What to expect from Abu Dhabi Art 2019: A new focus on Chinese and Indian art

Opening on November 21, this year's Abu Dhabi Art is a well-curated affair that puts the spotlight on Asian art

A detail of an artwork by Ali Khazim, on view at Jhaveri Contemporary's booth in the Focus section, curated by Omar Kholeif. Courtesy Ali Kazim and Jhaveri Contemporary
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For the 11th edition of Abu Dhabi Art, curators take centre stage. This year, the fair has brought in big names, including Jerome Sans and Omar Kholeif, to put together four curated sections that feature 53 participating galleries.

Since Dyala Nusseibeh took over as director three years ago, these curated programmes and initiatives have been staples of the fair, adding depth to what can sometimes be a very commercial endeavour. “Gallery booths must be curated and slow down the experience of coming to the fair,” she said at a panel discussion with the curators and artists on Monday morning.

The third edition of Focus: honing in on the line 

Omar Kholeif, who was a curator at this year’s Sharjah Biennial 14 and has been appointed Director of Collections and Senior Curator at Sharjah Art Foundation this summer, returns to the fair for the third year to put together the Focus sector.

Themed Drawing, Tracing and Mapping, Kholeif looks at the most instinctive gesture in art – the line, which has been used to “trace territories and ideas and map out the scope of an artistic practice,” he said.

In this section, Kholeif has brought in New York’s Salon 94 for its Middle Eastern art fair debut, presenting the works of Pakistani-American artist Huma Bhabha. There will also be Ali Khazim’s delicate and detailed drawings at the Jhaveri Contemporary booth, and Pouran Jinchi’s calligraphic-inspired dots and dashes at The Third Line.

New sections dedicated to Asian art 

Meanwhile, renowned curator Jerome Sans, who co-founded Paris’ Palais de Tokyo, has taken over Manarat Al Saadiyat’s main hall with a new curated section that focuses on Asian art. For New Horizons: China Today, he brings together 10 artists from China across the two generations. “I never believe that there are more than five artists [in a generation] that are interesting in any city anywhere,” he said.

Rather than inviting galleries and booths, I said, 'let's make an exhibition'. No walls, no names of galleries

Sans has been working in China’s art scene since 2007, and has traced its boom over the last decade. “It doesn’t mean it’s the new El Dorado… but it is a very fascinating time,” he added.

His approach to his section is to keep the set-up open, creating flow from one artwork to another. "Rather than inviting galleries and booths, I said, 'let's make an exhibition'. No walls, no names of galleries...," Sans said.  First to greet visitors is Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's Teenager, Teenager & I Didn't Notice What I am Doing – two fiberglass sculptures of a rhinoceros and a dinosaur facing a chair.

Visitors are meant to sit on the chair and gaze at the beasts. “It’s history looking at today, today looking at history,” said Sans, pointing out that this “history” is in fact, a fabrication. “Where is the present and future? This is what the animals ask you. It is a performative situation”. Other artists in the section include Xu Zhen, Li Qing, Liu Wei and Zhao Zhao.

A second New Horizons section focuses on India and is curated by gallerist Ashwin Thadani, who has included Aicon Contemporary, Gallery Espace, Grosvenor Gallery, Nature Morte,  and Galerie Isa, which he runs. “[These] galleries that respond to each other like a family; they’re all taking a journey together,” he said.

This introduction to the fair is a welcome one, given the strong presence of South Asian communities in the Gulf and the long history of trade and labour between the UAE and the region.

Linking artwork and artefacts in Gateway

A must-see from the fair is curator Paolo Colombo’s work for the annual Gateway exhibition. Titled Fragments, Yesterday and Today, the exhibition looks at how artistic and anthropological links travel across cultures and time.

Work by Farah Khelil, one of the artists included in the Gateway exhibition. Courtesy of the artist and Abu Dhabi Art 
Work by Farah Khelil, one of the artists included in the Gateway exhibition. Courtesy of the artist and Abu Dhabi Art 

Colombo, who has in the past curated the Istanbul Biennial and serves as art advisor for the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, was tasked with selecting works that responded to the artefacts of the Al Ain Museum.

“The idea was that I could borrow a number of works from the Al Ain museum and present it in contemporary art,” he said. He observed “how certain elementary forms stay over the years, through millennia, and how they have remained in the language of contemporary art”, and visitors are free to draw parallels between the works and the objects to see if these fragments are coincidental or can shape a narrative.

For the curator, one of the key unifying elements is what we he refers to as “manual intensive labour”, the kind of handiwork visible in these objects, and how this continues to how artists produce work today.

Exceptionally beautiful pieces include Kiki Smith’s tapestries that depict fantastical otherworldly visions of nature, influenced by German folktales and medieval tapestries; Hamra Abbas’ marble sculptures that draw from Mughal architecture; and Farah Khelil’s text-based collages made of cut-outs from dictionaries.

This year’s Beyond commissions: clouds and a funhouse

One of the fair’s strongest programmes since 2013, Durub Al Tawaya, which focuses on performance art and was curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh for the last few years, will not return this edition.

Nevertheless, this year's Beyond commissioning initiatives are exciting. For Beyond: Artist Commissions, Leandro Erlich presents The Heart of Water (The Cloud) at the Al Ain Oasis. The work is a response to its environment – a cloud seemingly captured in glass, housed inside a 'nest', a structure made of areesh or palm leaves.

Leandro Erlich's 'The Heart of Water (The Cloud)', his work for Abu Dhabi Art's Beyond programme. Courtesy of the artist and Abu Dhabi Art
Leandro Erlich's 'The Heart of Water (The Cloud)', his work for Abu Dhabi Art's Beyond programme. Courtesy of the artist and Abu Dhabi Art

“The cloud is a representation of the first work of art. Before an artist can draw something, we are imagining something, conceptualising before we draw or sculpt,” said Erlich. In this contemplative work, the artist stated that he seeks to capture “the spirit of creating something”, just as children often invent shapes and stories based on the formations of clouds in the sky.

Oliver Beer is presenting works in both Qasr Al Hosn and Al Ain's historic Al Jahili Fort. For his commission installed in the latter, the British artist asked 1,000 school children to make drawings of specific artworks from the Louvre Abu Dhabi, including Portrait of Fayoum (portraits painted on mummified bodies) and Cy Twombly's Untitled (I-IX) canvasses with blue and white markings.

People can expect anything and everything to happen to them. The audiences will become participants in the performance

The results range from funny to haunting, and Beer transferred these drawings onto film and edited them into animations set to Oud music. The result is a fast-paced flurry of drawing snippets that is both strangely moving and hyponitising. A similar style of work, this time to Aladdin, is on view at Qasr Al Hosn.

The Beyond: Emerging Artists programme, curated by artist trio Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, features Emirati talents Ayesha Hadhir, Rawdha Khalifa Al Ketbi and Shaikha Fahad Al Ketbi, all of whom draw references from the less lauded landscapes of the country, with a particular interest in far-off abandoned places.

Shaikha Fahad Al Ketbi explained her fascination with these sites through an example, an out-of-use playground in Abu Dhabi. “I’m interested in this playground because, for me, it’s a monument… I was thinking about the subjectivity of importance. Could this be historically as important as tombs in Al Ain?,” she asks, adding that both no longer serve any purpose, yet one’s value is more lauded than the other.

Artwork by Ayesha Hadhir, one of the artists selected for the Beyond: Emerging Artists programme. Courtesy of the artist and Abu Dhabi Art
Artwork by Ayesha Hadhir, one of the artists selected for the Beyond: Emerging Artists programme. Courtesy of the artist and Abu Dhabi Art

Together, the three artists borrow from the Haerizadeh and Rahmanian approach, which is collaborative, eclectic and at times absurd. They have transformed Manarat Al Saadiyat’s auditorium into a kind of funhouse, filled with discarded furniture woven with artistic interventions.

It is incredibly reminiscent of the work the Haerizadehs and Rahmanian presented over the summer at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, where they continually changed the space and artwork as they explored new concepts and ideas. What the Beyond: Emerging Artists have presented is much less cohesive, but nevertheless promising of where their practices could go next.

Over the weekend, two performances will be staged wherein visitors can participate. “[People] can expect anything and everything to happen to them, and the audiences [will] become participants in the performance,” said Shaikha.

Islamic art with a contemporary outlook

There will also a section dedicated to the artists that have been awarded the Al Burda endowment. Comprised of mainly installation art, the section features ten artists whose practices are influenced by Islamic art, though with a more contemporary approach. There are works by Ebtisam Abdulaziz, Ammar Al Attar, Nasser Al Salem and Dana Awartani.

Abu Dhabi Art runs from Thursday, November 21 to Saturday, November 23. The sections and commissions will be on view until February 2020 in Manarat Al Saadiyat and various locations in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi. During the fair, there will also be a series of artist and curator talks, workshops and performances.

More details can be found on abudhabiart.ae