Last week the glistening hi-tech Manarat Al Saadiyat culture center on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island opened its doors to 50 galleries from the United Arab Emirates, Europe, Asia, and North America plus several special exhibitions organized for the 11th edition of the Abu Dhabi Art Fair. The opening was more subdued than in previous years due to a downpour of rain—a rare occurrence that caused the VIP vernissage to be held a day earlier—as well as the sudden passing of Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, the brother of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince.
Since Dyala Nusseibeh, the daughter of Zaki Nusseibeh, the UAE’s minister of state and also one of the region’s most prominent art collectors, took over as director in 2016, the Abu Dhabi Art Fair has become more than a market for commerce, with a series of curated shows and initiatives now integral to the fair’s identity.
An intricate installation by Saudi-Palestinian artist Dana Awartani in the inaugural Al Burda Endowment Exhibition signaled a special kind of ambition. Initiated in 2004, Al Burda is a platform founded by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development for artists working within the field of Islamic art. “Our mandate with the Endowment is to promote innovation in contemporary Islamic art practices,” Salem Al Qassemi, the ministry’s assistant undersecretary for arts and heritage, said of a show featuring work by 10 artists (and remaining on view into February, after which point it will be presented in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue in March). “Exhibiting at Abu Dhabi Art allowed us to present to the public the creativity and diversity of Islamic art and culture.”
Awartani’s installation—under the disquieting title Come Let Me Heal Your Wounds, Let Me Mend Your Broken Bones, As We Stand Here Mourning (2019)—serves as a reflection on sustainability and cultural destruction of the kind committed by Islamic fundamentalist groups since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011. Dyed silk panels hang from the ceiling, into which Awartani incorporated holes and tears she then repaired with plantings of 50 herbs and spices. The healing cloths serve as a metaphor for the roilings and revolutions affecting parts of the Middle East and even the most tranquil areas around the Gulf, where different kinds of societal change are underway.
“Neither Visible, Nor Concealed,” another curated exhibition focusing on three emerging Emirati artists from the region (and remaining into February), transforms a room in Manarat Al Saadiyat into a dimly lit majlis-like setting filled with regal neoclassical furniture—the kind that one would find in an Emirati home—among LED installations, videos, and a range of other textile and design works. In different ways, the artists—Ayesha Hadhir, Shaikha Al Ketbi, and Radwa Al Ketbi—reference the desert, the sea, and vacant urban spaces in an otherworldly setting in a bid to connect with nature in an increasingly digital world.
“New Horizons: China Today,” a new section at Abu Dhabi Art curated by Jérôme Sans (co-founder of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris), was evidence of the UAE’s increasing socio-economic ties with China. “The UAE has recently committed to multi-million-dollar trade agreements with China, signing as many as 13 trade agreements this past summer,” Nusseibeh, Abu Dhabi Art’s director, told ARTnews. “Also, 200 schools in the UAE will be teaching China and the UAE is looking to China as a business partner in a very significant way in the coming years. I think cultural exchange is all the more important to look at because of this.”
On view were in “New Horizons” were large fiberglass sculptures of a rhinoceros and a dinosaur by the Galleria Continua-represented artist duo Sun Yuan and Pen Yu, known for their bombastic and thought-provoking work—including an industrial robot titled Can’t Help Myself recently at the Venice Biennale. Other artists included Li Shirui (represented by White Space Beijing) and Li Qing (Tang Contemporary).
Another new section placed a focus on India, homeland to the UAE’s largest immigrant community and a country with which it also shares longstanding economic and cultural ties. Curated by Indian gallerist Ashwin Thadani, the section included presentations of work from Nature Morte gallery, Galerie Isa, Gallery Espace, Vadehra Art Gallery, and Aicon Gallery, which showed works by Indian modernist M.F. Husain. “There’s a longstanding relationship between the UAE and India that I would like to develop further,” Nusseibeh said.
Omar Kholeif, who was named Sharjah Art Foundation’s director of collections and senior curator this past summer, returned to curate the fair’s Focus section for the third consecutive time. Titled “Drawing, Tracing, Mapping for Focus,” the section invited new galleries to the fair to show a range of artists exploring drawing, cartography and mapping with a focus on works on paper. Galleries included ATHR from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Green Art Gallery from Dubai, Jhaveri Contemporary from Mumbai, and Galerist from Istanbul, among others
Posing a question to himself as to the purpose of bringing artists to Abu Dhabi, Kholeif told ARTnews, “There’s a very important art history in the Middle East and South Asia that needs to be archived and preserved. It needs to stay here in its own territory—not be shown only in Western museums as a contextualized other.”
As to the setting of an art fair for such work to be shown, Kholeif added, “This fair brings the region together around art, which is huge.”
Business-wise, reviews for Abu Dhabi Art were mixed. First-time participant Lehmann Maupin, with spaces in New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul, had some luck in a booth showing work by Nari Ward and Shirazeh Houshiary. The gallery “works closely with many prominent institutions in the UAE,” said senior director of the gallery Isabella Icoz, “and the fair gave us an opportunity to further develop these important relationships. As a first-time participant, we met new collectors at the fair and placed important works in collections in the region.”
But the tune was different for first-time participant Salon 94, from New York. Invited by Kholeif to participate in the Focus section, the gallery presented a booth of painted works by Huma Bhabha priced at $20,000 each alongside works on paper by Elizabeth Neel each for $12,000 and a sculpture by Bhaba for $150,000. “We are not selling,” Alissa Friedman, a partner at Salon 94, told ARTnews on the fair’s third day. “There’s a curiosity here, but it is culturally very different from other places I go to and the other fairs I participate in, which is around 10 per year.”
Another Western dealer who preferred to be left unidentified said, succinctly, “There are great museums here, but I don’t feel there are enough collectors yet.”
“Money these days is a different matter to when the fair first opened,” said Stefani Abadian-Crone of October Gallery, a London-based operation that has been showing at the fair for nine years. On the third day of the fair, prospects for sales that had been elusive continued. “We know that, in Abu Dhabi, sales come at the last moment, so we remain confident,” Crone added. October showed one of the fair’s most expensive works: a wall hanging by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui priced around $1 million.
For galleries from the region, sales can be a different matter. Dubai-based Lawrie Shabibi gallery, participating for the second year, presented a solo booth dedicated to Moroccan master Mohamed Melehi, whose work is currently the subject of an exhibition at MACAAL (Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden) in Marrakech. “It’s quite an unusual fair in that we have a fairly good idea of who our key buyers are, and it is up to us to provide them with what we think they should be looking at,” said William Lawrie. The gallery sold works in the range of $50,000 to $100,000.
“The difference between Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art is that the buyers here [in Abu Dhabi] are Emirati,” said Qawsra Hafez, owner and director of Hafez Gallery in Jeddah and longtime fair participant. “The buyers in Dubai are usually not Emirati.” The gallery sold a variety of works by Saudi and Arab artists to mostly Emirati female buyers.
Saleh Barakat from Agial Art Gallery from Lebanon—now in the midst of more than a month of protests over the government’s failures to address the country’s dire economic conditions—sold some alluring anamorphic sculptures by Anachar Basbous for prices between $20,000 to $50,000. “Of course there were fewer collectors who traveled from Lebanon for the fair,” Barakat said. “The market in general is slower. Buyers are more careful about their spending and take more time to decide. But being a gallerist is my vocation. I promoted the artists of this region in good times, and I will keep defending them in bad times.”
Zawyeh Gallery, from Ramallah, presented work by five Palestinian artists—Wafa Hourani, Khaled Hourani, Nabil Anani, Sliman Mansour, and Tayseer Barakat—and by the third day had sold six pieces, five of which went to an international museum plus one that went to a collector from Abu Dhabi. “I don’t think the fair is affected by any of the conflicts happening in the Middle East,” said the gallery’s founder, Ziad Anani. “In Ramallah, we have many challenges, and it’s very hard to operate the gallery because of the Israeli restrictions, import and export taxes, customs, checkpoints, shipping, threats—the list goes on! The market for art is dead in Palestine, but the UAE is a promising destination for us.”
Some in the Gulf have questioned the necessity of a fair like Abu Dhabi Art, in relation to the more expansive Art Dubai, which takes place in March, as well as the region’s increased state of economic uncertainty. But others find it an important element in the art ecosystem. As Kholeif, the Focus curator, said, “If we didn’t have Abu Dhabi Art, whatever your views are, it [would be] one less platform for art, one last time collectors would come together, one last time the government would talk about art, one last time the government would buy art—and one last time it would be on the agenda.”