Cultural Pretensions in Dubai Desert Metropolis Reinvents Itself as Art Center

Thirty years ago, Dubai wasn't on the international art map. Today, Art Dubai 2008 serves up a cocktail of private equity firms and expensive art, where Land Rovers and seven-star hotels swaddle international art buyers in a simulated Arabian paradise.

By R. Jay Magill, Jr. in Dubai

In the early and humid afternoon of March 18, the crown prince of Dubai, 25-year-old Hamdan bin Mohammed Al-Maktoum, arrived at Art Dubai in the palatial Madinat Jumeirah Resort, surrounded by his entourage of enrobed bodyguards and advisers. After a short photo op, the crown prince -- famous for poetic odes to his father, equestrian expertise and a collection of luxury cars -- was glommed by a horde of local and international press documenting his personal tour of Art Dubai.

A few hours later, the same scene repeated itself, but multiplied by a thousand: the ruler of Dubai, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, His Royal Highness Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, arrived in a shiny Land Rover, dressed in a light-green silk dishdasha, surrounded by an entourage of at least three dozen.

While the crown prince and his father showed only half-eyed interest in this makeshift art haven in the midst of their boomtown kingdom, attention to them was warranted: Art Dubai is a subsidiary of the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), which they ultimately control.

“Marketing Is Terribly Important”

Art Dubai, which runs from March 19 to 22, is part of the logic of cultural and capital expansion in Dubai’s seemingly bottomless ambition to be the best and most impressive in all realms: building, flying, engineering, international finance, and now, culture. An opera house and theater are on the way. The city is a 24-hour construction zone, with cranes towering atop dozens of in-process skyscrapers. Plans for the largest of these, the Burj Dubai, remain secret, but it’s been rumored to far surpass its disclosed plans for 818 meters, at over 940, making it the tallest building in the world.

Art Dubai itself spans over two massive grand halls (over 2000 square meters), across a sprawling outside palm-shaded pavilion, and into an underground garage, which has been dubbed the "Art Park." All of this was created in the past several weeks at the perfectly manicured Madinat Jumeirah Resort, located on the Gulf coast across from the Palm Jumeirah, the largest manmade island in the world. Everything in Dubai needs a superlative.

The first Dubai International Financial Center Gulf Art Fair, held last year, saw 40 international galleries descend into the desert for the largest art fair in the Middle East. This year, re-branded as the more marketing-friendly Art Dubai, the fair has rapidly expanded: 68 galleries from 30 countries have brought the works of over 400 artists. Art Dubai, unsurprisingly, wants to be on par with its European and American counterparts in Basel, New York, London, Berlin, and Miami. Even though some of these fairs are much older, with plenty of hype, Art Dubai could, like one of the crown prince’s Ferraris, easily pass them.

"With culture and contemporary art -- people have to be honest -- marketing is terribly important," says John Martin, Art Dubai’s director. “We want Art Dubai to be a flagship for some other projects,” he says with a smile, “I certainly wouldn’t rule out taking the fair elsewhere to the West.” One artwork by Pakistani artist Huma Mulji sardonically hints at this: It's a taxidermied camel stuffed into an oversized suitcase called "Arabian Delight."

Indeed, there are plenty of major Western galleries represented at Art Dubai. Ben Brown Fine Arts from London, Max Lang from New York, Walsh Gallery from Chicago, Galerie Sfeir-Semler from Hamburg,and Galerie Volker Diehl from Berlin are among them. Most Western galleries at Art Dubai seem to approach the whole Dubai experience with a spirit of healthy experimentalism. There's a new environment and new exposure, but many of the buyers they are finding at this year's Art Dubai are the same European and American clients they had before. Emirates connections to key Western cities have made it easy for them to travel here. Still, if sales, networking, and future prospects look good for them and for the region generally, many say that they’d easily come back.

But this year’s fair has also seen an increase in regional galleries; 12 of the 68 are from the Middle East. The Third Line, a well-known Dubai gallery, represents the work of Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri, whose photographs satirically capture the consumerism and branding of Muslim global identity. His photograph “We are all Americans” (2006) shows several cleaning detergents spelling out the title; and “Hejab Barbie,” and “You Are the Rose That Grows Amidst the Freezing Wind” (2006), from an Iranian poem, spelled out on glass-cleaner bottles, are particularly pointed. It’s these works that seem to capture best the event’s bizarre feel.

Another gallery in Dubai, B21, based in a warehouse in the city’s industrial center, was founded by the painter Jeffar Khaldi in 2005. The gallery focuses on artists from the Middle East, mostly from Iran and Lebanon. Palestinian by birth, Khaldi studied at the University of Texas and has lived in Austin and Dallas. But he’s been in and around Dubai for the past decade and has seen the art scene begin to change. “Over the last three or four years, young artists in Dubai have become slightly more daring,” he says. “Things they would have been less willing to express in a conservative culture are starting to find legitimacy. This is good -- otherwise coming to a fair here would not be taken seriously.”


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