Brushstrokes, Movements, and AI: Unpacking Art Dubai 2023

Gulf Insider’s Nicholas Cooksey attends the three-day International Art Fair at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai

The 16th edition of Art Dubai, the Middle East’s top art fair and the most ambitious version yet was held in early March. Considered to be the largest ever fair conceived so far, the 2023 edition had over 130 galleries from six continents, including 30 new exhibits displayed for visitors, art enthusiasts, and collectors to explore.

I was invited as part of Gulf Insider to witness the three-day fair and the preview (an exclusive programme for the invited press). The efforts of a global community in bringing ideas, perspectives and dialogue on art to the forefront were palpable from the get-go. Dubai’s post-pandemic boom and recovery from the recession were cited as reasons for the enormous scale of the art fair this year.

As an international platform, Art Dubai is considered a talent incubator, a launch pad for artists and curators around the world, with a special focus this year on the “Global South”, a collective term for countries in the regions of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The fair also increased its number of South Asian galleries and institutions participating this year.

Art Dubai Digital, which was introduced in 2022 showcased the global digital art scene and how artists are using immersive technology. 20 exhibits presented artists from around the world, featuring crypto art, pixel art, interactive installations, abstract animations, 3D sculptures, and CGI animations among others. With digital technology seeping into every sphere of existence today, this section of the fair explored the extent of each artist’s imagination in blending technology with their work. “Art in Space”, a Dubai-based team presented a programme that showcased a new AI-generated work on each day of the fair, which expressed the heritage of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Bawwaba was another section I explored where Vipash Purichanont, a Bangkok-based art curator put together presentations from 11 artists from Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, the Philippines, and the UAE. Meaning ‘gateway’ in Arabic, Bawwaba featured new works of art (created in the past year) that explored concepts like hyperconnectivity, nature, handicrafts, art history, and indigenous communities. Bawwaba had also commissioned a performance by UAE-based artist, Moza Almatrooshi who introduced flavours of the Global South by working with food and Arabian polytheistic practices.

The contemporary section of the art fair had 14 first-time exhibitors out of a total of 76. The galleries ranged from emerging art scenes to established centres. They presented a mix of solo or group shows. I was quite taken with some of the participants I interacted with at this section of the fair. Maruani Mercier showcased 11 artists including 68-year-old American artist, Phillip Taaffe, who imbibes motifs from around the world in his art – Northwest Coast, Indian masks, Islamic ornamentation, and the Japanese perforated screens.

Mercier’s corner at the fair also included a giltwood mirror carved and pierced with grapevine shoots leaves branches, called Pierced Flowers, created by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan and photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari, founders of the biannual magazine, Toiletpaper.

Milan-based Plan X Gallery on the other hand focuses on contemporary art and supports artists around the world. The conventional pieces on display conveyed provocative messages on themes such as social media influence, consumerism, and inner conflicts between what we show to the world and what we really feel.

The solo booth of Taymour Grahne featured a six-part work of art by New York-based artist, Asif Hoque. Red Curls, is inspired by the landscape of UAE, where the artist presents a yearning to explore a land yet to be visited.

Dubai’s Tashkeel Art Residency Programme featured the work of Chilean-born, New York-based artist, Alonsa Guevara. She explores the concept of womanhood, identity, belonging, and the connection between humans and nature (which seems to have weakened over time). She described her work as a depiction of feminine energy, fertility, and the cycles of life through flora, and fauna.

I would like to recall an interesting encounter with Darvish Fakhr. The Iranian-American artist was perhaps the only ‘movement artist’ at the Fair. His visiting card was a $100 motion picture bill with a doodle over the picture of Benjamin Franklin. Darvish’s work, I learned, plays with beauty and destruction. He creates a classic painting which he later desecrates (by his own alter ego, the Urban Sufi) using movements and assuming impossible positions, with statements pointed at political, spiritual, or environmental issues.

Art Dubai Modern, the fourth section at the art fair presented 10 artists who were at the height of their artistic careers in the 20th century, a time of social, political and environmental developments. Curators Mouna Mekouar and Lorenzo Giusti aimed to resurrect the perspectives of these historical artists and their representation of global issues and concerns, many of which resurface in the present day.

On the sidelines of the international Fair in Dubai, I was also given a tour of the Sharjah Biennial 15, an ongoing art fair that presents the works of over 150 artists and collectives. 19 venues across Sharjah, heritage landmarks and art spaces showcase over 300 works of art under the theme “Thinking Historically in the Present.” Sharjah, while a completely different cultural landscape from Dubai, has its own thriving art scene. Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi took over the curation of the Sharjah Biennial from the late Okwui Enwezor this year. 

Back to Art Dubai: Apart from the well-curated booths, artist representations from countries we seldom see, and a wide variety of displays, the fair also hosted conferences such as the Global Art Forum, The Collector Talks, and the Art Business Conference. I was taken aback to find a BMW bonnet transformed into an abstract artwork as part of the brand’s collaboration with artists. The fair’s other partners like Julius Baer, ARM Holding, Boghossian, Guerlain, and Maison Ruinart had presentations and art commissions at the fair as well.

Visiting Art Dubai was an experience in understanding how the world is perceived and communicated with by members of the artistic community. While most of the art was thought-provoking or vibrant, some occasionally made me wonder about the definition of ‘art’. Nevertheless, it was an impressively organised event, with people from all over the world pouring in to find the piece they resonated most with or even make a purchase.


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