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Discovering Dubai

Pablo del Val, Artistic Director, Art Dubai
(Image Courtesy: Amirah Tajdin)

Art Dubai has played a key role in putting the United Arab Emirates on the map as a global art destination. The 2019 edition of the fair, March 20-23 at Madinat Jumeirah, has sections dedicated to Contemporary and Modern art, plus a new section, Bawwaba, “gateway” in Arabic, featuring very recent and site-spe­cific works.

The 12th edition of the fair is presenting a Global Art Forum and day-long symposium consist­ing of master classes, as well as screening a commissioned film series, Art Dubai Portraits. The fair is also offering residencies for international artists.

To get a sense of Dubai and this year’s fair, we spoke with Pablo del Val, the fair’s artistic director. Del Val previously headed the ZONA MACO art fair in Mexico City and was the founding director of La Conservera Center of Contemporary Art in Murcia, Spain. He told us about where to get Dubai’s best espresso, the English writer and explorer who captured the local imagination, and the necessity of diversifying from the Eurocentric focus of the art world.

How long have you been living in Dubai?

I moved from Mexico City to Dubai in October 2015 and spend half the year living in Dubai and half living in London.

How has the local art scene evolved in the past decade?

What’s striking and unique about the local art scene is that it has, to a certain extent, been constructed from the top down. By this I mean: first came the institutions, then the collectors, then the galler­ies. In the UAE, first came the Sharjah Biennial in 1993, followed by commercial galleries and the international-level Art Dubai in 2007. Then last year, the UAE’s first independently-funded muse­um of Contemporary art opened. Currently, Dubai’s art scene is extremely international. You can see exhibitions in galleries from a range of artists, such as German artist Andre Butzer at Carbon 12 or Brazilian artist Ana Mazzei at Green Art Gallery.

Who is a favorite local artist or member of the art scene — work­ing right in Dubai, or simply Emirati — you think more people should know?

I can’t say just one, so here’s a handful of people that continue to impress me: the artists Mohammed Kazem, Lamya Gargash, and Shaikha Al Manzrou, and the gal­leries The Third Line, Isabelle van den Eynde Gallery, and Lawrie Shabibi.

What are your “must-see, can’t-leave-without-checking-out” rec­ommendations for the city?

Some of the typical tourist sites are a must. Why? Because if you go to the top floor of [163-story skyscraper] Burj Khalifa you will get the best understanding of how Dubai is mapped out and how it has grown. And the tallest building in the world is a beauty.

What is the most misunderstood thing about Dubai?

I think the cliche that’s too often bandied about — that Dubai is artificial — lacks an understanding of the city. Yes, it’s a new city, but it has its own soul and vibe, an almost boundless and optimistic energy, and many different areas and neighborhoods to explore.

What would be on your agenda if you had a free morning or after­noon in Dubai?

For an altogether different pace, I love to head to the creek and hop on an Abra [a traditional boat made of wood]. Dubai explored by water is such a different experi­ence relative to my usual work routine spent whizzing up and down the city’s arterial roads for meetings. I love the architecture in Old Dubai and often discover incredible modernist buildings that I’ve not seen before.

What’s the best place for a morning coffee or tea?

Without a doubt: Espresso Lab in Dubai Design District. 

What restaurants would you rec­ommend, and what makes them unique?

La Petite Maison in DIFC [Dubai International Financial Centre] because the quality and service never, ever fall short.

Where would you head for the best shopping?

Satwa; the sheer volume and variety of fabrics are to die for. Choose some fabric and head to one of the many brilliant tailors there to create the outfit of your dreams!

What’s an authentic item you could only buy locally or regionally?

Something made with Al Sadu weaving, which is handwoven by Bedouin women in the country’s rural communities.

What are the ideal spots to see live music?

For live music, the acoustics of the Opera House are world-class and I also like the small music sessions that often crop up during the weekend in d3 [Dubai Design District] and on Alserkal Avenue.

Where would you recommend people stay when they visit?

Jumeirah Al Naseem is one of my newer favorites. Their Japanese-meets-South American pop-up res­taurant is fun and the food is deli­cious.

Do you have a favorite book depicting the city or region, or an author who writes about the city or region in an especially evocative way?

Edward Said’s “Orientalism” should be on everyone’s book­shelves, and Wilfred Thesiger’s “Arabian Sands.” There’s a great permanent exhibition of the explorer’s photography in Al Jahili Fort, Al Ain — well worth a visit for those coming to Dubai on an extended trip.

What makes Art Dubai unique rel­ative to the swell of art fairs?

We envision Art Dubai as a unique gathering place where the energies of the Global South (geographical­ly: Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Central Asia and South Asia) are represented and will cre­ate new dialogues regarding ways of creating and working that are not present in a world mainly dominated by Eurocentric and North American points of view. We believe that there is life beyond the West, and are interested in addressing the Global South beyond the geographical regions previously mentioned. We will be discussing all these concepts and how minorities of those regions interrelate in the world’s main art centers.

Is anything at Art Dubai positioned differently relative to past editions?

For this year’s edition, we present things in a different way and intro­duce some new elements: every­thing will feel linked and connect­ed, from the gallery halls to the talks and performances. The new layout this year includes the place­ment of Art Dubai Modern within the Contemporary halls to enable a better contextualization between historical movements and the pres­ent. We have converted the space where Modern used to be — Hall 3 in the Mina hotel — into a kind of ‘think-tank’ that will house Campus Art Dubai’s group show, Art Dubai Residents (dedicated this year to Latin America) and new section, UAE Now, which explores the country’s independent local artist-run platforms.

What inspired the addition of Bawwaba?

Bawwaba is a new section that features 10 solo presentations, showcasing works created within the last year or conceived specifi­cally for the fair. The artists fea­tured are either from, based in, and/or focused on projects about Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Central and South Asia, and address themes such as global migration, socioeconomic struc­tures and identity through their practice. These themes are globally relevant and are true to our mis­sion as an art fair of diversity and inclusion.

How was OPAVIVARA! selected for the Art Dubai Commissions?

This year’s Art Dubai Residents focuses on Latin America. Opavivara is a Brazilian collec­tive from Rio de Janeiro, which develops creative interventions in public spaces to propose new ways of using urban space and provide environments encouraging collec­tive experience. Opavivara was the ideal choice to make an organic connection between the different sections of the fair. Their commis­sioned installation, SOLAROCA, consists of a beach-like environ­ment under the shade of an ‘oca’ (a Brazilian indigenous house) and combines a typical Brazilian beach setting with traditional Middle Eastern elements. The work serves as a backdrop for visitors to min­gle, and invites an intercultural dialogue.

This story appears in the Art Dubai Newspaper, March 2019 edition.

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