileries gardens between the two.
Around FIAC, the constellation of offshoot fairs was bigger than ever - young galleries and a new Oriental section at Slick, solo shows at Show Off, more mainstream commercial art at Art Elysées, alternative Cutlog and newcomer Chic with a mix of art, innovative design and a rooftop show at the exciting new Cité de la Mode et du Design. Parallel events were headlined by the arrival of the Gagosian Gallery (after New York, Beverley Hills, London, Rome and Athens), in a smart two-floor space just off the Champs-Elysées, and Chantal Crousel opening an annexe to her Marais gallery in the vast, disused former customs warehouses near the Canal St-Martin.
The most talked about of the Off fairs was Slick and its creation of a special Slick Orient section of nine galleries presenting artists from a loosely defined Middle East and Asia. Smaller and more affordable than FIAC, yet highly international with 43 galleries from 15 countries, the five-year-old Slick established its identity as the fair for very young galleries and was clearly also seeking to be the fair for emerging markets in a global art scene.
This year also marked a coming of age for Slick, as it moved from a location in northeast Paris (first at the Bellevilloise, then at the CentQuatre art space) to a neat niche on the esplanade between the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Palais de Tokyo, gaining the symbolic endorsement of two of Paris's most adventurous art institutions.
Departing from its previous, grungy look and an emphasis on street art, Slick this year came pared down in size but more professional in feel, and enriched by an art prize sponsored by the Arte TV channel, debates, book signings and events - among them, a screening of Road Movie, an ironic look at Afghan refugees in France by Ghazel, who is represented by Carbon 12 gallery in Dubai. Is there, however, a danger of pigeon holing or sidelining these artists and countries at Slick under the label Orient, when some artists who have already made it (among them the Iranian artists Farhad Moshiri at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin and Shirin Neshat at Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, and Franco-Algerian Adel Abdessemed, who occupied the entire stand of New York's influential David Zwirner Gallery) could be seen on big-name stands over at FIAC in the Grand Palais? "No", insisted Slick's director Johan Tamer-Morael, himself of Lebanese origin. "I'm not interested in ethnicity, our interest is in contemporary art and I think these artists have their place in contemporary art. That is why we have decided to mix the galleries together with galleries from other countries and not group the Orient galleries together."
While in English, the term Orient has some pejorative connotations, in French the associations are not the same, and Tamer-Morael says he used it "because I am Lebanese and I wanted to get closer to my origins".
The impressive stand of The Running Horse Contemporary Art Space, opened by Lea Sednaoui in an industrial district of Beirut in May 2009, presented sophisticated artworks that included Rasha Kahil's striking series of photos of nude women. "We can show work that is very raw," confirmed Sednaoui, although she added that it is easier to exhibit Kahil's nudes in Beirut than the more politically sensitive work of Alfred Tarazi, also on show here.
Founded three years ago, the Drawing Room Gallery in Lahore specialises in the modern miniature movement that has developed in Pakistan over the past decade by artists who are rejuvenating the ancient Moghal miniature tradition, in a sometimes surprising mix of modern subjects and painstaking draughtsmanship.
"It looks very soft when you look at it initially, but the themes are tough. They are coming from a tough place in tough times, there are often themes such as displacement, identity, international humiliation," explained the gallerist Sanam Taseer. "The themes are like other themes you see in Muslim countries but the medium is specific to Pakistan."
Among the artists she presented were Aakif Suri, whose drawings caricature Asian and western perceptions of Pakistan, and Rehana Mangi, who takes a more conceptual approach, deconstructing the miniature in a delicate grid made of knotted human hair. This was the first time Taseer has participated in a fair such as this and for a young gallery such as hers, it is an important way of gaining visibility and reaching new clients, as she admits that if most of her artists were not also exhibited internationally, it would be difficult to survive under current conditions in Pakistan alone.
Probably the most astonishing discovery for European visitors, where information about Afghanistan is largely restricted to war reports and news of kidnappings, was the stand of seven Afghan artists presented jointly by Galerie Nikki Diana Marquardt, a long-standing Paris gallery, and the Etemad Gallery of Tehran, which revealed a scene that many in Europe cannot even imagine existing. Nikki Diana Marquardt has made several visits to the country and stresses that what counts is the art not the origins. "Art is universal for me," she said, but she is also deeply committed to raising and facilitating awareness of this burgeoning scene. "The importance of contemporary art in Afghanistan is to connect people to the outside world," she said.
Undoubtedly, the star figure on her stand was Amanullah Mojadidi. Part of a reverse diaspora, he grew up and studied in the US and has now moved back to Kabul, where he is a key mover in a still-underground art scene, both through his own work and in his encouragement of younger Afghan artists, such as Sheenkai Stanizai. In his Jihadi Gangster photo series, Mojadidi stages himself to poke fun at cultural taboos, as well as explore his own dual cultural background.
In one work, he poses as a Talibani wearing a golden gun on a chain around his neck like a pendant, while carrying another pistol in his belt; in another, he sits on a sofa, his golden false leg propped beside him, a girl on his lap, behind a table laden with western brands of alcohol. Such works are exhibited only in Kabul in very underground circles, but Mojadidi also did a more public art happening earlier this year, when he stuck up posters for a fake election campaign: "Vote for me! I did Jihad and I'm rich."
And who is actually buying this emerging art? Two days in, Taseer confirmed happily that to her surprise, all the buyers so far had been European. It's too early to say yet, said Tamer-Morael. However, he did say he is considering continuing the project next year.
Nikki Diana Marquardt confirmed that interest was widespread from European buyers, with "an important French private collector" buying a woven carpet work by Rahim Walizada for €20,000, (Dh102,500) sales of photoworks by Amanullah Mojadidi and Sheenkai Stanizai, and Arte taking Mohsen Wahidi's black-and-white film for future screening on television.