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A Visit to Art Dubai

“Art Dubai represents an art world that’s truly global and inclusive, rooted in artistic discovery and the promotion of new and alternative prospective.”

Pablo del Val, Artistic Director of Art Dubai


SNA (Dubai) — Every March the celebrated Art Dubai Fair takes places in the United Arab Emirates. A vibrant, new city that emerged from the desert a few decades ago and has managed to become one of the top destinations worldwide, Dubai offers a futuristic vision of a man-made habitat, an urban reality that its constantly growing and changing. Its architecture aims at impressing us with iconic buildings where its multinational inhabitants leave their mark through their sharing of their respective cultures and traditions.

Its only fitting then that Art Dubai 2019 reflected the impact of the country’s multiplicity. We attended the 13th edition. Held under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Art Dubai proved to be the world’s most internationally diverse art fair. It featured 92 contemporary and modern galleries from 42 countries, coupled with an extensive educational programming. Artists of eighty nationalities were represented across four gallery sections.

Art Dubai’s new structure included four main sections complementing each other that offer visitors and collectors alike a deeper engagement with non-Western geographies.

The sobriquet “global south” was applied to the gallery section named Bawwaba (“gateway” in Arabic), where ten solo shows addressed issues related to global migration, socioeconomic structures and identity. Another gallery section focused on twelve resident Latin American artists that were invited to the United Arab Emirates for a four-to-eight weeks’ residency so that they could immerse themselves in the local scene and create works that derived from their experience.

We spoke to Curator Munira al-Sayegh, who stated, “it’s extremely important that resident artists can engage and produce a meaningful exchange with local artists in order to go beyond the surface of the UAE.”

We also interviewed the Cuban artist José Manuel Mesías (born in 1990 in Havana, Cuba), an artist specializing in painting, drawing, installation, and video. Mesías’s work revolves around the idea of art as a means of exploring the unknown. Through detailed observation of objects, spaces, and people, while in Abu Dhabi he came to produce the installation that was on show. Mesías looks for a means of access to probe into the surface of the world around himself. He finds it in the assemblage of discarded construction material and minimal anodyne objects both found and fabricated. The integration of the decaying elements of the UAE metropolitan environment inspired him to create the installation we saw at Art Dubai. A discarded workers’ glove was displayed on a stand as if a sculpture to honor the builder’s hand.

The Palestinian-Chilean artist Dima Srouji certainly refers to themes displacement and questions related to her Palestinian roots. These are evident in her nostalgia for seasonal changes and ‘slowness’ in life style as opposed to the frantic pace of Dubai, where she currently resides. Her sculptures similar to urban layout models contained handwritten indications

She stated, “for us Palestinians the seasons are very important, for instance spring blossoming… here, in Dubai, I miss those seasonal changes. Of course, in Chile too she is able to enjoy the beauty of nature. Dima prefers a slow pace of life in touch with nature, and it shows on the visual narrative of her art pieces.

From Palestine, Ramallah to be exact, we met Ziad Amani, who is at the helm of Zawyeh Gallery (which means corner), rather symbolically. Ziad talked about the challenges that the Israeli occupation presents to artists and collectors alike. Only to reach Dubai from Ramallah is a kind of odyssey requiring the passing through checkpoints and borders, and utilizing various means of transportation to reach the airport of Amman in order to fly to Dubai. Ziad explained that the art market, together with opportunities for young creators is practically non existing at home. Therefore, whenever possible Ziad travels abroad in order to expose the Ramallah artists’ works and, hopefully, sell their pieces too.

On this occasion we got to know the works of young painter Rana Samara who with bright colors and bold strokes depicts scenes related to her interrupted childhood games under the threat of bombs. Fittingly, her series go by the name of War Games. These large canvases not only depict her experiences as a child growing up in Ramallah, but also the experiences of children she knows that come to confide to her their dreams and fears. The painting Lego shows a boy’s bombed out bedroom rebuilt with giant Lego bricks, for that is what the Palestinian boy hoped could be done.

Depressed and traumatized by military war and occupation, children living in camps dreaming of a faraway life were asked by Samara to draw their reoccurring dreams. Unsurprisingly, they illustrated personal stories that revolved around play. Samara translates those drawings on large canvases painted with brilliant colors and vivid ornaments as if she is trying to reflect the size and value of life-details found in the children’s dreams.

Wadi Finan Art Gallery presented the works of Raya Kassisieh, a Palestinian artist who holds a MFA from Pratt Institute in New York. Kassisieh uses textiles wrapped around frames in order to represent landscapes of her beloved land. The fabrics she uses for her art pieces are stitched and created by the women living in the refugee camps.

The relatively strong presence of Palestinian artists, either by members of the international diaspora living in places like Chile or the United States, or in Jordan or Lebanon, was of particular interest. It proved that the desire to produce art is an innate instinct of humankind linked to identity and heritage regardless of the style it takes.

As it happened, we were fortunate enough to meet the two grand dames of Palestinian art. One is Mona Saudi, painter and sculptor. She has always been interested in the poetry of Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish, which have been a source of inspiration throughout her long career. Saudi works in stone. Her forms are full of vitality and a clear sense of equilibrium. Saudi frequently uses forms such as the square, circle, cylinder, rectangle, to which she infuses movement, giving them a touch of life. Amongst some of her more famous sculptures is the one standing in front of the Arab World Institute in Paris.

The marvelous Samia Halaby, born in Jerusalem in 1936 is Palestine’s most famous painter and activist, and is recognized as the pioneer of contemporary abstraction in the Arab world. In the geometric abstraction of Islamic architecture combined with the abstract movements of the Russian avant-garde, Halaby postulates that new approaches to painting can redirect ways of seeing and thinking within the realm of aesthetics and also contribute to technological and social advancement. This belief has led to additional research in drawing, printmaking, computer-based kinetic art, and free-from-the-stretcher painting.

Amongst the Japanese presence in Art Dubai we found a gallery based in Luxembourg that represents a truly international artist, Tomokazu Matsuyama, whose art draws on multiple influences ranging from Japanese pop manga to American expressionism and androgynous figures such as one can find in the traditional Japanese all-female theatre. The gallerist pointed out some of Matsuyama’s works and explained its characteristics.

Curious to know about the art panorama in Ethiopia, we visited the Addis Fine Art group that exhibited at Art Dubai for the first time. We learned about two artists whose works currently gaining recognition abroad. Tadese Mesfin, a modernist artist, often paints images of women at markets. According to Gallery Adis Fine Art, his recent works are contemporary interpretations of frontal figures in columnar arrangements, influenced by ancient Egyptian sculptures and mythological drawings, infused with local colors, hinting at eastern Ethiopian cities like Harar. Addis Gezehagn, who lives and works in Addis Ababa, is renowned for his abstracted portrayals of the multifaceted characteristics of the city’s architectural structures.

At the Berlin-based Galerie Kornfeld, we discovered the works of a very interesting Syrian artist who went viral on social media during the Syrian War with his digitally manipulated images of a bullet ridden building over which a Gustave Klimt’s image of the famous The Kiss was incorporated. Tammam Azzam was forced to leave Damascus a few years ago with his family. He not only lost his home but also his studio and materials. He was a prolific painter. 
As he told an art magazine recently, “I can’t say I’m happy for that because how can you be happy in such a miserable situation? But yes, I want to make something about my country that’s popular, not in a political way, in an artistic way.” For his show in Art Dubai, Azzam presented a large collaged image reminiscent of the recent Syrian diaspora.

Daniah al-Saleh is a Saudi Arabian artist and the recipient of the 2019 Ithra Art Prize issued by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Saudi Arabia. al-Saleh created a multimedia installation piece titled Sawtan (which means phoneme). Her work explores the beauty and complexities of the Arabic language. Born and based in Riyadh, al-Saleh is currently completing a Masters in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her works address notions of the unobtrusive, the ordinary, and the common, using geometry and pattern as a form of self-expression. She crosses disciplines from painting to developing generative art processes with code.

Amrita Sethi is an artist with a multicultural background stemming from Africa, India and the United Kingdom. She uses voice notes to produce drawings.

Artistic Director Pablo del Val is right in saying, ”Art Dubai has been instrumental to raise the profile of regional artists. Since its inception in 2007, the fair has shone a spotlight on art from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Art Dubai represents a commitment to being a place of discovery for art from geographical areas that are usually outside art’s mainstream dialogue.”

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