A Life Design Experiment

MENArt: Highlights of Dubai’s art scene (Part I)

by Holly Em on April 6, 2013

Under the “Art Week“ umbrella, Dubai recently hosted an explosion of contemporary art events, marking the most dynamic time in the UAE’s cultural calendar. Being no stranger to anything dealing with design and creative expression, I flocked to these events like Rihanna to Chris Brown.

Given that my favourite pastime is frequenting art fairs like Frieze London, Arco Madrid, and the many independent art shows in between, I was curious to see how a major contemporary art event would be in Dubai considering the heavy censorship of this region. How can art be freely displayed in an un-democratic environment? Won’t the art be compromised if the creators cannot truly express themselves?

What I found at the various art events around Art Week was both enlightening and inspiring. Not only was the art the most intriguing that I have seen yet, it was deeply intimate, intelligent and thought provoking. Major galleries from Europe, Asia and America showcased critically acclaimed work alongside artists from the Middle East and North Africa (also known as “MENA”).  For me, the MENA art was the most interesting, perhaps because the Middle East is not widely associated with art, which goes hand in hand with freedom of expression.

Not only was the MENA art simply stunning – a delicate mix of ethnic and modern – it was intensely intimate, providing insight into the psyche of the region. Local Emirati and regional artists from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and beyond touched on politics, religion and struggles of their culture in a subtle, but poignant manner.  The purpose of their projects, the artists insist, is not to criticize, but to encourage dialogue.

Unlike the newspapers and magazines here that have black permanent marker streaks across any part of any picture that shows a bit too much flesh (even across the buttocks of renaissance paintings), art showing nudity was allowed at Art Dubai. Positioned like pork products in a grocery store, any piece of art that displayed nudity was carefully tucked away in the back corners of the art spaces behind thick partitions to avoid any non-intentional encounter. The only thing missing was that little sign that reads “For non-muslims only.” It’s no wonder then that Art Dubai is dubbed “A safe place for unsafe ideas”:

What has been happening in Dubai, both inside the fair and in gallery spaces around the city, has wider significance than merely to entertain the newly curious about the ways of contemporary art. The very process of airing previously taboo themes is fast assuming an equal importance to the art itself…. In fact, Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi says that Art Dubai manages to be both more global, and more intimate, than its international counterparts. “The only debate on politics we have here is under the umbrella of art.”

Perhaps what I liked most about the events of Art Week was the lack of pretention. When wandering the winding streets of the Old Quarter in which the Sikka Art Fair was situated, local and international artists alike were keen to share their stories about why they made what they made in an open dialogue with me. It didn’t matter that I was dressed in my boring work clothes, that I didn’t have knowledge of art history or drop any names. They simply seemed to appreciate my appreciation and interest in their work. This is in stark contrast to Frieze London, where the exclusive “arty farty” folk cliqued together to schmooze and be seen but not mingled with (unless you are “part of the club”).

[Warning: the following text contains over generalizations about nationalities]

When sitting in the café of Design Days Dubai, I shared a table with two chatty individuals, one from Belgium and the other Brazil, who happened to be gallery owners working the fair.

“You must love it the best here in Dubai,” I said, knowing that everything in the fair was highly exclusive and in line with the Emirati’s lavish spending habits. The gallery owners nodded in unison with wide, excited eyes that smiled “cha-CHING!”

“Actually, it’s the Chinese,” corrected one the Belgian gallery owner. “You think the Emiratis spend a lot, the Chinese spend more.”  My jaw dropped.

I had heard a similar statement just a few days prior from an American acquaintance that moved here from Hong Kong…. Except the difference was that you could never tell who the millionaires are (in Hong Kong) as they dress like everyday people.

“The Chinese [art buyers] are strange for us to deal with. They generally don’t know a thing about art or speak English, so they always bring art advisers with them to buy the pieces,” commented the Belgian gallery owner. He went on to explain that, in his experience, selling art to the Chinese was more like making a simple business transaction.

“It’s hard to make that connection with the art buyer over a piece of art when the only person you talk to is their adviser. You see, there is only one or two of these pieces in existence, and you want to make sure it goes to a good home, that it will be taken care of.”

Now the penny dropped for me – perhaps this is where the schmoozing comes in handy. I had never thought of art being cherished like a member of the family, or that you essentially had to be chosen to buy a particular piece. In a way it makes sense. But then again, if you have the money to buy the art, then you should be able to purchase it without having to forge a connection, right?

As I gazed away from the Burj Khalifa towering over us, I asked the Belgian gallery owner where else he travels to showcase/sell art. When he mentioned America I was curious to know how he found the Americans in comparison. He looked at me as if I was asking a trick question.

“The Americans…. Well, they generally think they’ve seen it all. They don’t seem very interested in design. Here we are showing them work of exceptional craftsmanship that took months to prepare and all they can say is can’t you make it bigger?

“But what about New York, San Francisco and LA?” I rebutted.

“New York, definitely. Without question. And Miami. But other than that, not so much.”

“Not LA?” I asked, considering all the movie stars, musicians, and wealthy creative folk there.

“Nope!” he laughed. “[The celebrities] are the worst. They think they know design and that they can do it themselves, but what they actually produce takes god awful tacky to a completely new level. Take or example Pharrell Williams. He had the chance to collaborate with the most reputable glass engineer and what did he decide to create for $2million? Huge glass angel skeletons that are probably sitting in his front lawn right now.”

I thought to myself, well it can’t be worse then the piece I saw 6 years ago of a limp dead horse resting on an old wooden dining table at Frieze London. I mean, what the heck is that (double click on image to make it bigger)?

Limp Horse Art at Frieze London

The Belgian felt the need to clarify, saying that America has impeccable design museums, some of the best in the world. It’s just that there is a distinct lack of interest by the general public compared to Europe, which makes it less interesting for him as an art dealer to do business in the states.

“In Europe, of course they have an acute appreciation of design, but it is very pretentious. People don’t even talk to you if you don’t look the part,” he said.

This confirmed my personal experience.

“How about in Brazil?” I asked the Brazilian gallery owner. “From what I’ve seen they are great at design.”

“Yes,” she confirmed, “but they like to have what everyone else has. Nobody wants to be an individual. If you bring a book (of design pieces), you might as well just bring all the same piece.”

It was unanimous between the two gallery owners that the favourite place to showcase and sell their fine design is Dubai.

“We love dealing with the Arabs because they are so curios. They have a genuine appreciation of contemporary design, how it was made, with what material, what it means…” commended the Brazilian gallery owner.

This makes total sense, considering that the locals (particularly the Emiratis) are very forward thinking, almost to the detriment of their heritage. They are constantly looking for the next big thing on the horizon, seldom looking back at the footprints from where they have come. This is especially true of the younger generation that knows only the glittery, pampered lifestyle of today’s United Arab Emirates. This is a huge topic that will require a different blog post all together.

This brings to another interesting observation about Art Week. In the same way that Dubai imported foreign know-how to develop the city, whilst at the same time enabling its citizens integrate, profit and learn from foreign expertise, Art Dubai and the Sikka Art Fair have also served as a platform for mutual understanding between the international and local artists. Globally-acclaimed artists helped to promote the UAE as a hub for contemporary art, whilst at the same time integrated with the local artists, providing them an invaluable opportunity to learn from them and gain international recognition. This is a distinct parallel to how Dubai came from primitive to innovative within 20 short years.

Perhaps yet another reason Art Week has taken off so well has to do with the shift from West to East in terms of the economy. With the sharp rise in wealth in this region, plus the rise of the middle class in China, these countries are taking a fresh interest in art, whereas previously not so much.  This makes the barriers to entry lower and the art scene much friendlier. But who knows. As the art scene grows in Dubai it could very well turn from sociable to snobbish as it has in Europe. I’m just going to enjoy it whilst I can.

Stay tuned Parts 2 and 3, where I will share with you pictures of the art that I have seen along with their story.


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