"History tells us that art alone is capable of creating relationships between nations, despite all, because it speaks to the human being across all times and places. That is why art is precious." – Hamed Abdalla (1917-1985)
It is typical of art fairs to present new artworks, emerging artists, innovations that might one day be called revolutionary or “Duchampesque”.
But Art Dubai’s newest gallery programme is dedicated to presenting modern masters from the Middle East and South Asia.
Bringing artwork from the previous century into Art Dubai may seem counter-intuitive, like dressing up a teenager in her grandmother’s pearls, but this mini-museum provides fair visitors with a valuable insight into the roots of today’s contemporary pieces.
Art Dubai Modern takes place at Mina A'Salam, and features exhibitions from Cairo, Tehran, New York, Beirut, Manama, Karachi, Tunis, Dubai, London and Mumbai, each featuring a solo or two-person show.
The initiative expands the role of Art Dubai past the presentation of contemporary works of art, and allows the fair to adopt an enriching historical aspect. Moreover, this showcase of twentieth century art from the region and elsewhere enables fair visitors to view contemporary art in a historical and geographical context.
Modern art is a term attributed to art and architecture movements that emerged from the nineteenth century until the 1970s. Modern art often represents a departure from conventions of the past, and a heightened spirit of experimentation.
Adam Henein (1929) and Hamed Abdalla (1917-1985), two Egyptian artists represented by Cairo's Karim Francis gallery, explore the characteristics of modern art as defined by constant innovation, and a fervent belief in progress in social life. Both show strong European influences stemming from periods spent in Europe, but retain an Egyptian essence.
Paintings by Abdalla act as a strong and demanding backdrop against which the bronze sculptures by Henein are placed on pearly white pedestals. Abdalla's artworks, created between 1963 and 1980, boast bold strokes that reveal the artist's masterful manipulation of shape and colour and exhibit influences of European abstract movements on his work.
Hamed Abdalla’s son Samir sported a buoyant smile on the opening day of the fair. He said he was immensely proud of being able to represent Egypt and to show his father’s work to an international audience.
"His work is universal yes, but he is Egyptian, his roots are Egyptian," he said.
"He is an artist that has stuck with the people all his life, and he suffered with the people," said Abdalla. "He created work that captures the soul of the Egyptian people, and that can speak to any people around the world."
Abdalla was a dissident artist, and publicly denounced former president Anwar El-Sadat’s foreign policy, which led him to be outcast by the formal cultural institutions and therefore poorly represented abroad. However, there has been a renewed interest in his work in recent years.
Samir says that his father was constantly concerned with the plight of the Egyptian people. "He was fighting for bread, freedom and social justice all his life, and for us, it’s time that he be recognised for it. It’s very important to us," he said.
He believes that his father’s work has particularly contemporary relevance. "His work was always strong and modern in that it talked to the young generation," he said.
He also cites the widespread interest in the past eight to ten years in "Arab art, Arab representations of life, mainly for political reasons, and particularly the fight for freedom in the region since the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions” as a reason for the new-found interest in his father’s work.
Adam Henein attended the opening of Art Dubai, and smiled proudly for the cameras, standing next to the bronze sculptures he produced over half a century ago.
Henein reminisced about that period, the 1950s and 1960s, which he said was a very important part of his life. "It was the beginning of discovering a path for my life and art career," he said.
"When I graduated in 1953, we did not have a clearly laid out path for artists, nor a vibrant art movement, so I needed to find a way.
"We didn’t have a modern movement or style in Egypt. We were holding on too tightly to Pharaonic art, which was a way of bias and preserving heritage, in an almost obsessive way," he said.
Henein went on to spend two decades in Paris, which exposed him to a vast array of artwork and initiatives from across the world.
For Henein, Europe was a liberating experience. "I could experiment. I discovered that as artists we have unbound freedom and we can try whatever we desire, and not to fear, because ultimately you are expressing what’s inside of you," he said.
The result is art that shows strong European influences, while retaining an Egyptian essence.
"I collected what I could from Egyptian heritage, I combined Egyptian art and modern European art," says Henein. "This is the path I found for myself."
As Art Dubai continues to grow and extend its reach, it has reached into the past to bring modern art into the predominantly contemporary art fair. If contemporary art is the backbone of the fair, as fair director Antonia Carver observed at a press conference on Tuesday, then Art Dubai Modern may be thought of as its liver or kidneys. The importance of this kind of historical perspective cannot be underestimated, and it should be an integral part of the fair in years to come.
Art Dubai runs until 22 March at Madinat Jumeira, Dubai.
Ahram Online is one of the media partners of this year's Art Dubai. To learn more about Art Dubai, visit their website here.