To say that Dubai is the contemporary art capital of the Middle East has become rather superfluous. But for four days in March, one cannot ignore the city's charismatic, lavish hospitality to compelling artwork emerging from across the globe.
The eighth edition of Art Dubai will take place from 19 to 22 March at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai. The fair's programme features a large selection of gallery halls, commissioned projects and performances, radio and film, an exhibition of the Abraaj Group Art Prize winning projects, the Global Art Forum, among other attractions.
Fair director Antonia Carver talks to Ahram Online about this year's Art Dubai line-up, the fair's commitments to growth, diversity, and to maintaining a strong local component.
Ahram Online (AO): Tell us a little bit about what we can expect about this year’s edition of Art Dubai. Is there an overarching theme?
Antonia Carver (AC): There is no overarching theme, but each year we see themes emerging naturally as the programme develops. This year we have a number of new elements in the fair: a new gallery hall, Art Dubai Modern, focusing for the first time in the fair on masters from the 20th century, from the Middle East and South Asia. And Marker, the curated section of the gallery programme, highlights the work of modern and contemporary artists from the Caucasus and Central Asia, and looks at the links between those regions and the Arab world. It’s a really exciting, ambitious programme and, like everything else we do, places the Gulf and the Middle Eastern arts scene in an international context.
AO: What are your personal favourites in terms of artists or events in this year's programme?
AC: I'm not really allowed to have favourites! Having said that, I feel it's yet again a very strong year for the Abraaj Group Art Prize — five artists that are complete individuals, whose practices are so compelling, and who for this exhibition, have produced the most considered, thought-provoking work. An absolute must-see!
AO: This is your fourth year as head of the fair. How do you think the fair has evolved over the years?
AC: I feel that every year our identity gets stronger: we're rooted in the Arab world, and the Middle East, yet resolutely global in nature. We aim to keep the gallery halls to a human size so we can really maintain a dedicated relationship with our galleries and aim for the highest quality art on display, and to attract collectors from around the region and the world, so that the galleries do great business and have conversations they wouldn't have elsewhere. And nowadays we have the largest not-for-profit programme of any fair, worldwide. And this is something we're proud of.
AO: Art Dubai presents an annual showcase of the regional art scene, helping both the local and international audience to become better acquainted with it. But it is also a global platform. How important is it to maintain the festival's role in presenting homegrown art?
AC: It's essential. It's the "rock" of the fair and its local relevance is not only important for local audiences but also how we build our international relevance. And every year, we see more participation of UAE-based artists and curators.
AO: Overseeing one of the region's main contemporary art events must be a gigantic responsibility. How do you handle it when the pressure reaches a high?
AC: Hah! I'm working with a team and we support each other. And yes, it can be stressful but then again, you only have to think about the situation in some other countries in the Arab world to remind ourselves that we're lucky to work with brilliant artists and curators in a peaceful country.
AO: How does the fair reflect the character of Dubai as a city?
AC: I truly believe that all successful fairs and biennials reflect the character of the city that hosts them, and the way in which the art scene here has developed is very Dubai: entrepreneurial, rooted in the Gulf yet global, and ambitious in nature, and mindful of this history of trade, of being a link-point between Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
AO: You are also a film curator and you have participated in the programming of Arab cinema for international festivals. How do you resist the urge to bring more films into the fair?
AC: We don't resist! There is such great synergy between art and cinema. A few months ago we formed a partnership between Art Dubai, the Dubai Film Festival and the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), to unite in exploring the shared territory between art and film. We're showing three artists' films in Art Dubai's small cinema this week and also collaborated with SAF to show John Akomfrah's feature film at Mirage City Cinema on Saturday, 22 March, the last event of Art Dubai.
AO: You took on the role of fair director at a time when international eyes were pealed for Arab Spring art. How do you strike a balance between satisfying the world's appetite for political art and presenting a deeper insight into the range of work being produced in the region today?
AC: This is a great question. Firstly, I think we should reject the term "Arab Spring art": it's hard enough to bracket together the various current struggles of the region without also assuming that these movements have prompted a particular genre of art. For some time now, there has been pressure exerted on artists from the Arab world to not only be artists, but also act as reporters, documentarians, sociologists, politicians and so on. Our general rule, is let artists be artists, and to not assume that they will adopt a particular position or responsibility due to their ethnicity or nationality. The situation is so complex, so immediate, in many countries of the Arab world. Today, in this region, artists are examining a multitude of ideas, methods, media, and this is something to embrace and celebrate.
AO: Looking back at almost a decade of Art Dubai's life, what would you say keeps it successful?
AC: We strive to take it to the next step every year, so I wouldn't say we're resting on our laurels just yet! The Art Dubai team is extraordinarily hard-working and passionate about producing the best fair we can — for our audiences, for the fair, for the UAE, for the region.
AO: You have very closely surveyed Arab and Middle Eastern arts and culture over the past decade and a half. What do you think is the most exciting art, artist, group of artists, or phenomenon on the scene today?
AC: It's exciting on a number of levels: in the way that a generation of artists are being embraced as artists, afforded solo exhibitions in major international venues (for example, Wael Shawky at Serpentine, London; Ahmed Mater at the Sharjah Art Foundation). Secondly, that such an exciting, diverse and dynamic generation is coming up fast, not only in Beirut, Cairo, Ramallah, but also in the Gulf. Take the artists commissioned as part of Art Dubai Projects this year: Sara Al-Haddad, Maitha Demaithan, Myriam Al-Qassimi are all young artists from the UAE.
AO: How has your career in writing and editing prepared you for this position as director of Art Dubai?
AC: As a writer, often it's necessary to take a 360-degree view of the art world, and this is useful in this job, too.
AO: What is your favorite Art Dubai moment to date?
AC: Too many to mention!
Ahram Online is one of the media partners of this year's Art Dubai. To learn more about Art Dubai, visit their website here