Sunday 20 March 2016

After 10th Art Dubai, Sustainability Challenge Lies Ahead

By Tajudeen Sowole, just back from Dubai, UAE.

IN its 10th year, Art Dubai, which held the 2016 edition a few days ago at Madinat Jumeirah, United Arab Emirates, took a retrospection of what has been described as one of the leading art hubs in the world. The yearly art fair goes into a second decade with much hope, perhaps bigger challenge.

Visitors in front of Abdoulaye Kanoute’s huge work at Art Dubai Contemporary
 From a regional beginning to global gathering, Art Dubai, indeed has every reason to take pride in its achievements so far. But sustaining further expansion or growth could be the real challenge ahead. 

A few hours before the formal opening, Director at Art Dubai, Antonia Carver told a packed hall of journalists and writers from across the world how the fair got this far and the focus to keep going, even stronger. The 10th edition, “is a special year,” Carver stated shortly after Director-General, Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, H.E. Saeed Mohamed Al Nabouda and the Managing Director, The Abraaj Group, Frederic Sicre each took turn in earlier speeches. Carver’s enthusiasm about the tenth edition was more than the significance of the year as a mere landmark figure in an event's anniversary celebration. With 94 galleries from 40 countries and 500 exhibited artists representing 70 cultures and diverse peoples across the world as well as seven new entrants, Art Dubai is no doubt a phenomenon as a gathering for art appreciation, in just one decade.
  However, art being what it is; delicate, classy and elitist, the rating of galleries and artists is crucial in the business of art. Reputation of participants, most often, goes with the experience gained over the years or decades. For Art Dubai, expanding the scope of the global art market by bringing the big galleries and emerging ones under one event has been one of the fair’s strongest points. This much, Carver stressed, saying “as much as we work with most established galleries, we always look for emerging ones.” Further success of Art Dubai, in the years ahead in sustaining a common space for established and emerging markets from across the world would be highly commendable and strengthen the fair’s unique identity.

  Any keen followers of Art Dubai would have confidence in the ability of the current pace of evolvement to go the marathon. In the last three editions, the direction of its curatorial contents that responded to the dynamics of global practice, was one of the event's score points. Sectionalising, which expanded its scope with Art Dubai Modern and Art Dubai Contemporary has brought a stronger ventilation into growing volume of expressions across textures of art practices.

  And whoever thought that art would continue to be another 'man's world' for a long time, Art Dubai 2016 has news for you: women made as much as  45 per cent of the participating artists. The figure, according to the organisers, represents a "higher percentage than the majority of other international art fairs."

  So far, among the beneficiaries of the expanding global contents of Art Dubai are galleries from Africa. For examples, the 10th edition featured Nubuke Foundation, Accra, Ghana, which showed the works of Daniel Kojo Schrade and George Afedzi Hughes; and Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya, with the works of Ugandan artist, Geoffrey Mukasa on display. Last year, two Lagos, Nigeria-based exhibitors, Mydrim Gallery and Art Twenty One showed Bruce Onobrakpeya, Olu Amoda, among other African artists.

  At The Modern section where the works of Mukasa were on display, Director at Circle Art, Danda Jaroljmek was excited about the opportunity of showing at Art Dubai. “It’s exciting, showing here for the first time,” she told me. Largely of figural or portraiture rendition, Mukasa’s work, like most modernists of African origin, is the bold-in-your-face kind, with loud expressions in colour and form. For Circle, such an artist with established popularity was a good way to start after opening its permanent gallery space in Nairobi with the aim “to be the foremost exhibition space in East Africa.”  
A section of visitors during Art Dubai 2016

 In fact, the director boasted, “Mukasa is one of the biggest artists in East Africa that we believe is gaining more popularity after the art market started rising in that part of Africa two years ago.”

  Circle was founded in 2012 to provide what the promoters described as "a highly professional consultancy service to individual and corporate collectors and art institutions, as well as build audiences through curating ambitious pop-up exhibitions."

  For Nubuke, the 2016 edition was a second appearance, having participated in Marker, a Bisi Silva-led curated space, in 2013. And when the opportunity for being in the main exhibition came, the Contemporary space was a choice. Two artists from the Diaspora, perhaps, suggested that the ‘best’ of contemporary Ghanaian artists are based abroad, isn’t it? “It just happened that both of them are based outside,” director at Nubuke, Odile Tevie explained. “We promote artists both from within Ghana and those based outside; no discrimination.” More importantly, the availability of contents that met the requirement of the space, Tevie added, was also crucial. Recall that Nubuke showed Ghanaian modernist, Ablade Glover at Marker 2013.

  Few booths away from Nubuke, Nigerian-American contemporary portraitist, Kehinde Wiley’s exploding image of a phenomenon artist adds freshness to the space. The work, portrait of a lad was shown by Paris, France-based Galerie Daniel Tempton. 

  Despite the fact that no gallery based in Nigeria showed at Art Dubai 2016, the country was not exactly missing: from far away India, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai showed Nnenna Okore, among the artists on display at the Modern section. Two wall pieces of burlap and wire titled The Sun Should Rise Again and Strings Attached, which were on display - among other artists' smaller works - extended Okore’s identity of an artist whose contemporaneity keep emphasising the strength of materials in contextual term. Her presence at Dubai courtesy of Sakshi was as a result of a relationship dated many years back, said the proprietor of the gallery, Geetha Mehra. “It started in 2009 when we showed her work and El Anatsui’s in Mumbai.” The connection, Mehra disclosed was made possible by Silva. 

  Next to Sakhi Gallery, was another African artist Abdoulaye Kanoute being showing by London, UK-based Blain Southern Gallery, Kanoute, a Malian, had on display a massive collage of prints, layered in colours. The works, according to the gallery, was an extension of the artis’s project in Brazil, last year.

 The synergy that has existed between iconic modern cities and art over the decades - perhaps century in the case of Venice Biennale - is being confirmed by the success of Art Dubai, which stressed how contemporary business environment gets strength from the creative sector. Sicre stated this much when he argued, “no city can survive without art and culture.” The Abraaj Group has been a major sponsor of Art Dubai in the last nine editions.

 And the expansion continued this year with three debutants: Dubai Photo Exhibition of works from 23 countries, selected by Zelda Cheatie-led 18 curators; Piaget Exhibition, which showed 'exclusive and rare' pieces in jewelries from private collections of the 70s and 80s; and Sikka Art Fair in support of and showcasing of Emirati and Dubai-based artists.

 Organised by Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, Art Dubai started with focus on art of the Mddle East, South East Asia and expanded to other regions, including Africa and South America. 

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