Antonia Carver, who has directed the international Art Dubai fair since 2010, says that this year's edition — scheduled to take place 18 to 21 March — will include a roster of 92 galleries from 40 countries.
Art Dubai's Marker, a rotating showcase of work from specific regions, takes on Latin America this year. And its popular Global Art Forum, headlined "Download Update," delves into the impact of new technologies on art, culture and contemporary daily life.
Ahram Online (AO): What is different in this year’s Art Dubai, or what are you excited about most regarding this edition of the fair?
Antonia Carver (AC): One of the most exciting things is a more general point: it’s that the gallery halls are growing so much in stature and also in breadth. Ninety-two galleries coming from 40 different countries: I think we’ve really this year achieved that balance between being the international showcase for artists from the Arab world (it’s the largest showcase from the Arab world that takes place anywhere) while also being the most global of art fairs.
AO: What other programming elements make the fair so global?
AC: In this year’s Marker, for example, we’ve taken up a really big challenge: we’re looking at Latin America, which is obviously an enormous continent, but also looking at the relationship between the Arab world and Latin America. In that programme there are over 30 artists. It’s very experimental and multi-disciplinary and includes a group show, and also artists that are working in sound and performance, video and film — even artist books.
The curator, Luiza Teixeira de Freitas, has really done a fantastic job at seeking art that is extremely subtle but explores ideas to do with migration, transnationality, connections between different continents, family connections, and also looking at how audiences experience art.
Obviously, for a long time we’ve been targeting museums that have been based in Europe and America, but we see more and more coming from Asia: we see collectors that are setting up private museums across Africa using Art Dubai as their meeting point to meet the international arts community.
AO: I want to go back to Marker, because in the connections between the Arab world and Latin America you can’t really ignore the political parallels, and the similarities of different military dictatorships. It doesn't appear that Art Dubai is very subversive in the art that is showcased … How do you deal with all that?
AC: It’s hard to generalise about the artists, but we find that artists out there in the world today can be subversive in ways that are not always obvious. They can be saying something, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be shouted. I think that’s one of the great qualities of contemporary artists — the way that they can discuss really complex issues in very complex ways without necessarily shutting down audiences.
In the film programme, for example, Video-Brasil, a filmmakers’ organisation in Brazil that has been invited to take over the Art Dubai cinema, shows short films by artists like Akram Zaatari alongside Brazilian counterparts. A lot of the films explore interesting issues to do with politics, history, memory, identity, but often in ways that are personal or narrative, as well as political. So I guess the political can be personal, it doesn’t have to be sloganeering. A lot of the artists that we work with are very clever about doing that.
AO: What part of Art Dubai’s programme do you think is indispensible?
AC: I think one of the strongest elements of the fair, that’s been there since the very beginning, is the Global Art Forum. The whole idea with this was to think about how to make a different kind of conference — not one where it’s panels after panels, and people fall asleep or use the time to look at their BlackBerrys, but a very lively forum that we treat more as a magazine.
This year we’re looking at the theme of technologies: how technologies affect the way in which we create and think and communicate with each other. And we have some fantastic speakers to talk about the way in which people are selling art online, or the use of robots in classrooms in education.
I can’t imagine Art Dubai without the forum. It’s a way of getting people to think about ideas, and taking that beyond art. We’re trying to think of this as a helicopter view of art, rather than art existing in a bubble: how we interact with other mediums, be it poetry, technology, literature, everyday life.
AO: Art Dubai is not your typical commercial fair. There is the educational forum, and also the non-profit and educational activities. How do you manage all the different programmes of the fair and keep it from growing too big?
AC: It’s a good question because it’s actually something we really struggle with a lot. One of the things we’re really attuned to, and something we discuss a lot among the team, is how to have this balance. We want to be the essential event in the Arab world, a meeting point, but also try to be global. It is about making the gallery halls and the commercial side of the fair really work, and make the galleries as happy as possible in terms of sales and conversations, and enable artists to make a living and sell their work, and attract the world’s leading collectors, while at the same time being a community event. We’re very aware that Art Dubai has a very different role to fairs in London, Paris, New York. Here in Dubai we hope that we’re very significant to the local population that is living in the UAE, and to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council countries) as a whole.
And yes, our non-commercial programming has grown and grown. This year, with Art Dubai Projects, which is curated by Lara Khaldi, we have 11 artists and artist collectives involved and we’re producing the most ambitious projects we’ve ever done. And also taking projects out of the city. We have projects at Alserkal Avenue, and even on a billboard on Al-Khail Road, a ring road along the outskirts of Dubai.
We try to take things wider and by association drawing new audiences.
AO: You've directed the fair in a very turbulent political period. How do you think the region's political dynamics have affected interest in — or the success of — the fair?
AC: I think it is obviously the role of the fair, but also the role of the arts in general, to help us, in a way, amid a time of great turmoil. You could be asked, 'Why are you putting on a glitzy art fair when people come out and appear to be celebrating life? Why is this essential at this time?' [The answer is that] artists are at the very soul of society, who help us understand our situation within society, who debate ideas, who raise issues, who help us appreciate what we have. Maybe now more than ever is a time to cherish that.
And artists in the Arab world are often forced into positions of being politicians or archivists: people want them to solve the world and make political comments all the time. We don’t think that’s fair; it’s not their job. Why should an artist in the Arab world have any different impetus to make work than an artist anywhere else?
Ahram Online is a media partner of this year's edition of Art Dubai