Art Dubai: Different strokes

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Art Dubai: Different strokes

When you enter the halls of Art Dubai in the Mina A’Salam at Madinat Jumeirah, you will find a series of drawings on one wall — almost like tiles, each one with perfect stark outlines, like paint-by-numbers devoid of colour, or perhaps blueprints for the development of a city through its people.

By Sarah Young

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Published: Fri 22 Mar 2013, 9:06 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:28 AM

The everyday men and woman depicted — often workers from different nationalities — are busy at construction sites or at life, while billboard slogans with terms like ‘your life our mission’ and painkiller advertisements on the back of t-shirts suggest the wider implications of what they’re working away on behalf of.

If these detailed drawings, drawn with tracing paper and pencil from photographs, could be seen to comment on the pace of development in this city, and how that impacts on the daily lives of those involved, how might this reflect on Art Dubai and growth of our art marketplace itself?

Mohammed Kazem, who was commissioned by Art Dubai to do this site-specific ‘Windows 2011” work featuring more than 100 drawings, and who will also create a work for the Venice Biennale this year, says the fair represents a relatively “new phenomenon” for the Middle East and Dubai.

Fifteen years ago, there were not the same number of galleries, or calibre of curators to work with — at least not to the level of Art Dubai, even down to the framings and how the works are shown, he says.

Artist residencies and awards, through organisations such as the Emirates Foundation, are also a newer form of support for artists in the region. Kazem taught for about 10 years, and along with the finer details of technique and practice, he also tried to teach his students how to navigate the policies of institutions, art events and independent institutes. The new generation needs to know how to move through all the processes at work in the “art market”, he says.

At the fair, galleries browse “commodities” of art works, which must be carefully selected to meet a certain high standard, he says, and as you wander around Art Dubai, with its finesse and hype, you do get the sense of this being a commercial enterprise — one representing the market in which artists must follow the correct pathways to source funding, residencies, and have their work shown. “I’m very optimistic about the new generation ... but (they) have to be aware of the new environment, some of them try to go directly to gallery without going through proper (pathway).”

It is a lot different to the environment he started his career out in. Taught by the ‘first generation’ of avant-garde UAE artists, such as Hassan Sharif, who worked in the mid 1970s and later formed the Emirates Fine Art Society, Kazem says despite support from his mentors, it was a difficult choice to be an artist. “And when I started to experiment it was quite hard, (my work) was not acceptable to the audience or conventional artists.”

Meanwhile, one of UAE’s most accomplished painters, Abdul Qadar Al Rais, who is in his fifth year of showing at Art Dubai, received no formal training and taught himself through copying, revising and interpreting art books. His works, which have moved from realistic watercolour pieces to more abstract geometrical works imbued with calligraphy and his own scribbles about what he was doing or thinking on a particular day while painting, are priced between Dh300,000 and 550,000.

Al Rais says Art Dubai continues to get “better and better”, and smiles when he says this seems to parallel President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan own grand visions for the city. But he does believe that art culture is coming into its own.

There is a lot more support for artists, and acceptance of art as a profession — something he is happy to see, and which will allow an art culture to continue to develop.

“When I was at school in the sixties and seventies, my classmates said ‘you can’t eat from (art), you should take more care of your learning and study.”

Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, parents are now much quicker to encourage artistic aspirations and send their child to art college — whether the child has talent or not, he jokes. And while UAE artists used to try and learn more from the outside world, a relatively new-found maturity means they now look less for outside influence and approval, he says. This sense of growing-up and becoming more self-aware is also reflected in the focus of Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum, a discussion and debate platform featuring more than 40 speakers from different disciplines on the theme ‘it means this’.

Curator H.G. Masters says while the forum had been important in the past to give the region and local community an international platform to be visible and heard, that urgency has now gone, leaving room to experiment, entertain and inform, and illustrating both Dubai’s access to the rest of the world and a greater maturity in the UAE art scene. “Galleries are international galleries. (Dubai) is connected to the rest of the world, same as most other large art scenes. Art Dubai is still an important meeting point for people around the region which is why people come.”

The fact that there are art programmes and colleges in the UAE now is a major shift from decades past, and while it is still a challenge to be an artist and make a living, the UAE is no different than any other part of the world in that respect, Masters says.

“It’s not going to be (a choice) that pleases the parents, and Dubai’s not any different.”

There is “quite a strong local community of artists” in Dubai now, something Masters noticed after attending a Campus Art Dubai workshop, part of a six-month ‘Saturday school’ for UAE-based artists and curators set-up as part of Art Dubai’s education programme, where he met 25 emerging artists and curators.

“I was really impressed with the diversity of the young artists — people who are just finishing art school in the region, living here, making work and starting to show it in galleries, quitting their jobs. There really is the makings of a community as opposed to a section — these are people who are friends, who are talking to each other and not just making work in studio alone and then selling it — they’re helping each other out.” Fair director Antonia Carver agrees and says she is impressed with the work of emerging Emirati artists, and their use of innovative mediums and new technologies, such as the work of Hind bin Demaithan who has a virtual presence at Art Dubai through her ‘vlogs’ documenting her experience as an expat studying in California.

So what about the term Mena, which the forum is redefining to mean Middle Eastern Nervous Anxiety? Is our art retaining a local sense of identity, and does it reflect what Masters asks, is this anxiety or self-consciousness about either belonging to this area or using the term to describe those who do?

Masters says while on the one hand, art from Dubai tends to use a lot of imagery from the area and deal with issues of living here, on the other hand, contemporary art is an internationalist movement.

“Its method is equally relevant to the Dubai artist as to the artist from Mumbai, Tokyo and New York.”

Imagery, motifs and stories do tend to change from location to location, but the strategies and techniques are quite consistent, he says. Both Al Rais and Kazem’s works at Art Dubai seem to be telling stories which exhibit an uncomfortableness about what is happening is some areas.

Perhaps Al Rais’s move away from detailed local scenes to more abstract works, and his inscribed comments on issues such as the number dying in Syria each week, represent both a move to more of a contemporary style and the nature of this unsettled region and the feelings this invokes.

Meanwhile Kazem’s work, which uses both conventional tools and modern technology to convey the contemporary, deals directly with images from Dubai — the environment is central to the work, as is the viewer, who “animates” the images to create “visual sentences” when they move their head, he says.

However, Kazem maintains Emirati art is not necessarily specific to the region. It reflects the location the artist is in — such as the works he completed while studying at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2012.

He also points out the influence from the thousands of images from around the world artists are subjected to every day through the media — we cannot get away from the fact we are both a global community and market-place.

As to whether the cultural appreciation exists within Dubai to match the phenomenon that is Art Dubai remains to be seen, as about $40million worth of work goes before the eyes of the public, galleries and museums this week. Perhaps a promising indicator is the fact that $1.1 million was raised on Saturday at a charity art auction by START, an organisation established in 2007 by Art Dubai and the Al Madad Foundation, which provides art education for under-privileged children across Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, India and the UAE.

Meanwhile, through the windows, everyday life in Dubai goes on.

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