This was my first time attending Abu Dhabi Art (Nov. 20-23, 2013). I came in not knowing what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised at what I saw, despite the mini-crisis of the weather shutting down one of the main exhibition halls- the Norman Foster-designed UAE Pavillion (more of that later). I first spent a few days in Dubai, checking out some of the local galleries. Third Line had a great exhibition by the Egyptian-American artist Sherin Guirguis, a first in the region for the artist. Third Line also had a great project space exhibition by the Pakistani artist Raja’a Khalid. This archival- focused exhibition questions the objectivity of certain public documents, with a focus on how the discovery of oil in the Middle east was depicted in the Western press throughout the 1930s.
I then headed to Al Qouz where there were some excellent exhibitions. Lawrie Shabibi Gallery had a beautiful solo exhibition by the New York-based Lebanese artist Nabil Nahas. Green Art Gallery had a conceptually charged group exhibition titled Statue of Limitation, featuring such artists as Nazgol Ansarinia and Judith Sonnicken. Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde had a beautiful solo exhibition by the master conceptual Emirati artist Hassan Sharif. The timing of the exhibition couldn’t have been better, with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi announcing that it has acquired 63 works by the artist.
Overall Dubai was fun as always- I always have a great time when I am there, and it is always nice to catch up with galleries/friends/artists. I also had a great studio visit with Taymour Grahne Gallery artist, Mohammed Kazem (http://www.taymourgrahne.com/artists/mohammed-kazem), and I really enjoyed seeing some of his amazing new works, while also discussing plans for his upcoming solo exhibition at the gallery in the Fall of 2014. Mohammed Kazem was part of some great shows in the UAE, including Emirati Expressions and the Maraya Art Centre (more of that in an upcoming post).
After several days in Dubai, I took the one-hour drive to Abu Dhabi. The hotel of choice for this year’s Abu Dhabi Art crowd was the St. Regis, due to its proximity to the fair. As I pulled up, I saw that the hotel lobby and grounds were overtaken by art fair attendees- dealers, collectors, curators, and more. It was a nice experience staying in a hotel that was filled with members of the art world.
The first VIP day at the fair saw both halls packed. I enjoyed the two-hall set up, allowing for a break up. What really impressed me in the first hall was the quality of the Modern Arab Masters. Meem Gallery had an incredible booth, split into 2 sections- modern and contemporary. It’s modern booth was made up of a large Moudaress, a Kayyali, a sculpture by Dia Azzawy, and most impressively of all, a work by Algerian Modernist M’hamed Issakheim titled Femme et Mur. To be frank, this was the first time I had ever come across or even heard about this artist, but was extremely impressed. Meem Gallery’s curated contemporary section witnessed a triple whammy, with paintings by contemporary art stars Jeffar Khaldi, Khaled Hafez, and Mahmoud Obaidi. The theme of the contemporary section was based on John Lennon’s 1971 song ‘How do you sleep?’
London’s Park Gallery also had an incredible booth this year! The booth featured one of the most stunning works I have ever come across. The work, titled Le Vieux Sycamore de Rod El Farag Egpypte ,was by French-Egyptian artist George Sabbagh. The gallery also had a fantastic Kayyali and an incredibly colorful Fateh Moudaress on display.
Along that same stretch of the exhibition hall, I also really enjoyed Lawrie Shabibi’s booth, which featured works by Nabil Nahas and Driss Oudahi. Lurking in the background of the booth, I noticed see-through vases in different colors. On closer inspection these vases smelt perfumed, and I soon discovered they were made out of soap! These traditionally-Korean shaped vases were the work of Korean artist Meekyoung Shin.
Third Line had 2 beautiful works by Tarek Al Ghoussein, and 2 works by Lebanese artistic duo Khalil Joreige and Joanna Hadjithomas. TTL also had a book signing for the artist’s new book.
Over at Agial’s gallery, the booth was filled with a mixture of contemporary and modern. The booth’s Ayman Baalbaki diptych were among the first to sell (as usual). The paintings are of 2 concrete barriers often found throughout Beirut- one with the word ‘Beirut’ written on it, the other ‘Wa3ed’ referring to Hezbollah’s construction wing. Here Ayman highlights the fragmentation of the city of Beirut into mini fiefdoms, where something so basic as a city’s concrete barriers being different depending on which part of the city you find yourself in. Agial’s booth also contained an outstanding Aref El Rayess, and 2 beautiful Gouaches by Lebanese modern master Saloua Rouda Choucair, who, since her Tate retrospective, has been getting some long overdue attention.
Over in the Norman Foster-designed UAE Pavillion, there was a heavy tilt toward galleries from outside the Middle East. New York’s Leila Heller Gallery had a booth with several beautiful Zenderoudis on display.
Galerie Isabelle Van Den Eynde featured beautiful works by Rokni Haerizadeh and Nargess Hashemi, among others. The work by Rokni was an overglaze painting on Meissen Porcelain.
Ayyam Gallery had some beautiful Abdulnasser Gharem works on display:
One of my favorite booths of the fair was by Galerie El Marsa. On display were works by Modernist Tunisian artist and ceramist Khaled Ben Slimane. There were also several Zenderoudis, and a beautiful work by Modernist Hatim El Mekki – a great discovery for me!
The excitement of the first day quickly wore off as a storm approached the UAE. Early in the morning before dawn, the he Norman Foster-designed UAE Pavillion started leaking, with tens of millions of dollars worth of valuable art work locked inside. Shippers and installers quickly came in to start packing up the works to store them in a safe location. Nonetheless, there was some confusion amongst gallerists as to what was going on. Abu Dhabi Art came out to officially announce that due to the storm, the entire fair would be closed for the time being. Eventually, dealers were allowed in to help pack up, and we got word that the fair would reopen, but only the exhibition hall that had no leakage. All talks were also postponed until the following day.
That night, the second hall opened much later at 7 pm to a slightly diminished crowd. Dealers, however remained upbeat, as the Abu Dhabi Art organizers were hard at work trying to figure out a way to accommodate the dealers that were in the UAE Pavillion The next day, as the second hall opened as usual, fair organizers decided to use an empty hall for galleries that were in the UAE Pavillion to display some of their works in smaller booth. It was this quick thinking that earned the organizers praise however, as they proved to be accommodating.
The talks were extremely interesting, and included a discussion between Reem Fadda and Syrian-German artist Mawran, and talks with Shirazeh Houshiary and Haegue Yang, among others.
Overall, even with the unpredictable consequences of the weather, and the evacuation of the Norman Foster-designed UAE Pavillion, the fair proved to be a good one. There was a mixture of top tier local and international galleries, great talks, and a steady stream of spectators. The quality of the contemporary works overall was mixed, but the modern Arab artworks were truly top notch. Galleries were happy with the fair, with all I spoke to stating they would definitely return for Abu Dhabi Art 2014.