With its soaring skyscrapers and the non-stop building at its countless construction sites, Dubai is a city driven by well-calculated ambition and the vision of becoming a truly global destination for commerce, culture and tourism. But look past the overwhelming pace and scale of its infrastructure development and you will see that Dubai is also home to a young and energetic creative community, whose achievements and scope reach well beyond the Gulf and the Middle East. This booming creative world takes centre-stage every year during Dubai Art Week, a cluster of events that attract thousands of visitors which have gradually gained their rightful place in the international art-market and design calendar. The four main fairs, namely Art Dubai, Design Days Dubai, Sikka Art Fair and Dubai Photo Exhibition are also complemented by a whole host of gallery openings, satellite events, concerts, exhibitions and happenings, all proving how Dubai is steadily gathering steam as a cultural hub that fosters local production whilst building a broad, international network of partners.
Taking place in the majestic Madinat Jumeirah resort, Art Dubai celebrated its tenth anniversary this year with its most diverse and international programming to date. With its two halls for contemporary art and a separate section for 20th-century Middle Eastern and African art, the fair was host to 94 galleries from 40 countries, showing the work of no less than 500 artists representing 70 nationalities. Art Dubai has the highest percentage of MENASA-based artists of all international art fairs, making it the ideal destination to pick up on the pulse of current artistic production from the region.
In the contemporary halls, a mix of mid-career and emerging artists was on show, with the occasional sighting of art behemoths like Yayoi Kusama, Anish Kapoor, Jannis Kounellis and Bill Viola. The mixed-media works on paper by Elena Alonso at the Espacio Valverde booth from Spain stood out for their balanced scale and pleasing abstraction; meanwhile, the sculptural installation “Shhhhhhh... Shout!” (2016) by Nadim Karam at the Ayyam Gallery booth played with the viewer’s perception of sound and space, and used its contrasts of colour and form to raise questions about political issues in the Middle East today. Yay Gallery from Azerbaijan presented the work of Orkhan Huseynov, who creates images inspired by pop culture using meticulously cut plexiglass, while Silverlens Gallery presented the work of Maria Taniguchi, an artist who creates total-black canvases by drawing black bricks one next to the other —a process she used for years and which has generated no less than 70 paintings so far. The Contemporary section also comprised the annual Marker booth, this year dedicated to art from the Philippines; curated by Ringo Bunoan, the booth featured art by young Filipino artists, art books and prints, as well as a reconstruction of an installation piece with mirrors by seminal conceptual artist Roberto Chabet (1937-2013).
Next to the contemporary halls, a separate exhibition was dedicated to the young artists shortlisted for the 2016 Abraaj Group Art Prize, which included a specially commissioned new work by the recipients of the award, Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme (b.1983) from Lebanon. Other events initiated by Art Dubai included the annual Global Art Forum conference, and a programme of commissions, on-site interventions and residencies, while independent publications from the Arab world, such as the Beirut-based magazine The Outpost and the refreshingly inventive, Dubai-based publishing house The State also made their presence known at the fair.
Design Days Dubai
For its fifth and most successful edition to date, Design Days Dubai returned to The Venue —the exhibition hall at the foot of Burj Khalifa and right next to the building site of Dubai’s upcoming opera house— with an impeccably curated selection of design booths, workshops, talks, a retrospective of local contemporary design and other events. Affirming its position as a leading design fair in the Middle East and South Asia, Design Days Dubai attracted a record number of local and international exhibitors, who presented collectible and limited-edition design items by 185 designers representing 37 countries. The fair’s most inspiring aspect however, was the many ways local designers revisit traditional techniques, styles and materials unique to the region, to create new products of the highest standards of beauty and quality. For example, Lebanese-American jeweller Zuleika Penniman used thin slabs of reclaimed coral (a material traditionally used in the UAE for building homes) and gold to create a room divider that combines the elegance of her jewel-making with the practicality of a functional design object (her work was part of Tanween, a programme that supports local designers, led by cultural organisation Tashkeel).
Elsewhere, Karachi-based design studio Coalesce presented an assortment of their Latoo rotating stools in an installation setup created especially for Design Days, whereby each stool was inspired by the shape and materials of traditional spinning tops —needless to say, the Coalesce booth proved to be the set for countless design bloggers’ Instagram videos of them spinning around themselves. A couple of booths down the aisle, Amman-based designers and sisters Nisreen and Nermeen Abu-Dail (a.k.a. Naqsh Collective) presented a seven-meter-long mural, which revisits a particular technique of traditional Arabic embroidery: instead of threads, the two designers created a pixelated image of a fishing scene by inlaying tiny elements of brass into the surface of a monumental slab of white Corian.
Cutting-edge design from beyond the MENASA region was equally represented with exhibitors from Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Brazil and beyond. A spacious exhibition booth was set up by high-jewellery house Van Cleef & Arpels, presenting, among others, the winner of the house’s Middle East Emergent Designer Prize: a blown-glass chandelier by architect Ranim Orouk inspired by the movements of jellyfish; also part of the booth was a workshop station offering visitors an opportunity to try their luck with the techniques and tools used by Van Cleef & Arpels’ expert craftsmen. This year’s Design Days also hosted the Middle Eastern debut of designer Marcel Wanders’ “Personal Editions” collection, which is an assortment of limited-edition objects that exist on the borderline between design and art.
Another part of the Dubai Art Week series of events was the Dubai Photo Exhibition photography fair, which was organised by the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award (HIPA) and took place in a temporary, purpose-built museum at Dubai Design District (d3). The fair was comprised of 18 smaller exhibitions divided by the participating photographers’ country of origin, and were organised by that many curators under the general direction of head curator Zelda Cheatle. With over 700 photographs on display, the Dubai Photo Exhibition aimed to bring together a variety of photographic styles and approaches, and to present as a comprehensive panorama of contemporary photography . The exhibition also included photos from the Crown Prince’s personal collection, particularly images taken in the Emirates in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s; photos that have never been unveiled in public before, offering a rare glimpse into the decades before the country’s unification in 1971.