Several galleries managed to walk a tightrope between presenting something that will work commercially while simultaneously offering visitors an inspiring experience.
• Vigo, London
This young gallery – it’s only five years old – made its Art Dubai debut with spectacular works by Sudanese master Ibrahim El Salahi, the only African artist ever to have a solo show in the Tate Modern and one of the most important living modernists in the region.
• Ayyam Gallery, Dubai
Always a strong contender in the regional contemporary art scene, Ayyam brought along a monumental installation by Lebanese artist Nadim Karam. The two stainless steel sculptures – Shout and Silence – are a marked departure from his previous works and make a commentary on the deluge of sound that surrounds our modern world.
• Agial Art Gallery, Beirut
This Lebanese gallery consistently makes an effort with presentation. This year it offered sculpture only, on several small plinths including great pieces by Ayman Baalbaki and Saloua Raouda Choucair.
• Espacio Valverde, Madrid
Among the four Spanish galleries, the standout was Espacio Valverde’s, which brought a solo show by Elena Alonso. The delicate and architectural works on paper were poetic and entrancing.
Strong Modern section
Honourable mentions go to Dubai's Meem Gallery, which had stunning pieces by Iraqi painters Shakir Hassan Al Said and Faiq Hassan; Grosvenor Gallery from London with a full set of prints by Pakistani master Syed Sadequain from the 1966 version of Albert Camus's L'Étranger; Shirin Art Gallery from Tehran dedicated its stall to the animated drawings of Ali Akbar Sadeghi. The Iranian gallery also presented Sadeghi's 1960s animations as digitally remastered films telling the mythical stories of the Persian Book of Kings.
The fine-art trend
One of the most interesting things about having 94 galleries in one space at the same time is looking for patterns or trends. This year, we loved the fact that much of the art displayed was in the form of intricate drawings. Experimenter from Kolkata named its booth The Drawing Project, showing works from Pakistani Bani Abidi and Indian art collective CAMP among many others. Sanatorium from Istanbul brought the meditative and wonderful graphite on paper work of Turkish artist Ahmet Dogu Ipek. Lakeeren from Mumbai had several lovely pieces of abstract ink drawings from another Pakistani talent Waqas Khan.
Talks and book launches
One of the best things about the fair is that it brings everyone together. So, if you don't get a chance to visit all the exhibitions in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, Art Dubai consolidates some of the best in the form of talks or panels and book launches. For example, Sharjah's Maraya Art Centre hosted a conversation between four Emirati artists about their work currently on display in the latest exhibition, Al Haraka Baraka; while the team from the New York University Abu Dhabi hosted a book launch for Diana Al Hadid's Phantom Limb, which was full of information about the Syrian artist and her practice.
Every year, the Sheikha Manal Little Artists Programme is oversubscribed because it is the perfect way for kids to get involved in the art fair. This year, it hosted discovery tours for children aged 5-17 throughout the fair, led by UAE-based artists. London-based artist Polly Brannan hosted the Mobile Variety Club, a series of workshops and creative endeavours including songs, comedy, poetry, puppet shows and magic tricks.
Abraaj Group Art Prize winners
Palestinian artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme are in the spotlight at the moment. Last October they were awarded the US$100,000 (Dh367,275) Abraaj Group Art Prize to work on a single piece that was unveiled at Art Dubai. The 10-minute tear-jerking video, titled Only the Beloved Keeps Our Secrets, is part-poem, part-lament about the land that raised them. It samples archive footage of weddings, dances and grainy, heart-wrenching scenes of Israeli soldiers shooting at a Palestinian boy who crossed a military line to collect an edible plant. The layered imagery is fused together with a haunting soundtrack.
The Wedding Project
The not-for-profit programme, which grows every year, saw several pieces of art placed in public areas, which the curator Yasmina Reggad says was intended to “disrupt” the visitor’s experience. However, it was The Wedding Project, an initiative coordinated with London’s Delfina Foundation that was the most popular – it took the form of an elaborate dinner where each of the 11 courses was a performance conceived by a different artist, created by local chefs.
Perception by eL Seed
The Global Art Forum had a series of discussions and performances that covered a range of topics, from science fiction to architectural masterplans. A highlight was the conversation between Tunisian calligraffiti artist eL Seed, about his newest project in Cairo, with Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry. Titled Perception, the project had eL Seed and his team embedded within the city’s Zaraeeb Coptic community. Known colloquially as Zabaleen (people of the garbage), they make their living by recycling the city’s mountains of waste and run a sophisticated recycling system. In his talk, eL Seed described his first visit to the community, and how his perception of the people totally changed, leading him to paint a mural across 40 buildings.
Four things that could have been done better:
Not every gallery was guilty of this, but we did notice several that chose not to label any of the artworks on display. When asked why, one gallerist said: “We find they tend to interfere with the art.” What they don’t realise is unlabelled work is the quickest way to turn off a curious visitor. Yes, an art fair is about selling art to savvy collectors, but for the general public it is a wonderful way to expand their horizons. If they feel they have to ask, they might just as easily move on to another booth that is not quite as presuming about the knowledge of their guests. Besides, you never know where the next collector is coming from.
The RCA Secret exhibition is a great idea – it is an anonymous exhibition where you can buy a postcard-sized piece of art for Dh500 and once you have bought it, discover who the artist is. This year, half of the postcards were shown at Art Dubai and the other at Alserkal Avenue. On the one hand, this is a great idea because it was great to have such coordination between the two venues. However, by the time we managed to get to see both halves of the exhibition, the sale was already halfway through and we missed getting the ones we really wanted.
Despite a new design and the promise of several new bars and restaurants, the food options were severely lacking inside the fair. There were plenty of beverages on offer but for food, there was only one sandwich stand. We missed the sushi, dim sum and the shawarma from the previous years.
Even the most efficient park and ride system couldn’t overcome Dubai’s traffic. The biggest bugbear was getting in and out. Parking at Madinat Jumeirah is difficult at the best of times but during Art Dubai it is impossible. Park and ride also suffers because the buses get caught in blocked traffic.