Research Log | Art Dubai: Cultivating a New Oasis

I had been privy to much of the hype surrounding Art Dubai this year, particularly as a Pakistan Pavilion was to be one of the main features. One year on, and Art Dubai seemed to be making modest waves within the art world.

Intrigued at the rapid success of an art fair and forum in this glossy man-made financial capital, I landed at Dubai International Airport to check out what the hype was all about.

17–18 March

Art Patronage in the Business Age Forum: Art is the Antidote

Preceding the fair and the Global Art Forum was the two-day conference Art Patronage in the Business Age, held at the Dubai International Financial Centre. This was to be my introduction to Art Dubai, and perhaps set the tone for the days to follow. The arrangements were immaculate — and dare I venture to say — shining with corporate gloss. The permanence of the city’s corporate culture was palpable, creating a noteworthy dynamic and point of reference within the conference and beyond. 

Day one’s discussion engaged with the dynamics and dialogue surrounding corporate collections and collaborations. Peter Aspen, the panel chair and arts writer of the Financial Times made interesting commentary and inquiry into the nature of a corporate collection and, more pertinently, gave personal insight on reasons for the increasing investment and interest in art by the corporate world. Art collections, after all, engage wider audiences and add further dimensions into a company’s public profile and policies. With that the floor was neatly opened to the panel. Individual presentations ensued from prolific personalities like curators Maria de Corral and Beatrix Ruf, topics shifted from the journey of building, educating and curating corporate collections to corporate collaboration programs such Jumeirah Hotel New York’s Artist in Residency program. This dialogue continued after lunch, where, among others, Francis Morris, Head of Collections Tate Modern, charted the unprecedented and successful partnership between Unilever and the Tate Modern. The panel discussed the burgeoning role of corporate philanthropy, citing both large and small ventures as they examined the relationship between commerce and culture within a contemporary framework. 

The day’s highlight was Soichiro Fukutake’s talk on the Naoshima Fukutake Museum Foundation. As founder and President of the Benesse Corporation; he spoke of the company’s philosophy and the Benesse House Project on Naoshima Island, the current collection they house, and the company’s role in activating the artist community within the islands.  

The following day the conference focused itself on cultural policies, building cultural cities and cultural philanthropy. What role did corporations play in activating these initiatives? This was particularly relevant in the context of the United Arab Emirates, where there has been a surge of interest within arts and culture (for a multitude of reasons), and an eagerness and considerable investment within the region to makes cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha cultural hubs of the future. An interesting panel discussion was on building cultural cities — or perhaps more aptly their re-building — as NGO Turquiose Mountain’s presentation on their work in Afghanistan showed.  

After my very full first day, I made my way to the American University in Dubai, the venue for the Pakistan Pavilion panel discussion, and arrived to see a plethora of familiar faces from the Pakistani art world. It unfolded to be an intimate and informal affair, noticeably well attended by members of the local and diasporic Pakistani art community, besides a fair audience of American University of Dubai (AUD) students.  

Opening the panel discussion, curator Salima Hashmi elaborated on the title and curatorial focus of the exhibit. The show’s title ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ is borrowed from contemporary British Asian writer Ziauddin Sardar’s novel title, and, as the name implies, the exhibit is the commentary and artistic introspection of this process and journey. The vision of the exhibit, according to Hashmi, was via the variety of discourses that the artists engaged with; be it the dialogue of political processes, stereotyping or international profiling, but at a very personal level. It was to be a recurring theme that would be picked up at different points throughout the panel discussion.  

19–21 March

Art Dubai at Madinat Jumeirah: Choose your Candy and Conversation

Set against the dramatic period architecture of Madinat and the stunning Arabian Sea at the Jumeirah Beach Resort, Art Dubai’s backdrop was certainly an oasis for my weary urban eyes. My itinerary was bursting at the seams, with much overlap. The art fair had 68 galleries from around 35 countries to browse through, with a special ladies-only afternoon viewing, as well as the Global Art Forum, talks at the Yellow Lounge, the Art Park — and of course — the Pakistan Pavilion. I would just have to be everywhere all at once.  

The Global Art Forum stretched across three days, and the speakers were both young emerging voices and prolific powerhouse personalities within the art world. Discussions were as diverse as the speakers, with themes such as Artists within the Public Space, Art in Transition and The Museums of the Future dissected and discussed. I was terribly excited when I read that Anish Kapoor was to be a keynote speaker. Unfortunately, when the time came, we were informed that we would have to make do with a film documentary on him by Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery, London, as Anish Kapoor had been too unwell to travel to Dubai. The film was an informal ‘chatty’ short documentary, shot in the artist’s studio where he spoke of his latest sculptural project and his interest in the relativity of scale and size. Following him was another Asian contemporary art heavyweight, Chinese artist and architect, Ai Wei Wei, who spoke of his journey as an artist and the connection between personal history and art practice. He elaborated on life in China in the 1970s, his journey and experience in the U.S., and subsequent return to China, punctuating his personal story with references as to how it informed his work.  

Noteworthy were the panel discussions on contemporary Middle Eastern video production, taking about art in transition and the role of diaspora, which were both heated and informing. Also, an interesting presentation made by Jane Wentworth on museum branding, her pet project that lead to the V&A’s massive facelift. Glenn Lowry, Director of MoMA gave a powerful presentation on MoMA’s journey as a museum to a packed audience, and the forum ended on the note of new beginnings, with talks around the birth of Middle Eastern cultural institutions within the region. My time at the Global Art Forum was interrupted for one afternoon by an intimate talk titled ‘The Collector’s Circle’ at the Yellow Lounge, where New York-based art collector Rajiv Chaudhry and Karachi-based Hameed Haroon each spoke about their personal collections — the former on his extensive collection of modern and Indian art, and the latter on his significant collection in modern and contemporary Pakistani art.  

In between talks, I made my way to the Pakistan Pavilion and the show ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. Rashid Rana’s installation glimmered in the sunlight as I walked towards the pavilion, and the image of a sophisticated urban metropolis skyline in the 3-dimensional cube structure shifted as I moved around it, and at closer proximity the skyline dissolved and I encountered small pixel images of Lahore’s urban slums. Mohummad Ali Talpur’s installation carried the same simplistic and hypnotic essence that embodies his miniature work, while Faiza Butt’s pointillist paintings were humorous and caustic in their commentary on popular culture and politics. Naiza Khan’s metal corset sculptures, Durriya Kazi’s clay figures of a man and child lying face down, and Farida Batool’s image of a young girl skipping rope to the backdrop of riot-charred buildings were all poignant and disturbing. Sophie Ernst’s video installation of her South Asian encounters projected onto cardboard boxes, Ali Reza’s vivid canvases that echo the turbulent and palpable change in Pakistani urban life, Anwar Saeed’s melancholic dreamscapes, and Imran Qureshi’s delicately rendered confrontation with tradition were all indicative of the artists’ awareness and response to their immediate environment. A photography workshop conducted by Saba Qizilbash of American University Dubai, with a group of immigrant workers positioned in Dubai, made for some interesting photographs. The show and the presence of the Pakistan Pavilion brought forth important visibility and facilitated a wider (and perhaps unknowing) audience to engage with the artwork of a region they may not have thought about otherwise.  

An interesting cultural cross-wiring occurred with sculptor Huma Mulji’s work at the show. Aptly titled Arabian Delight, it depicts a life-sized taxidermied camel (yes, a camel), decidedly uncomfortable and cramped in a large suitcase. The work, witty and absurd, addressed themes of migration, as well as the import and export of culture between Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. Commenting on the growing presence of the ‘Emirates lifestyle and culture’ in Pakistan, it was meant, I think, to tease rather than offend. However, the work did not sit well with some of the local population, as the camel is an integral part of UAE’s national identity. The power and consequence of interpretation: the work was removed — but not before many were tickled, shocked and unable to resist petting Lucy the camel.  

The Art Park — quite literally — was art parked in a car park. It was the antithesis of all else happening in Art Dubai. I would find myself gravitating to that groovy space at the end of each day, where I would help myself to a free can of Coke, courtesy of Mohummad Zeeshan’s brilliant piece Flag Ceremony (and just not because the cola was free). Using coke cans to construct the image of the American flag, the viewer was invited, literally, to help themselves to the artwork, providing for some interesting interaction, image deconstruction and clever commentary on the line between commercial and conceptual. Khalil Chistie’s haunting white plastic figures made of plastic waste bags were interspersed all around the park, an assortment of young, contemporary Arab art and video playing at the Video Bar, MotiRoti’s excellent film shorts, and of course the very cool Bedouin Lounge with its paper furniture were other highlights. It was Art Dubai in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses.  

An eclectic, sometimes disconcerting, assortment of corporate and artistic, Art Dubai by all means facilitated significant dialogue and exchange. It has the potential not only to open doors for a greater, more equal and balanced East-West dialogue, but an East-East one as well. Which is why I’m excited to see what they’ll come up with next year.




Thu, 1 May 2008

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