Art Dubai’s ten-year anniversary highlighted the transformative nature of the fair for the art scene in Dubai. When the organisers envisaged an art fair in the region the nascent art scene was poised for maturity and the fair became the catalyst that was able to take advantage of the region’s appetite for creating a cultural identity and weather the global recession. It has evolved into the most important art fair in the region with an increasingly global reach.
The toughest competition at an art fair is for the viewer’s attention. Thus drama and eye-catching visuals are ubiquitous sometimes, unfortunately, at the cost of substance. For whatever reason this year the curatorial programming of Art Dubai’s contemporary section (that was losing critical “buzz” space to Modern in previous years) and that of the city’s galleries presented works that were quieter, rich in content and steeped in the craftsmanship ingrained in what can be termed the “traditional” forms of creating art, even contemporary art.
The standout show of the season was at the recently opened Leila Heller Gallery in Al Serkal Avenue with a solo exhibition of Iranian American artist Y. Z. Kami titled White Domes. Kami’s large portraits are masterfully executed recreating the aura of renaissance portraiture but infusing them with contemporary context by expanding the scale and controlled fluidity of brushwork: thus faces and torsos are placed in the centre of his surfaces (most of which are linen), painted in oil in Sfumato tradition capturing light in a gauze-like effect that lends them an other-worldly feel, inviting the viewer into a private world inhabited by the artist and his subject. They are monumental yet intensely personal, without grandeur yet enrapturing. His Dome series are painted or stamped shapes (squares or rectangles), organized in a concentric order moving inwards, capturing light into the vortex and each individual shape. As if to take the viewer into a cosmic journey in a whirling chronology that encapsulates movement, the works reference religious mysticism without overtly crediting any established creed. In a sense he bypasses religion to go straight to god.
Staying within the realm of mysticism, British artist Oliver Marsden shares Kami’s oeuvre of creating beautiful works of art as a by-product of his own search for spiritual transcendence. Presented by London based Vigo Gallery in Art Dubai Contemporary, Marsden’s Halo (2014) hanging on the outer wall of the gallery’s booth had a magnetic pull with viewers. Marsden uses a simple spin technique with his brush and a self-made turntable to create spheres that emanate light as opposed to capturing it (as with Kami above). The spheres seem to be hanging in a vacuum almost with three-dimensional form like a hologram. His concern is with the search for a higher spiritual reality by investigating it through the paradigms of science. This seems almost a kitsch concept in this era of rapid-fire scientific growth, yet he can make a strong argument for achieving a level of transcendence through the gentle brushwork and the layering of colour that creates an almost divine halo in the painting by that name.
The comfort of the spiritual world gives way to a reality-driven performance based video installation by Indian artist Mithu Sen I have only one language; it is not mine (2015) part of a group show What is this? at 1×1 Gallery also in Al Serkal Avenue. Sen explores how relationships can evolve when the medium of communication through language is removed from the process of offering and receiving hospitality. She inserts herself into an unscripted performance situated in a home for orphan girls and victims of sexual and domestic abuse, living as an alternate identity-Mago- a homeless person who cannot communicate through a comprehensible language, and who is also suspended between two destinations. It is an unscripted performance through a hand held camera with artist and other characters as alternate cameramen, providing an intimate view in to how the women respond to the new entrant, the curiosity that gives way to acceptance, friendship and sharing without seemingly having uttered a coherent word to each other. Sen questions the premise that social (dare we say human?) engagement is constrained within the boundaries of language. As a side she engages the viewer into a larger social narrative about the characters in her video, their seemingly easy acceptance of a new unintelligible entrant in their midst (is that influenced by their own histories?), the camaraderie they share, the space they inhabit. The whole project is an interactive package, the video presented in an enclosed space layered with Sen’s signature red captured in the carpet and plants decorating the space, intended to draw the viewer into a holistic experience.
Prageeth Manohansa is a mid career artist from Sri Lanka whose quiet glass sculpture Characters, (2015) presented by Colombo based Saskia Fernando Gallery at Art Dubai, could easily have been overlooked amidst the clamour of paintings, sculptures and videos all vying for attention through their striking aesthetics and narratives. Its simplicity belies its weighty content; a sculpture created by two glass bottles, one with a nut in its belly while the other with a bolt, placed next to each other, a metaphor for a working class couple in an embrace. Manohansa’s practice is concerned with the trials of the working classes of the island nation, depicting typical families and couples in conceptual three-dimensional portraiture using everyday work tools. The bottle sculpture discusses economic struggle, tender love and sex in a simple, minimalist package. First-timer Saskia Fernando’s booth was one of the best-presented booths in the contemporary section, with clearly defined curatorial intent. Another notable work exhibited was Garden of Earthly Delights (2016) by Priyantha Udagedara that discusses the unchecked Sri Lankan sex industry. Udagedara’s aesthetics traverse a fine line between visual beauty with a grotesque underbelly, paint splattered to create a floral collage references the blood spilled in gender-based violence in the industry.
The politics and anthropology of Pakistan’s urban centres concern Bani Abidi’s practice, basing her narrative in her home city Karachi. The new works that she exhibited with Kolkata-based Experimenter Gallery at the fair build on her earlier photographical series about road barriers and their significance: barriers hold a position of authority, they limit and redirect movement within the city thus having a constant impact on the experience of living in Karachi. Abidi imbues them with a humorous identity and in the new works Flailing Barriers (2016), her barriers rebel in mutinous fashion, switching from restrictor to enabler, flailing movements in negative space. A set of six inkjet prints on photo rag, the works are cheerful while her narrative suggests a changing socio-political environment in the city that is her muse. A research-based artist that stays very current in her choice of subject, her work thus holds importance as commentary on society and politics as much as it is innovative and conceptual in its artistry.
The marriage of concept and craftsmanship is the hallmark of good art. This was visible in spades this March in Dubai and reflects a return to the painstaking process of art creation in the artists on show.