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by Nazy Nazhand
The inaugural Abu Dhabi Art (ADA), Nov. 19-22, 2009, debuted at the super-luxurious, $3-billion Emirates Palace hotel amid much glitz, pomp and art-world curiosity. And while all art fairs may be created equal, it was obvious from the start that the ADA was going to be its own kind of beast, marrying highbrow contemporary art from the West with ancient Arab traditions, in a presentation overseen by the country’s royal family.

And indeed, only in the United Arab Emirates would an art fair preview come to a screeching halt with the appearance of Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al-Nahyan, head of the state agencies sponsoring the event. Or better yet, stay open until 2:15 am to accommodate a visit from the Crown Prince’s wife, Sheikha Salama, after the fair closed at 11 pm.

Top U.S. and European galleries brought large-scale signature works, hoping no doubt to find a place for them in Abu Dhabi’s nascent museums, private foundations, public spaces and the royal family’s personal collection. Superstar dealer Larry Gagosian presented Jeff Koons’ oversized wedding ring, Diamond (Red), reportedly priced at $12 million, which drew awe and criticism by turns. Imposing in size and prominently displayed at the fair’s entrance, Koons’ bright red stainless steel sculpture perfectly complemented its palatial surroundings.

Directly across from the Koons was a ten-foot-tall sculpture of a very solid gorilla made entirely of coat hangers by the Scottish sculptor David Mach. Dubbed Silver Streak, the work was presented by Galerie Jerome de Noirmont from Paris, and seemed to be the only creature that could actually stand up to Koons’ ring.

Rounding out the trifecta of over-the-top grandiosity was Louise BourgeoisSpider Couple, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. The dramatic, 16-legged sculpture, priced at a (rumored) $10 million, was an unparalleled emotional showpiece.  

One dealer who seemed to know where he was at was New York-based Tony Shafrazi, who began his career as a gallerist in the Gulf region. His presentation of Andy Warhol’s triptych featuring portraits of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, his wife, the Empress Farah Pahlavi, and his twin sister, Princess Ashraf Pahlavi had an immediate and startling effect, regardless of one’s knowledge of Iran’s complex history or its current political unrest.

Commissioned by Farah Pahlavi in 1977-78, when Warhol was a familiar presence in the Royal Palace and the de facto court artist, these portraits were finished only a short time before the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah. Displayed in a single row with a vase of flowers placed simply on the floor beneath them, the paintings were a poignant reminder of Iran’s not-too-distant past as the model for a modernized Middle East.

In the end, a pair of sculptures by the Tehran-born, Detroit-based artist Shiva Ahmadi best captured the irony and zeitgeist of the fair. Presented by the New York-based Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery, the works consist of two painted steel oil barrels, one black and the other gold, both standing upright, covered with delicate hand-painted traceries from 15th- and 16th-century Persian miniatures.

Upon closer inspection, however, the vibrant colors reveal scenes of war, punctuated by painted blood and bullet holes. The wry juxtaposition of art, commerce and politics directly references, of course, the black gold that made possible Abu Dhabi Art and all the luxury surrounding it. Priced at $14,000 and $16,000, both barrels were sold to the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

NAZY NAZHAND consults on art in the Middle East.