Art Dubai and regionalism are reshaping the world of art fairs

Once a term used to describe smaller artists, today regionalism is creating opportunities for a diverse range of fairs, artists and galleries

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When art people talk about art, there is a certain code to follow. Never “building”, always “architecture”. Never “topic”, always “discourse”. Never “how much?”, always “what is the price point?”.

And for years, it was never “regionalism”. The term implied that an artist was significant only in their area, not to the wider international art world. They had local collectors, showed in galleries with patchy programmes, and invariably attracted a certain patronising tone.

I once labelled a South Asian artist “regional” to avoid calling her Pakistani or Indian, because she and her work belong to both countries. Her gallerist, a well-meaning, well-versed chap, emailed me in a panic asking me to delete it. "She is not regional!" he wrote. "She is well known!"

But regionalism is having its moment. As the art world expands beyond its traditional centres of power, the most interesting exhibitions and fairs to watch have become those that traffic in the meeting points between the local and the international. Biennials, such as that in Sharjah, have always navigated these waters.

In a fair field that was long dominated by the art world’s Coke and Pepsi — Art Basel and Frieze London and New York — smaller fairs are now displacing them on art-world itineraries. Think of it like the rise of independent coffee shops: Art Dubai, Abu Dhabi Art, Art SG in Singapore, the African art fair 1-54, Art Lagos and Frieze Seoul.

For Art Dubai, which runs until Sunday, this shift in regionalism emerges in a new context. Art Dubai began in 2007 and quickly cemented its place as a meeting point between Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It generally has a lower price point (there you go) than other fairs and was known as the place where one could see work from African, Middle Eastern and Asian galleries rather than the same rotating list of blue-chip western galleries.

It was, in the parlance of the art world, a meeting place for the “Global South” — a term that is itself on the road to being discredited. Seventeen years later, it remains so but the landscape around it has utterly changed. With the expansion in institutions and curated exhibitions, particularly in the Gulf, there are more places to show and challenge ideas around art. It can stay in the region and still be included in thought-provoking new contexts.

Take the sumptuous work of Fatiha Zemmouri, a Moroccan artist who is showing at Art Dubai with the Marrakech gallery Comptoir des Mines. Zemmouri moved to a farm outside Marrakech some years ago and uses the soil around her to form her artworks — graphic, painting-like works that recall the stylish waves of the late Moroccan artists Mohamed Melehi and Farid Belkahia, but rooted in the earth.

Zemmouri is not terribly well known outside the region, but features in one of its current major shows, the Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah. There, in a work made with the young curator Soukaina Aboulaoula, Zemmouri imagined the sound of a prayer recitation as a wave form, visualising it on the canvas in curves formed of the earth. Minutely ridged curves contrast with organic cracks, in a meditation on beauty and mortality that springs from the biennial's spiritual thesis.

Now, it’s easy to make major claims about the demise of art-world centres. Fairs, biennials, galleries and exhibitions have been operating everywhere in the world for years. But this new regionalism means there is enough of an ecosystem — another beloved art-world term — to allow for institutional shows without having to first get the nod from European and American curators. One can stay regional and grow as an artist.

What I’m saying is: no more waiting for London to pick up the phone.

Art Dubai runs until Sunday at Madinat Jumeirah

Updated: March 03, 2023, 6:02 PM