DUBAI // Five hundred artists, 70 galleries, more than 15,000 visitors expected over four days and hundreds of potential collectors. As the showplace that is Art Dubai rolled into town, its organisers declared it to be the "biggest platform for contemporary art in the Middle East".
Artists, curators and gallery owners said yesterday one of Art Dubai's greatest achievements in its four-year history has been uniting those creating art with possible patrons. The international art fair was launched yesterday by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. The support network that has helped give birth to a lively arts scene in Dubai will be recognised for the first time since the event started with the inaugural Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Patrons of the Arts Awards tomorrow.
Regional and international patrons who make financial contributions of at least Dh50,000 (US$13,600) to Dubai-based artistic initiatives will be recognised in a special ceremony, with a distinguished patrons category for anyone investing at least Dh5 million over three years. Saeed al Nabouda, of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, said: "The support of these patrons has played an instrumental role in enriching and evolving the cultural scene."
At the launch party were the three winners of the world's biggest cash trophy for art, the Abraaj Capital Arts Prize, which grants Dh750,000 to each of them to create original work as part of Art Dubai. They were Hala Elkoussy from Egypt, Kader Attia, an Algerian, and Marwan Sahmarani from Lebanon. Elkoussy, 35, whose work is also on show at Manarat al Saadiyat, said: "This is a glimmer of hope in a scene of desperation. Things are changing for the better but it is so important to have local patrons as opposed to the situation before, when we would produce art which would then be exported abroad.
"Before, any discourse about art from the Middle East was coming from the West. Events like this are the beginning of change but there is a long way to go. We need to create a local discourse in Arabic, the language of the people." Ben Floyd, the co-founder of Art Dubai, said the emphasis for event was Middle Eastern art. "People are coming from all over the Middle East, not just from the UAE." One of the most important functions was to bring together local artists with international gallery owners or collectors who could project their work onto a global stage, organisers said.
Among the success stories are Rami Farook, 29, the Emirati owner of Traffic, a concept furniture store and gallery, and the American installation artist James Clar, 31, who is now his artist-in-residence and the focus of Farook's stand at the fair. "We work together," Farook said. "He creates and I advise. I have no influence on his work and would never tell him what to do but we have conversations about this region and culture. He feels our frustrations and that comes through in his work."
Clar said that his three years in Dubai had given him an insight into Arab culture and the Islamic faith which he had been oblivious to while living in the US: "My perception of the Arab world while living in America was totally different to what it is now, so I suppose in that way I have been influenced." Artwork on sale at the fair ranges in price from less than Dh3,673 to more than Dh3.7m for a giant metal sculpture by El Anatsui.
Elsewhere in the event, which opens to the public today and runs through Saturday, rising Emirati talent will be the focus of a number of workshops and projects. Dozens of UAE residents in their 20s have been recruited into a group called Young Associates of Art Dubai, made up of volunteers who help ensure the fair runs smoothly and are rewarded with trips to international art fairs and advice in starting their own art collections.
Among them will be Fatima Yousef, 22, an Emirati graduate in visual communications from the American University of Sharjah. She said: "Traditionally women have not been accepted in this field. Here we have the opportunity to be exposed to art and design from the outside world." Sales from Art Dubai plummeted by a quarter last year from the Dh73.5m made in 2008. Organisers said they were "confident" they would pick up this year.
The director John Martin said: "There is a lot of interest in Middle Eastern art right now and galleries are starting to get the confidence to show that sort of work." firstname.lastname@example.org