Most art fairs are commercial operations that judge themselves on an international stage: they see their competitors as other art fairs. Abu Dhabi Art – and to a lesser extent Art Dubai – is rather different. It’s run by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, not by a commercial organisation, and while some income is always attractive it’s not primarily a moneymaking operation.
Instead Abu Dhabi Art is “a cornerstone of DCT Abu Dhabi’s vision to create a vibrant and sustainable cultural ecosystem in the UAE capital”, as Saif Saeed Ghobash puts it (he heads up DCT Abu Dhabi). In other words, the emphasis in the name Abu Dhabi Art is mostly on Abu Dhabi; it’s there to add lustre to the city and more broadly to the Emirate, burnishing the brand and adding to its perceived value.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s a perfectly valid goal, especially given the overt link between tourism and culture – come to Abu Dhabi, it’s the kind of place that has three nominations in the Leading Culture Destinations of the Year awards shortlist for 2018 – two for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and one for ‘Emerging Culture City of the Year’.
That last one, which pitches Abu Dhabi against Lisbon and Medellin, must be particularly gratifying for Saif Saeed Ghobash and DCT Abu Dhabi. (Dubai, incidentally, doesn’t figure anywhere the list of nominations.)
This year’s Art Dubai is promised to be the most extensive to date, at least in terms of the sideshows around the main fair – last year it was down on gallery exhibitors, suffering from the global competition (still fierce despite the departure of some well established art fairs around the world) and the rising overheads of setting up what amounts to a short-term satellite gallery operation in a far-away city.
But if the overall brand building is more important than making money from big-name vendors, there’s a real opportunity to develop other goals – to have more of a festival feel, for instance, and to use the event to create regional networks and collaborations.
Add in an interest in encouraging new collectors by giving space to galleries that show and sell lower-priced art, and you have a template that Abu Dhabi Art director Dyala Nusseibeh appeared to be developing in her first edition last year. It will be interesting to see how this is reflected in the work of the six guest curators that were announced last week.
They include some familiar names. Returning to Abu Dhabi Art is Omar Kholeif (right), artist, writer, broadcaster and (especially) curator who specialises in narrative and geography in art. His CV is impressive: Director of Global Initiatives at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, Senior Editor at Ibraaz Publishing, Co-Curator of Sharjah Biennial 14, and much more.
Nusseibeh brought him to Abu Dhabi Art last year to curate an exhibition within the fair titled Focus, and he’ll be doing the same for 2018. Focus is a curated area open to galleries only on his invitation; last year it featured work from seven galleries, and he said then that his goal then was “to put Middle Eastern and South Asian artists in conversation with western artists, to be able to say that there is a canon of art history that exists beyond the specificity of geography and location”.
Tarek Abou El Fetouh (left) is back to run the Durub Al Tawaya performing arts programme again. An independent curator and architect who lives and works in Brussels, his CV includes many exhibitions and events; he also initiated the multi-location Meeting Points Festival for Contemporary Arts. He was also responsible for the excellent The time is out of joint exhibition for Sharjah Arts Foundation, one of our favourite shows of 2016.
The Durub Al Tawaya programme will see site-specific performances throughout Abu Dhabi Art and in different locations across the city from November 2018 to January 2019.
Hammad Nasar curated the UAE’s interesting exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale, which explored some of the artistic practices of the country through the analogy of play. He’s currently head of Research & Programmes at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong; for Abu Dhabi Art 2018 he’ll be curating the Gateway exhibition, introduced last year when NYUAD’s Maya Allison was in charge.
His theme is the gratifyingly imprecise ‘Structures of Meaning | Architectures of Perception’. The exhibition apparently covers “artworks that explore the built environment and language as structures through which meaning accumulates”. It will remain on display for an additional two months after Abu Dhabi Art closes.
Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim (right) is a practising artist rather than a professional curator. Born in Khorfakkan, he has exhibited widely mostly for his sculpture; he has work in significant collections, including Qatar’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Sharjah Art Museum.
His reputation suggests he will do a fine job of curating the Beyond programme of off-site sculptures and installations. Last year’s version majored on established names, but for 2018 Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim is apparently focussing on emerging artists – though the three artists commissioned to produce work for sites in Al Ain are well known (Moataz Nasr, Ammar Al Attar, and Imran Qureshi). The commissions will be unveiled during Abu Dhabi Art and will be exhibited for two months afterwards.
Salwa Mikdadi and Nada Shabout will be looking after the Talks programme this year. Their theme is ‘The Global Circulation of Art & New Markets’, a strong line of investigation for an event like Abu Dhabi Art.
They are both academics with a strong practical background in curating; Salwa Mikdadi is an Associate Professor in Art History at New York University Abu Dhabi and recently co-curated the excellent Hilal/Petti mini-retrospective Permanent Temporariness exhibition at NYUAD Gallery. Nada Shabout is a Professor of Art History and the Director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative at the University of North Texas, USA; her numerous books include New Vision: Arab Art in the 21stCentury (2009), co edited with Mikdadi.
Abu Dhabi Art’s 10th edition will run 14-17 November at Manarat Al Saadiyat.