Dubai Art Fair
A convergence of minds, matters and meanings
ANTONIA CRAVERS, the current director of Art Dubai, answers Depart's queries on the Fair's position as a global hub for artists, curators, and gallerists besides being a vehicle for bringing to light the regional talents.
Mustafa Zaman: In an article you once wrote, 'Today's art world is also resolutely global', reflecting on how the world-wide art events and activities are keeping everyone in the art communities on their toes. In such a transnational matrix where do you situate Dubai?
Antonia Carver: Generally, Dubai is seen as the home of the 'Middle Eastern art market' – something that in its unified form (if, indeed, it can be seen like that) is a relatively recent term. Previously there were mini-markets in Cairo, Beirut, Tehran, and so on, but Dubai has been successful in bringing these different scenes together in some way. Internationally, the fair is also seen as a “gateway to Asia” – alongside cities such as Delhi and Hong Kong. Each year we see the footprint of the fair grow, and increasingly, I think it's interesting to see one of the great strengths of Art Dubai as a fair that develops the relationships between the South and the South? – a fair that takes advantage of traditional trade and travel routes to highlight the relationships that Dubai and the Gulf has with cities in Africa, the Arab world, Middle East and South Asia, and across to East Asia. We then also become a 'site of discovery' for institutions and collectors situated in Europe and the Americas.
'As 500-plus artists exhibit in the fair each year, around half the artists in the fair hailing from the Middle East and South Asia.' And the rest comprise, I presume, of the exponents from Western hemisphere. This large scale co-mingling of minds and the exchanges that transpire on many levels, how, in your take, do you think that make Art Dubai a unique site in the context of other European art fairs?
The rest are from other parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America, as well as the West. But you're completely right – it's this comingling and the nature of exchange through art and conversation that makes Art Dubai so special. The size of the fair and the foregrounding of debates (through the Global Art Forum and other talks) and new work (through projects as well as the galleries), really encourages visitors to take the time to talk, to understand and “see” new work in a meaningful way. Every year, after the fair, and through the years to come, we hear that – alongside the commercial deals – curators and gallerists have met new artists, museums have had ideas for new shows… Per head of gallery, if you see what I mean, we are the most global of art fairs – this year the 75 galleries hail from 30 countries, and it's this diversity that is at the heart of Art Dubai.
There is a symbiosis of money and art in the global art scene – which has led to the rise of the current-day globetrotting artists, big names who are commissioned gigantic projects. How would you evaluate Dubai, which you once referred to as a place of 'business and retail opportunity', as a platform to launch similar, upcoming big talents?
Dubai is today one of the biggest travel and trade hubs in the world – but it has a long history as a port. And with an exchange of goods, always comes an exchange of ideas and cultural norms. This history informs Art Dubai and our approach, in terms of exchange through contemporary art. This year, we're launching a sculpture park on the beach, as a way of beginning to showcase larger-scale work. The Abraaj Group Art Prize has always awarded artists from the MENASA, many of whom are on the cusp of becoming very well-known, with the means to produce ambitious works. But in the end, it's more about the artist's idea, execution and dedication that make a work, whatever the context, rather than its size.
After a decade in the region, how do you assess the changing creative firmament in this part of the world? Do you feel that Art Dubai has successfully been able to tap the talents you were looking to promote, especially artists who had not previously had the opportunity to enjoy exposure in the outside world?
Yes, I do. It's very encouraging to see artists come up through our educational initiatives (such as the 6-month “Saturday school” we launched this year, Campus Art Dubai), residencies, projects, the Abraaj Group Art Prize, galleries, and continue a relationship with the fair over several years. In the early years of the Gulf art boom, some international galleries may have seen the Gulf in short-term, wholly commercial terms; nowadays, those galleries that have taken a long-term, sustainable approach, are the ones that are most successful. They come to sell their artists' work, as they should, but also to meet new people, to have great conversations, to pick up interesting artists, listen to enlightening talks, to make plans for the future – and this is what contributes to a changing creative firmament. Galleries that might have come once a year to Art Dubai are also seeing themselves put down roots here and open permanent spaces in the industrial district of Al Quoz or the more polished Financial Centre.
In the 54th edition of the Venice Biennale you curated United Arab Emirates Pavilion, exhibiting Reem Al Ghaith, Lateefabint Maktoum, Abdullah Al Saadi - three Emirati artists from 'different generations and different aesthetic schools,' as someone from inside what is your assessment of the emerging art scene in the Middle East?
That's flattering but actually it wasn't me, it was Vasif Kortun, the director of SALT in Istanbul. The scene here is changing very quickly. Through the 1970s-80s-90s, there were groups of artists making very interesting work but they were somewhat isolated and under-appreciated locally and internationally. Nowadays, we see more and more young artists coming up, many of whom are making challenging work across all media, and who are steering clear of clichés or populist demands, to carve out their own voice. There are more not-for-profit centres and studios (such as Tashkeel, Pavilion and Traffic) supporting artists, as well as dynamic local patrons, which allows for more experimentation. These are exciting times for the UAE arts scene.
The bridging of the current discursive trends with the artistic practices is an important task; this is where the biennales and fairs also are substantially contributing. How do you see such bridging happening in places that are away from the centers – as in Bangladesh, where new talents are forced to survive on modest support from homegrown patrons?
Of course, what constitutes a centre or periphery is always relative! At Art Dubai, we have put this discursive approach at the heart of the fair – through the Global Art Forum (the only annual 6-day “conference”, featuring over 50 speakers and contributors, in Asia) and all our educational endeavours. Some of the most crucial voices in this part of the world – meaning the Middle East and South Asia – or indeed anywhere, are coming out of Dhaka – such as Drik founder Shahidul Alam and the artist Naeem Mohaiemen. I guess, like Dubai, these are centres where an individual can act and have such an impact – but I also hope that cities like Dubai, that have an ability to bring like-minded people together, thanks in part to practical elements like great travel links, can act as an international meeting point for practitioners in Bangladesh.
Massimiliano Gioni, who is curating Venice Art Biennale 2013, feels that 'Art teaches us to be alien on the Earth', we would like to know your position on art, and also what it is that inspires you as you operate in the scope of curator and promoter of art in today's rapidly changing world?
What a great question! I can see what Massimiliano means, and indeed, it is one role of art to complicate, to question, to expose and investigate… In this part of the world in particular, it feels as though seismic shifts in thought, practice, political positions are a daily occurrence that it's only really art that can provide both the relief of continuity, of clear positions and the complexity and fluidity that these times demand. This is not to say artists should have answers – on the contrary, it's their questions, however buried, however subtle, that are crucial. It's the artists and writers that inspire the team at Art Dubai, who all work incredibly hard – plus the desire to collectively build a very different, vital kind of fair.