Puppet mistress: Hayv Kahraman's 'Toillete' (2008) Photo: COURTESY THE ARTIST AND THE THIRD LINArt from the Middle East proves the strongest sector at the contemporary art fair in the Gulf.
By Colin Gleadell
It might have been a disaster, but in the end, the cultural energy of the Gulf ensured that Art Dubai, the region's biggest international contemporary art fair which took place last week, made a soft landing. Some dealers even experienced that rarity of the recession – a sell-out.
The omens had not been good. Dubai has an estimated $80 billion of short-term debt, and since last October, stories of cars abandoned at Dubai airport by debt-ridden expatriates and desolate construction sites have been rife. Earlier this year, a fair for older art and antiques in Dubai had been "badly hit" according to the Antiques Trade Gazette. The question was whether Art Dubai, with its concentration on contemporary art, would be even more so. With its name cleverly changed from "the Gulf Art Fair" to sound like the successful Art Basel, and with a Turner-style art prize (the Abraaj Capital Art Prize) to boot, Art Dubai was timed to coincide with the Sharjah Biennial, a non-commercial but increasingly important exhibition of Middle Eastern art. The event was also chosen for the announcement of plans for the UAE's first representation at the Venice Biennale this summer, and benefited from its inclusion in "Contemparabia", a week-long initiative by the Gulf states to promote culture in the region.
Such was the attraction for looking at and discussing art that museum directors and collectors from America, Europe, India, Russia, China and the Middle East all descended on Dubai at the same time. Artists Jake and Dinos Chapman and the filmmaking twins Jane and Louise Wilson were there, as was Tate director Nicholas Serota. American museum directors Glenn Lowry (from New York's Museum of Modern Art), Richard Flood (New Museum, New York), and Thomas Krens (Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum) mingled with auctioneer Simon de Pury, Art Basel director Marc Spiegler, and Frieze Art Fair founder Matthew Slotover. There was even the odd Hollywood star (actress Glenn Close).
The fair itself provided a balance of galleries from across the globe. But, whereas three years ago it had seemed more like a platform for Western and Indian galleries to market their artists to the Gulf, the focus this year was more on Middle Eastern artists. Many were part of the Middle Eastern diaspora and were introduced to local collectors by Western galleries. Goff and Rosenthal from New York, for example, devoted its stand to the US-based Iraqi artist Ahmed Alsoudani, who fled Baghdad after the first Gulf war. Alsoudani's figurative paintings, inspired by conflict in the Middle East, are currently on show in the exhibition Unveiled: Art from the Middle East at the Saatchi Gallery in London and sold out in Dubai with prices ranging from $2,000 for a print to $65,000 for a large painting. Buyers came from Kuwait, Lebanon and Dubai, said dealer Robert Goff.
Another artist featured in the Saatchi exhibition, 28-year-old Hayv Kahraman, a Kurdish Iraqi based in the US, was also selling well through the Third Line, a gallery based in Dubai and Doha, Qatar. Two superbly executed paintings, influenced by Japanese prints, depicted women as marionettes – a comment on the oppression of women in Iraq – and sold for $11,000 and $13,000 each.
There were also sell-out shows by the Athr Gallery from Jeddah, with the first exhibition of Saudi Arabian artists at the fair, and Michael Schultz from Berlin who sold all his works by German, Korean and Chinese artists, including a lifesize, painted-fibreglass car by Ma Jun to a member of Dubai's royal family for $114,000.But most agreed with Elisabeth Lalouschek of London's October Gallery that business had slowed. After a sell-out last year, her gallery posted sales stickers on a $450,000 wall hanging by the Ghanaian El Anatsui, and two paintings by Palestinian artist Laila Shawa, priced at $45,000 each.
Indian art, previously the biggest seller in Dubai, was also on hold. An exception was an installation of life-size sculptures of water buffalo made with small brass discs by Mumbai artist Valay Shende, which was probably the most photographed exhibit in the fair. Four were sold for $55,000 each.
Remaining unsold were paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Rothko in the $2 million to $4 million range. But fair director John Martin put his spin on the state of play: "The economic climate was our ally as it provided opportunities to buy great quality at reasonable prices. Art buying is no longer an activity which takes place in the financial stratosphere."