From Sharjah to Dubai and back again (part 2):
Art Dubai and gallery openings

Issue no3
June - July 2020
Troebele waters

Art Dubai, 16-19 March

Art fairs tend to be claustrophobic affairs: too much stuff to look at in too confined a space; too many over-priced drinks and too many people to schmooze with. The fifth Art Dubai was the largest one to date, and the first under the directorship of Antonia Carver, editor-at-large of Bidoun magazine and director of Bidoun Projects. With over 80 galleries participating, many from the MENASA region, galleries have over the years notingly learned how to woo local and regional tastes.

Curator Nav Haq was invited to develop five ‘concept stands’ with experimental commercial and non-commercial spaces from the MENASA region, to be integrated within the fair. These included a.o. ACAF, Alexandria, Grey Noise from Lahore, and Ruangrupa from Jakarta. Interesting as these projects were, they got lost in the din and clutter of the fair. Ruangrupa, for example, presented highlights of video art from Indonesia and beyond, but there was unfortunately no possibility to view the videos properly.

Carver’s presence was missed at Bidoun’s Art Park, traditionally the non-commercial highlight of the fair. In comparison to previous years, Bidoun’s program was rather sparse. Of note was the lecture-performance by Lebanese artist duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige Aida, save me. Joreige and Hadjithomas recounted how after the Beirut premiere of their 2005 feature film A Perfect Day, they were contacted by Aida H. who complained they had used unauthorized footage of her disappeared husband. A court case ensued: the film, a fiction became a testifying image – a legal document – in the missing man’s legal file. Eventually a compromise was reached. In much of their work Joreige and Hadjithomas underline how images, fiction, history, representation, and memory are porous notions that can be negotiated, and oscillate back and forth.

Abraaj Capital Art Prize

Art Dubai annually hosts the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, the most prestigious prize in the MENASA region, and with a million US$ to spend definitely the world’s most generous. Of all five nominees, which included Hamra Abbas, Shezad Dawood, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, and Timo Nasseri, British-Iraqi artist Jananne Al-Ani’s single channel digital video Shadow Sites II stood out. Al-Ani takes the viewer on an aerial journey into an abstract landscape reminiscent of Google Earth and military visuals. She first presents the ‘oriental’ landscape as it has traditionally been presented to a Western eye: a vast uninhabited desert plane. Once the camera pans and zooms we slowly start detecting traces of habitation, and human presence. Al-Ani combines military and technological imagery in order to deconstruct orientalist gazes and representations. She does this in a meticulous, potent and mesmerising fashion.

Gallery openings

Continuing on the gallery trail at the Dubai International and Financial Centre (DIFC) and the industrial Al Quoz area, home to many art galleries, Dubai inaugurated its month of art with a flurry of gallery openings. The DIFC, partner of Art Dubai, has over the past year become home to six galleries.

The Empty Quarter, DIFC, Dubai
Run by the spirited Elie Domit, The Empty Quarter is the only gallery in Dubai focusing on fine art photography. Domit has distinct, yet daring taste and does not shy away from controversial issues or alternative exhibition concepts. This makes the new show Spectacle of War so attractive. Though the Middle East and war connection is a tired and tried one, Domit manages to cull artists whose work transcends generic imagery. Presented as a tight-knit narrative, Trevor Paglen’s photos of classified military bases and classified American satellites sit next to Ben Lowly’s series Iraq Perspectives taken through the window of a Humvee while embedded with US soldiers. The visible presence of the window highlights the constructedness of an image taken in passing. Irish Richard Mosse’s photograph of the series Breach where we spot US soldiers sunbathing at a swimming pool filled with rubble, highlights the absurdity of war. While the image of two statue torsos of Saddam Hussein, decapitated and amputated, provide a striking visual reminder of how monumentalism and power come to a petty end.

Cuadro, DIFC, Dubai
Cuadro Gallery shows international artists, but is also keen to promote artists from the Gulf and the Middle East. Their latest show Right Here, Right Now would leave any UN or EU officer engaged in soft diplomacy through culture feel smug. The show’s premise was the artists’ experience of transnational identity within globalised culture. Despite the off-putting lobbyist lingo, Cuadro put on a good show starring Ali Taptik and Brad Downey. Taptik seduces with dark photographs of urban Istanbuli landscapes and details of trails that city dwellers left behind. Downey takes a more humorous and playful approach with his urban interventions, or ‘interference street art’, as the gallery likes to dub it. For example, one video shows the artist taking out a row of pavement stones in Karl Marx Allee in Berlin. He stacks them neatly, then lets them fall like dominoes. In another piece, made in Amsterdam, he ties two supermarket trolleys to a bridge. When the bridge opens the trolleys are left dangling in the air, much to the guffawing of bystanders.

Taptik and Downey demonstrate two very different approaches in regard to place and urbanity. Showing this in a city that changes face every six months, in a new gallery quarter situated in a financial centre, only adds an additional frame of interpretation.

Farhad Moshiri at Farjam Collection DIFC, Dubai, and Third Line, Al Quoz Dubai
Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri (1963, Shiraz) was the darling at the privately-owned Farjam Collection and at the well-known The Third Line Gallery. His 2007 work Eshgh (Love) studded with Swarovski crystals famously fetched $1,048,000 at Bonhams ‘Modern & Contemporary Arab, Iranian, Indian & Pakistani Art’ auction in Dubai. No wonder that his work, heavy on bling and glitter, does so well in the Gulf. It is difficult not to smile at his work and be charmed by his humour and versatility, such as Kitty Cat (2009) and Bunny Rabbit (2009) both from the Fluffy Friends series. Moshiri has a knack for combining western pop culture, kitsch, and mass consumerism with eastern traditions. His work is easy on the eye, obviously ironic, and at times even dark. In comparison to the solo at Farjam, Moshiri’s work at the Third Line Gallery was understated. Shukran (thank you in Arabic) was written along the length of the gallery wall with daggers and kitchen knives. In the light of the political reverberations across the region, this work takes on an uncanny political dimension.

Satellite Studio, James Clar, Al Quoz Dubai
Further down at Al Quoz, American media artist James Clar opened his studio space Satellite. It intends to be an open house, a space of experimentation for artists in Dubai and those passing through the city. Away from the glitz of the gallery openings and the Art Dubai fair, Clar’s no frills space with beers and cheese, and friends deejaying felt soothingly normal. Clar’s work on view has an interest in the manipulation of light, and often crosses over into design. The Versace suit pierced with FL tubes proves too spectacular and literal to my taste, but a sculptural piece like Ball and Chain, made out of car headlights clearly shows Clar’s visual language and skills. He admitted to me that as a media artist he felt isolated in the Gulf, and that his work has to be produced elsewhere as the U.A.E. lacks professional production facilities. He added though that the level of support and opportunity he receives in Dubai would be hard to find elsewhere.

Edge of Arabia, DIFC, Dubai
Edge of Arabia, a project initiated by British artist Stephen Stapleton while on a residency in Saudi Arabia in 2003, aims to show the unknown contemporary art and culture of Saudi Arabia to international audiences. Since 2008 exhibitions of contemporary Saudi art have been held in London, Berlin, Istanbul and Venice. Now for the first time Edge of Arabia opened a major exhibition in the Gulf. Titled Terminal and curated by Cuadro Gallery’s director Bashar Al Shroogi, the exhibition takes visitors, or rather passengers, on a journey through an artistically designed airport. Complete with check-in counters, boarding passes, X-ray machines, a smoking room, prayer room and duty free shop where you could buy the catalogue and other merchandise, this show contemplated travel, mobility, security and other rites of passage in a post 9/11 world.

Even the exhibition guide was a passport to be stamped by ‘immigration officials’. With the show concept being as much on display as the artworks, matters can feel a bit forced. Works tend to serve a curatorial idea rather than themselves. Though the exhibition design was extremely well executed, the amount of X-ray art, made popular by Saudi artist/medical doctor Ahmed Mater, and picked up on by artist Maha Malluh, was overly dominant. Sami Al-Turki’s able photographs of cranes and bulldozers reiterated a common theme in photography taken in the Gulf. Hala Ali, a 24-year old artist still at the University of Sharjah College of Fine Art & Design, created the strongest work in the show. Sporting the unlucky title Brainwash, Ali offers a spatial contraption resembling a car wash. Instead of brushes between the two vices, we find stacks of newspapers. No doubt that media, information, dissemination, and misinformation are themes to remain relevant within the region for years to come.

Nat Muller is an independent curator and critic based between Rotterdam and the Middle East

Travel to the U.A.E. has been kindly supported by Fonds BKVB

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2020