April Issue 2008
Darlings of the Desert
The first Dubai International Financial Centre Gulf Art Fair, held last year, saw 40 international galleries descend into the desert for the largest art fair in the Middle East. This year, rebranded as the more marketing-friendly Art Dubai, the fair has rapidly expanded – 70 galleries from 30 countries had brought the works of over 400 artists. About 3,500 pieces of art were up for sale, showcased in an area spanning two massive grand halls (over 2,000 square meters), a sprawling outdoor palm-shaded pavilion and an underground car park, which has been dubbed the ‘Art Park.’ All of this, including outdoor art projects, was located at the perfectly manicured Madinat Jumeirah Resort on the Gulf coast across from the Palm Jumeirah, the largest man-made island in the world. About 12,000 people attended the show, up from 9,000 last year.
An ambitious undertaking, Art Dubai, unsurprisingly, wants to be on par with its European and American counterparts in Basel, New York, London, Berlin and Miami. Even though some of these fairs are much older, Art Dubai, thanks to plenty of hype, like a child prodigy has taken a great leap forward. Revising and augmenting its breadth with each successive show, the management is aiming for top line scores regarding production, performance and sales. Among the many new innovations this year, was the introduction of the policy of specially inviting one country to spotlight its art, not in the commercial booths allotted to other galleries, but in a customised pavilion area. Pakistan was the first proud recipient of this invite.
From the Pakistani perspective, Art Dubai 2008 was the perfect opportunity – it was the right art in the right place at the right time. Curator Salima Hashmi’s premise, ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise,’ was not only well assimilated and expressed by the artists she had handpicked for the exhibition, the work, seen by a diverse viewership, touched just the right chords. Politically, socially and culturally Pakistan is in the eye of the storm, and the media blitz worldwide is, in many instances, adding to the woes. Amidst this very chaotic environment, Pakistani artists are now producing very reactive art.
Director Pakistan Pavillion Salma Tuqan, while acknowledging that ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ demonstrates “Pakistan’s vital contribution to contemporary art in Asia,” it was also perceptive enough to understand that “Pakistan’s distinctive art scene has developed independent of commercial influences dictating its content, giving birth to art channeled by [the] artists’ own beliefs and imaginations.”
Hashmi’s concept of ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise,’ so reflective of the current miasma here, is borrowed from British Muslim intellectual, Ziauddin Sardar’s witty travelogues of 2004. It identifies with his futile quest to reconcile liberal ideals with an increasingly authoritarian and fundamentalist Islamic world. But by keeping her “curatorial premise fluid,” she had given her artists the freedom to play with their own notions of Paradise.
Among the unmissables in the pavilion, Huma Mulji’s ‘Arabian Delights’ was an eyeful. A life-size, taxidermied camel crammed into an oversized, common labourer’s traveling suitcase as an exotic offering, was an ironic/contradictory image of the respected and resilient ‘ship of the desert.’ This deliberate inversion symbolised the unfulfilled dreams of the hardy migrant workers who always conceived Dubai as the ultimate land of plenty, and whose sweat and toil has transformed a desert city into an ultra urban megalopolis. A video installation by Lahore-based Sophie Ernst, ‘There is No Place Like America,’ portrayed young Pakistani men talking idealistically – and with ridiculous naivety – of their dreams of a rosy future in the west; but the videos were screened in fractured form on cardboard boxes, emphasising the transitory nature of their imaginings.
Using optical devices such as mirror images, Rashid Rana’s mammoth pixelated cube, as alluring as a kaleidoscope, seduced the viewer into eyeing it, only to discover that it was mired in an array of conflicting imagery. This is Rana’s ‘Un-reality’: the not-so-heavenly paradise that distances him from the truth.
For a Pakistani public desensitised by a media overload of blood and gore, paintings by artist Ali Reza sprang no surprises. Projecting extremist elements, military and police mafia and an abundance of weaponry is trite as it no longer elicits the response it should.
Durriya Kazi’s raw clay bodies lying in a mud patch amidst flower beds did not create the poignancy it deserved either; the piece also suffered from a not-so-vantage display. A dust-to-dust concept, it evoked the fate of the forgotten dead – the war victims of Afghanistan and Iraq.
While impressive in concept, Naiza Khan’s ‘The Crossing,’ staged on a dhow, lost its impact amidst the vastness of the artificial lake bordering the pavilion. Iron/steel plated body armour, inspired by her lingerie series, were like “skins off the body that we shed or embrace as we negotiate… The Crossing,” she said, adding, “They mirror the body that stands for a dysfunctional system… at war with itself.”
If the art in the pavilion was ticklish, gritty and oblique, Pakistani works at the London-based Green Cardamom Gallery in the main venue, was edgier still. Curator Hammad Nassar’s succinct choices were hard-hitting and pointed – this helped consolidate the rebellious Pakistani stance of a country grappling with a siege mentality. Taking potshots at the national flags of politically significant countries, Muhammed Zeeshan’s album of miniature paintings extolled the artist’s working skills and conceptual acumen. In the Art Park downstairs, his installation of the American flag enacted a similar subversion with the use of the red and blue of Pepsi cans. By asking visitors to partake of the canned drink right off the installation, he managed to disintegrate the said flag. Hamra Abbas’ filigreed plates composed of fine paper strips were exquisite paper sculptures. But it was the not so savoury message of “Please get served,” even more finely imprinted on them, that jogged the senses. Sculptor Khalil Chisti’s life-size sculpture effigies made from plastic trash bags, addressing the human condition, were very potent and confrontational. The coveted red dot adorned Rashid Rana’s digital print at Green Cardamom and he scored a third showing at Art Dubai in yet another gallery. An impressive, oversized digital print of a Persian carpet by him was exhibited for sale at India’s leading Chemould Prescott Road, Contemporay Art Gallery. With a successful Sotheby’s sale behind him, Rana is presently one of Pakistan’s most successful international artists. Young, upcoming Sana Arjumand’s painting was also featured among contemporary Indian art at Aicon gallery from London.
Art that pulses with strong critical observations, addressing human injustice, frailty, violence and discrimination, is bound to stir the senses of any thinking individual and Pakistani works at Art Dubai had enough pizzazz to engage the serious viewer.
The commercial highlights of Art Dubai were fairly noteworthy. One of the highest priced pieces available was an Andy Warhol depiction of cars for $1.95 million, offered by the UK-based Ben Brown Gallery, who also sold a series of three photographs by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat for more than $300,000. In the same hall, Portuguese participant Galeria Mario Sequiera sold a Julian Opie (a contemporary artist from UK) landscape for $62,000. Paris-based Galerie Chantal Crousel sold a set of Andy Warhol drawings to a UK-based collector for an undisclosed price (Warhol Foundation won’t let them give the dollar figure).Sundaram Tagore gallery, headquartered in New York, sold a diptych of fluorescent pigment on rice paper by Japanese artist Hiroshi Senju for $450,000. A Gulf national collector paid $120,000 for a sculpture by Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, on sale from The Third Line gallery in Dubai.
It was reported that Huma Mulji’s ‘Arabian Delight’ was acquired by representatives of the media mogul and art collector Charles Saatchi for $8,000. It is exciting for a young artist to have her work acquired by Saatchi, but this is a paltry amount offered by a collector especially known for his exorbitant spending on art. After all, the camel was purchased, slaughtered, skinned, stuffed and transported to Dubai – it deserved better!
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