Art Dubai opened its 16th edition on March 1 with a strong sense of geopolitical positioning. During the press preview artistic director Pablo del Val called the fair a “mirror of a city of micro-communities,” where “culture is considered in non-Western terms” and regional director Hala Khayat echoed (in Arabic) that the focus of this art fair is the so-called Global South, the 5% of the world lacking representation in the Western art market and institution. “It’s the geography of the dream,” she said. Nearby, an unsettling work in the digital section of the fair depicted a rapid project of greening the desert in which swathes of new forest gave way to Dubai’s glittering skyscrapers.
While del Val insisted that Art Dubai is not about “exotic representations or the exception,” as part of a region tempered by a mild political sensibility, it sometimes felt that way. The termn Global South was tossed around a lot during the press conference, standing in for a transnational subjectivity that is far from monolithic. In countries which don’t share the same economic inequities or racism, what or where is the Global South is still a point of interrogation since, as scholar Anne Garland Mahler has put it, “there are economic Souths in the geographic North and Norths in the geographic South…the epithet ‘global’ is used to unhinge the South from a one-to-one relation to geography.”
More than 130 galleries are spread across two halls in the fair’s longtime home of Madinat Jumeirah, with the Modern section, tightly curated by Mouna Mekouar and Lorenzo Giusti, melding with the Contemporary. There was a more discursive, communal feel to Art Dubai this year with its most ambitious program of market-driven talks, which includes the first edition of Christie’s Art + Tech and Art Business conference as well as 10 performative culinary South Asia-inspired commissions at the Chaupal delicatessen. The mood amongst gallerists was generally buoyant and optimistic with several veteran galleries reporting sales, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi announcing itself as an institutional player ahead of its 2025 opening.
Below are six stand-out booths at the 2023 Art Dubai.
Rathin Barman and Adip Dutta at Experimenter
The colonial aesthetics of Rathin Barman’s sculptural installation Home, and a Home (2016), a skeletal steel and brass sculpture modeled on a temporary home in Singapore’s Little India for Bangladeshi migrant workers, closes off on one side of Experimenter’s booth. With works unfolding on pastel pink walls in a beautiful flow beginning with Radhika Khimji’s intricate assemblages and ending with Adip Dutta’s series of eight bronze twig-like sculptures, Topographic Specimens (2020), there is a powerful sense of archaeology and memory at play here. Breathing space around each work carves clean lines of sight, making Experimenter’s booth one of the fair’s most pleasurable experiences for the eye.
Rami Farook at Athr Gallery
Saudi gallery Athr’s solo presentation featuring the Emirates native Rami Farook, who occupies several sides of the art industry as an artist, curator, and gallerist, is a place to linger, replete with two blanket-covered benches. Constructing an unusually intimate feel for an art fair, Athr offers a peek into his process and reuse of materials, which include here a letter, unopened wine, and flowers. Also for perusing is a sketch of his original conception of the space, which included grass. Gems include an Instagram post by one of the first artists he represented, UBIK, reading: “remember that what you take / the radical / out of your practice / all you’re left with is / a self-loathing need to / please the market” as well as a 2009 image of Farook with another artist he has exhibited, James Clar, shooting an issue of Art Review in the desert. He incorporates elements from his own archive, too, including a baby photo, and residues from an experimental mixed media work using scanned pages of his journal. The archive also includes two old artworks: a pair of miniature sculptures that appear to be broken (falling from a pedestal, from 2021), and to die or disappear (2019), an exercise in the effacement of language. All in all, Farook’s trajectory is non-linear and unresolved but legible, sentimental without giving too much away.
Kerem Ozan Bayraktar and Christiane Peschek at Sanatorium
Office (2023), Kereme Ozan Bayraktar’s site-specific installation of incessantly running photocopy machines on sand, surrounded by numerous potted plants is an eye-catcher at Sanatorium. The Istanbul-based gallery demands attention at the fair with its presentation of loud and quiet works. Contributing to the ruckus is a performer leafing through the copies of AI-generated images that became the basis of the installation itself, making the work an image of the image. The artist’s interest in the practice of cloning and human-machine hybrids converses well with Christiane’s Peschek’s luscious self-portraits. Part of a 2019 series of digital prints on silk entitled Girls Club, the work features multiple shots of a patch of her airbrushed face, with magnified lips the only identifiable feature. The work seems to index the point where the digital reproduction becomes painterly.
Rumi Dalle at Ayyam Gallery
Dubai’s Ayyam Gallery took abstraction to another level with new textured works by Middle Eastern heavyweights Thaier Helal (presenting Homage to Monet, from 2023) and Tammam Azzam. Known for his large-scale panoramas of urban destruction, Azzam is showing two collages of cracked landscapes on canvas titled Flood and Praire, both made this year. A sculptural tentacular work by emerging artist Rumi Dalle, Étoile Filante, 2022, takes pride of place on a central wall, hanging like a giant ochre jellyfish in a cross between Louise Bourgeois and Joana Vasconcelos. The Lebanese artist, whose background is in design, scenography, and performance, researches spiritual traditions and craft in the region to make her work. She has collaborated with artisans and felt makers in Turkey who restore the garments of dervishes. Her second work on display, titled Eat the Fruit (2023) and tucked away behind a wall in a violet serpent-like spiral, is no less compelling.
Isshaq Ismail and Slawn at Efie Gallery
Efie Gallery, a young space established by the Ghanian family Mintah in Dubai last year and another first-time exhibitor at Art Dubai, boasts a strong presentation of six contemporary African artists. Basket Mouth (2022), a shimmering centerpiece in aluminum and copper wire by El Anatsui, a ubiquitous presence at these affairs, is installed beside the striking painting Serenity (2022-2023) by Isshaq Ismail of a distorted face layered in various intensities of cobalt blue which he made in Dubai as an artist-in-residence. Ismail is paired with two new works by London-based Nigerian artist Slawn comprised of faces with red puckered lips floating above an electric blue sea titled Empty Vessels and I G B O (both 2023). The works add an expressive emoji-like vibe to the politically loaded concept of color. The other side of the booth includes an elegant textile piece by Abdoulaye Konaté (Study of green Toureg AK, from 2018), which sold for $52,000 to a private collector. It gestures towards an older generation of artists who investigated color through abstraction.
Yunchul Kim at Barakat Contemporary
It was refreshing to see newcomer Barakat Contemporary generate the buzz among viewers normally reserved for Perrotin’s statement art. The Seoul-based gallery is showing an impressive kinetic sculpture by Yunchul Kim that draws on his research into nanomaterials and how they react to heat — an extension of his presentation at the Korea Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale. One piece, entitled The Dust of Suns II (2022), features luminous IV drip-like bags filled with a circulating mineral-based substance (Vermiculite) like a performance of humidity. Kim’s entries were flanked by Ali Cherri’s mud sculptures, Vermilingua Bust (2023) and Seated Simia (2023), both of which are extensions of the Lebanese artist’s award-winning Venice work. Shezad Dawood’s twin paintings of Qatar’s modern architecture, Kamal (2022) and Nalut Dreams (2023), were also on display, making the booth rich not only in materiality and movement but also symmetry.