DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Shopping, real estate, luxury, and massive scale are the things most people expect to find in Dubai, but one thing that this city affords you that may be unexpected is perspective.
Perched at the bottom of the Persian Gulf, Dubai is a cosmopolitan kebab of skyscrapers, resorts, golf courses, malls, and luxury homes skewered by a major highway that whiz past feats of architectural whimsy of every sort. There’s something alluring about a place that can feel like many different cities depending on where you stand, but that hybrid sense of place grows on you even after a few days, and it represents the shift of perspective that you inadvertently experience in the art world here.
Art Dubai, which took place March 19–22, is the UAE’s commercial addition to the growing constellation of global art events and destinations that are being nurtured in this nation of monarchies sowing seeds for a post-oil world. It is a country very aware of the peaks and valleys of single-resource wealth, and they don’t appear eager to repeat the financial realities that besieged the region after the introduction of cultured pearls in the early 20th century decimated the local pearling industry, and art appears to be part of the diversified economic vision that local rulers are eager to see realized.
Contemporary art may not have a long history in the UAE, but what is obvious is that it has taken root quite quickly and it is being supported by an infrastructure that includes artist residencies, growing museums, serious collectors, a major biennial (Sharjah), and a burgeoning gallery scene. Art Dubai is the art fair component that the scene needs if it is going to be a crossroads of contemporary art, and from what I witnessed during my weeklong visit, they seem to be doing that part right.
Unlike most other art fairs, Art Dubai takes the perspective afforded by its geographic location seriously. This is not a copy of a run-of-the-mill art fair, but an attempt to do something with a global focus rooted in the local. Roughly a third of the galleries are from the Arab World, and many prominent North American and European galleries (Gagosian, Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, White Cube, Lisson … ) are nowhere to be found. It is a place where the art world has shifted eastward, a step away from the centers of New York, London, and Paris, or at least less bound to the usual suspects and narratives. Local galleries like Third Line, Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, and Green Art Gallery, among others, are joined by galleries from Casablanca to Jakarta, and the mix feels consciously unique. This year, the fair also invited internationally renowned art duo Slavs and Tatars to curate their Marker section of art spaces with largely unknown galleries from the Caucasus and Central Asia — there were a lot of unknown faces, and that contributed to the excitement.
Added to this already rich mix is their annual Global Art Forum program, curated by Shumon Basar, and the brand-new Modern section, which welcomed 11 galleries to exhibit single or two-artist booths devoted to modernist art from the Arab and Islamic worlds, and the result is intelligent, cosmopolitan, and insightful. Many of the artistic histories on display, which are still largely outside the purview of most Western art museums, suggest that fairs can have a role in filling in the gaps and cracks of our understanding of modern and contemporary art.
In the coming days, I will explore each facet of the fair and local art scene in an effort to demystify a city and country that has already cultivated, and continues to nurture, a global art hub.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and accommodations were paid for by Art Dubai 2014.