Abu Dhabi: Setting the pace of Art in the Middle East

When asked to pinpoint the arts centre of the Middle East, most people would opt for the United Arab Emirates, and more specifically, Dubai. As the commercial and economic nucleus of the region, the city has seen a massive influx of galleries and has played host to a vast art fair. Art Dubai has been present for the previous four years but has yet to steal the limelight against other fairs in the country, such as the more internationally esteemed Sharjah Biennial. But as the art world begins to tire of Dubai’s all-too-fast-paced development, is this now set to change?

Abu Dhabi is aspiring to place itself at the forefrontof art in the Middle East, like a quirkier offshoot from its more commercial neighbour. The city has already been making strides in the past few years towards its ambitious plans for cultural development; with its own version of the Louvre and Guggenheim galleries scheduled for 2012, and the recent opening of New York University Abu Dhabi and Paris-Sorbonne University, this fledgling cultural centre is set for growth.

It’s with this cultural backdrop that saw the hosting of November’s Abu Dhabi Art, the city’s international art fair and as some art critics called it the region’s real answer to the Frieze Art Fair. In many ways the show acts as a demonstration of the region’s cultural aspirations, and seems to follow the same blueprint as other international and commercial art fairs like Frieze and Basel, although is undoubtedly less well known. Another key difference, and one that sets it aside from its cousin in Dubai, is that it’s entirely government-run and funded. This is the first year that the fair has been up and running without assistance from Paris, and the move to keep the fair public is likely to be a further attempt to assert Abu Dhabi’s cultural identity.

Abu Dhabi Art saw appearances from some galleries of incredible calibre. London-based Iranian & Middle Eastern specialist Xerxes had its own stall, as did White Cube, Paradise Row and the Berlin gallery Galerie Caprice Horn. From the other side of the Atlantic, the fair hosted L&M Arts, Richard Gray Gallery, PaceWildenstein and of course, Gagosian Gallery, whose collections include giants JASPER JOHNS, JACKSON POLLOCK and WILLEM DE KOONING.

Zurich-based galleries also seemed to pull in some brilliant stuff. Galerie Gmurzynska specialises in Russian avant-garde work, but chose to bring a really varied selection of works to the fair: among them an excellent architectural car courtesy of ZAHA HADID. We also loved Hauser & Wirth, whose mixed bag of treats included LOUISE BOURGEOIS, RONI HORN, Indian contemporary artist SUBODH GUPTA and GERHARD RICHTER.

Not to be outshined, the presence and support of Middle Eastern galleries was three-fold. In the front line were Dubai-based galleries The Third Line and Caudro, Syrian-based Atassi Gallery and non-profit organisations Darat Al-Funun, Townhouse Gallery and Al-Ma’amal Foundation.

The event was truly international in spirit, and attracted the usual celebrities from the art & fashion circuit. JEFF KOONS, Chairman & CEO of PPR FRANCOIS PINAULT and the critic/broadcaster TIM MARLOW were both spotted throughout the weekend, and JAY JOPLING was seen offering support to his very own White Cube stall.

Despite the recent economic gloom and doom, as with other fairs, pieces are once again fetching big sums: THADDEUS ROPEC sold a mixed-media work by FARHARD MOSHIRI for $180,000 and LEILA TAGHINA-MILANI HELLER sold a sculpture by Iranian artist PARVIS TANAVOLI for an astronomical sum, cited at over $100,000. By far one of the highest sellers though, was a RONI HORN sculpture for over $1 million. The art business still has life in her yet, in Abu Dhabi at least.

Text SIOBHAN LEDDY

Photography LUMA BASHMI

Steel and Mesh Flower installation by Keith Harring at Lio Malco Gallery (New York)

Mahmoud Kalari and Ali Rahbar’s Breaking the Mould, at Xerxes Art Gallery

Panel discussion ‘Big and Little’, moderated by director of the Design Museum (London) Deyan Sudjic with artists Max Lamb, Maarten Baas and Ahmad Angawi

‘The Machinery’ by Mounir Fatmi at Paradise Row Gallery

‘Albadi’ by Shezad Dawood

‘Palm Tree’ by Douglas White at Paradise Row Gallery

Waterhouse and Dodd Gallery (London)

Zhang Huan’s Felicity no. 8 at Gallery Project B, ash on linen

Cuadro FIne Arts Gallery, Dubai

Maarten Baas live analog digital clock at the design studio

‘Poker Face’ by Bahraini artist A. Rahim Sharif at Cuardro Fine Arts Gallery

Ahmad Angawi, Saudi designer at the Design Studio. One of Angawi’s creations, a lamppost made from gahfiya (a round, knitted head head covering) cane be seen below

Installation by Alexander Calder at Pace Wildenstein Gallery

Ron Arad table at Galeria Enrico Navarra, based in Paris

Alexander Calder’s ‘Portrait of Edouard Penkala’ from Richard Gray Gallery

‘Princess, Shah & Empress of Iran’ by Warhol at Tony Shafrazi’s Gallery

Tony Shafrazi Gallery (New York)

Galerie Gmurzynska (Zurich)

David Mach’s ‘Silver Streak’ from Galerie Jerome de Noirmont (Paris)

Jeff Koons’ Red Diamond

Farhad Moshiri’s ‘Never’ at Galerie Thddeus Ropac

Siamak Filizadeh’s ‘Sacrificial Lamb’ at Xerxes Art

Ali Adjalli’s ‘Love is Many Coloured’, at Xerxes Art