Earlier this year, the fifth edition of Art Dubai took place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an event that coincided with the preview of the 10th Sharjah Biennial and the launch of Art Week, an ambitious initiative to promote the broader cultural developments taking place across the Gulf.
Adding to the heightened sense of international attention, the political unrest in the region strained on the invisible barrier between art, religion and censorship, and put in perspective for the outside world why, in the Middle East, political art is contemporary art.
As so often happens in buttoned-down societies, the context lent many of the artworks on view a distinct sense of political metaphor.
The Sharjah Biennial 10, Mar. 16-May 16, 2011, was titled "Plot for a Biennial," a cheeky moniker that took on rather dark overtones in the context of the revolutionary changes taking place across the Middle East. Organized by Guggenheim Abu Dhabi curator Suzanne Cotter, ArteEast creative director Rasha Salti and the Chicago-based curator and writer Haig Aivazian, the show presented works by more than 70 artists at multiple sites across the Persian Gulf city of Sharjah, the most populous urban center in the United Arab Emirates.
Staged as a narrative based on the idea of a film treatment, the biennial was conceptually "scripted" around themes of "Treason, Necessity, Insurrection, Affiliation, Corruption, Devotion, Disclosure, and Translation," and was replete with subtle references to religion, repression and censorship.
Or perhaps not so subtle. The Sharjah biennial was marred when Jack Persekian -- director since 2005 of the Sharjah Art Foundation, which oversees the show, and the man who selected the three curators -- was summarily fired by Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, the longtime ruler of Sharjah.
At issue was an installation by the Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil, which included headless mannequins wearing t-shirts with explicit texts protesting rape, torture and murder. Located in a public courtyard frequented by many Emirati families and their children, the explicit language of the work prompted many complaints, and Persekian was out.
Art censorship is common enough the region; last year, an artwork by Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh that depicted the Iranian clergy was removed from Art Dubai, and this year, a work by Mounir Fatmi that used brooms to hold up the flags of Tunisia and Egypt was altered.
Persekian, who had done much to make the biennial an event of international stature, has had little to say about his dismissal. He is back in Jerusalem, running the organization he founded there, the Anadiel Gallery, the Al-Ma'mal Foundation for Contemporary Art.
Elsewhere, events went on as planned. The week kicked off with a series of openings divided between Dubai’s two major gallery centers: the industrial Al Quoz quarter, lined with newly renovated warehouses transformed into sprawling art spaces, and the financial and retail complex DIFC (Dubai International Financial Center), which houses the city’s other gallery hub (complete with a private museum and Christie’s new showroom).
One of the most anticipated openings of the week was the Lawrie Shabibi Gallery in Al Quoz. Veterans of the region’s growing art scene, co-founders William Lawrie (former director of contemporary Middle Eastern art at Christie’s) and Asmaa Al Shabibi (previously managing director at Art Dubai), set the bar high and inaugurated their new space with a solo show by the New York-based Lebanese artist Nabil Nahas.
“Palms and Stars,” Nahas’ first solo show in the Middle East, skillfully conjured the duality that has been inherent in Nahas’ work for over four decades: conceptual paintings deeply influenced by his personal connection to nature and abstract portraits depicting the landscape of his native country.
At The Third Line Gallery, also in Al Quoz, Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri presented a single new installation titled Shukran (“thank you” in Arabic), spelled out with a variety of more than 800 knives stabbed directly into the gallery’s wall. Moshiri is known for his incisive and humorous commentary on complex sociopolitical issues, but when asked to elaborate on the idea behind the work, he demurely responded, “Sometimes just a simple thank you is enough.”
Close-up, the knives -- varying in size, color and shape -- felt like an infinite maze and upon further inspection, one could see subtle cracks in the wall from all the stabbing. Suddenly, this simple word took on a different meaning: it expressed a sense of being grateful, yet exasperated and trapped.
Another highlight was the opening of “Terminal,” a pop-up show in an abandoned ground-floor space at DIFC that was organized by Edge of Arabia, a vaguely defined group that strives to showcase Saudi Arabia’s relatively unknown and often-challenging contemporary art community. "Terminal" included video, sculpture, photography, installation and performance pieces, not necessarily in that order, and was organized by the Dubai-based curator Bashar Al Shroogi, who commissioned eight Saudi artists to explore and interpret the notions of travel, bureaucracy, privacy and identity. The result was a highly conceptual show that was provocative and utterly fresh.
The next day, at the sprawling Madinat Jumeirah Hotel, Antonia Carver, Art Dubai’s new director, officially inaugurated the fair, welcoming 83 galleries from more than 30 countries, and introducing the ambitious program of talks, workshops and commissions. Carver underscored the fair’s critical role as a “cultural meeting point for the region,” mirroring Dubai’s historical role as a hub of trade and commerce with the rest of the world. Despite the recession that put Dubai in the headlines in 2009 and 2010, Art Dubai remains an important catalyst for promoting the contemporary art of the region to an international audience.
Meanwhile, the local gallery scene has had its own organic development, which was on display at Art Dubai. The Third Line and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde exhibited works by Shezad Dawood and Fouad ElKoury, and Ramin Haerizadeh and Reza Aramesh, respectively, while Green Art exhibited the New York-based Iranian artist Kamrooz Aram for the first time.
Traffic -- the gallery, not the road condition -- which is also located in Dubai, the brainchild of the Rami Farook, exhibited some of the most political and conceptual works at the fair. James Clar’s Left Hand Cuts Off Right, for instance, was an installation of a megaphone hanging from a dog leash and pulled through a fluorescent hoop, while Ahmed Mater’s CCTV, an installation made up of 16 TVs stacked on top of each other in four rows, showed various closed circuit video footage from the hospital where the artist -- a practicing physician -- works.
One of the best -- and most overlooked -- works at the fair was Spoons & Cable by the pioneering Emirati artist Hassan Sharif, a sculpture at Selwa Zeidan Gallery, Abu Dhabi, consisting of hundreds of spoons and forks bent and tied together with a thick black cord. Long considered the founding father of the UAE’s contemporary art movement, Sharif’s experimentations with everyday objects and materials have traced the evolution of art production in the region for over 30 years.
Other highlights came from international galleries exhibiting cutting-edge works by a diverse group of Middle Eastern artists. Herewith, a selection:
Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna, featured works by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, who hit a political note with his neon wall piece, in which the large letters in light spelling out "Poetical" are divided by a simple black painted division on the wall between the "o" and the "e," blurring the line between poetry and "political."
Priska C. Juschka Gallery, New York, featured "My Silk Road to You," a series of portraits of women by Almagul Menlibayeva, which confront the nomadic and mythological traditions of Menlibayeva’s native Kazakhstan.
LTMH Gallery, New York, presented Ey Amaal, a video projection by the Iranian artist Farideh Lashai that features the legendary voice of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. In Lashai's Neo-Expressionist image, Kulthum's iconic profile looms faintly above the viewer, while below is the form of Charlie Chaplin from The Great Dictator, where he mocks Hitler by tossing a giant white balloon in the air.
Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, took to the fair Cenotaph for Two, a massive architectural installation by the Syrian-American artist Diana Al-Hadid. Made of fiberglass, wax, and cardboard, the work suggests a moment of decay and ruin from a distant past. Yet the intricate details that delicately trace the organs and mechanics of the sculpture pay homage to a soul that was once alive.
Galerie Hussenot, Paris, presented a poignant video by Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi titled The Man without a Horse. The action features an elegantly dressed man in traditional English riding clothes, who wanders down a muddy road in the countryside while aimlessly kicking an anonymous history book (Histoire, reads its cover) over and over until it becomes defaced, at which point he falls over in a puddle.
One work seemed to capture the zeitgeist -- or rather, revolt against it. Galerie Christian Hosp, Berlin, presented, hanging outside its booth, Leila Pazooki’s Moments of Glory, a series of neon phrases culled from various art reviews by Western press: "Japan’s Andy Warhol," "Iranian Jeff Koons," "Indian Damian Hirst," "Middle Eastern Louise Bourgeois," Cindy Sherman of Asia." Flickering in bright hues, the phrases invoked a kind of cultural colonialism that is rampant as non-Western artists integrate themselves into the global -- read Western -- art world.
Glancing at Pazooki’s work one last time, I was reminded once again why art will always express most eloquently the complexities of the world around us. And as the week came to an end, there was no doubt in my mind that Art Dubai is the Middle Eastern art fair of the Middle East.
NAZY NAZHAND covers contemporary art from Middle East and is the founder of Art Middle East.