Abu Dhabi Art Report: The UAE Fair Brings Great Art, But Could Use More Buyers

Abu Dhabi Art Report: The UAE Fair Brings Great Art, But Could Use More Buyers
Marwan Reschmaoui's "The Arab World" (2001-2009)at Sfeir-Semler Gallery
(Courtesy Abu Dhabi Art)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — This year's Abu Dhabi Art shows that this wealthy emirate has a small but possibly significant edge in the battle with nearby Dubai to become home to the region’s most important art fair — at least in the future. It's trump card is the comfortable purpose-built beachside art and exhibition venue, Manarat Al Saadiyat, located right in the heart of a planned cultural distinct that one day will host art galleries and branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim Museum. It is going to be fabulous when done.

Just when it will be completed, exactly, nobody knows. For right now this great vision remains incomplete — the future Guggenheim, for instance, is no more than lonely pylons in the undulating dunes. But Manarat Al Saadiyat and its accompanying UAE pavilion, a temporary pre-fab building shaped somewhat like rippling desert mounds (designed by Norman Foster, originally for the Shanghai World Expo of 2010), provide a tranquil, ideal setting. Frangipani trees ring the grounds, their scent lingering in the sultry air.


At this year's fair, 50 top local and international galleries were spaciously situated throughout the two buildings. The quality of the art was overall extremely high with a healthy mixture of international blue chip names and less renowned and regional artists, sometimes even within individual booths: Lisson Gallery, for instance, had a fragrant mixture of works by Ryan GanderAnish KapoorMarina AbramovicShirazeh Houshiary, and others. It is nice to see the bigger galleries here catering to different tastes and price points.     

Regional galleries are well represented, accounting for several excellent booths. CDA Projects Gallery from Istanbul has brought, among other things, Iraqi artist Adel Abidin’s Consumption of War (2011), recently shown at the Iraqi pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It is one of only three videos I counted in the entire fair — video and photography are obviously not popular here. Opposite Galerie Janine Rubeiz, one of many excellent Beirut galleries participating, has a showstopper: Mazen Kerbaj, a young Lebanese artist, sits in a glass box painting. Slowly he covers the walls with his art.

Artists affiliated with the wider region were also very well represented, often with outstanding works. Indian Subodh Gupta has first-rate pieces at Hauser & WirthGalleria Continua, and Galerie Enrico Navarra. The latter brought one of the artist’s signature sculptures, a life-sized brushed aluminum replica of the famous Indian Ambassador car (2003-2009), priced at $3 million. The monumental, 30-foot Frank Stella painting, Khurasan Gate: Variation III (1968) at nearby Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, which some may recall hung in the lobby of Metromedia in New York, could be had for less — a mere $2.8 million.

Thaddaeus Ropac presented probably the fair’s most elegant booth, limited to the paintings of just two artists, Iranian Farhad Moshiri and Indian Raqib Shaw. Both are market leaders with prices to match and individually are well represented at several booths, including The Third Line, from Dubai, one of the region’s more prominent galleries. The Third Line has Moshiri’s SHOOTEMUP! 2 (2012), a colorful Warhol-esque acrylic and embroidery painting of cowboys, priced at $180,000. Rana Begum, a talented young Bangladeshi artist who lives in London is also showing here. Her works mix and match minimalism and abstraction.

Egyptian Ghada Amer is also among other so-called regional artists represented at the fair. Her bronze sculpture The Words I Love the Most (2012) at Kukje Gallery, priced at $320,000, is a hollow globe made using a collection of shapes based on 65 of the roughly 100 Arabic words for love. It attracted interest among Arabic speaking visitors who no doubt appreciated and understood its intricate lattice-like weaving of words as a contemporary spin on Arabic calligraphy. It is a great piece but remained unsold after the first day, though the artist’s painting, at the same booth, went quickly on reserve.

Herein lies the intruiging paradox of Abu Dhabi as an art fair location: In spite of its amazing facilities, good art, endless sunshine, and zero tax status, there is a nagging feeling that this event — now in its fourth edition — is held largely for the benefit of His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and his circle of friends and family. There is nothing wrong with that, or the fair’s stated vision to help drive the local tourism industry, but it could be much, much more than that. It could be a truly great fair.

What they need here are more collectors. Clearly there simply aren’t enough people interested in buying art presently living in Abu Dhabi or hereabouts to make this a sustainable financial exercise for galleries. Unless galleries sell they won’t come back. This year the mood was more positive than last, I am told, and most galleries reported sales, but there is nothing like the crush of Basel or Frieze or Miami, where booths sell out in minutes. It is low key here, with things "on reserve."

It seems to me that the organizers of this fair could make a few small adjustments to ensure that it is special and workable long term: They should be flying collectors in from Europe, America, and across the Middle East to invite them to enjoy and experience the advantages of the facility and of doing business here. We all live and work in a global world these days, and places like Abu Dhabi that have clear competitive advantages should be clever in exploiting them. I am sure the organizers know all of this, which begs an interesting question: Perhaps His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is happy precisely with how things are?

To see images of the art at Abu Dhabi Art 2012, click on the slideshow.

Abu Dhabi Art runs through November 10th.