The DIFC Gulf Art Fair kicked off auspiciously on March 7 just as the ink of French president Jacques Chirac’s pen was drying in a formal agreement for the Louvre’s new Abu Dhabi outpost. The UAE’s first contemporary art fair is one of many recent international courtships. Power suitors, including the Guggenheim Foundation and auction house Christie’s, marked territory in early 2006, while stellar architects Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando and Jean Nouvel are designing what locals hope will be a dynamic arts infrastructure.
The idea for the Gulf Art Fair was born in a conversation between old London friends—art dealer John Martin and investment banker Benedict Floyd—and came to fruition a mere 16 months later with the support of the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC).
Martin recruited 40 established and emerging galleries in China, India, Japan and Korea, as well as Europe and the US, including London’s White Cube and Los Angeles’ 1301 PE.
Galleries with an Asian focus performed well. Gana Art Gallery from Seoul which showcased large format photography by Atta Kim, sold a Bae Bien-U photograph to former Arsenal soccer player Sol Campbell, and a Kim Chang-Yeul painting to Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed. India’s leading galleries, including Nature Morte, Bodhi, Chemould, Gallery Espace and Vadehra reported brisk business, with most of them selling out their booths. Chinese works also fared well. Meg Maggio of Beijing-based Pékin Fine Arts sold a Wang Jin sculpture, and London’s Albion found a home for work by conceptualist Xu Bing. New York gallery Sundaram Tagore buzzed with works by Sohan Qadri. Sfeir-Semler, with branches in Hamburg and Beirut, presented Walid Raad/Atlas Group. Galleria Continua, of San Gimignano in Italy and Beijing, had the fair’s most stunning installation, featuring Mona Hatoum, Daniel Buren, Anish Kapoor, Chen Zhen and Loris Cecchini.
Evidence of Dubai’s potential vibrancy was manifest at the young Third Line, the fair’s sole UAE gallery, which had photography, installation, sculpture and painting. Newly signed artist Shezad Dawood attracted attention with his gold knuckle-duster brazened with the word “Allah” in Arabic and his tiny sculpture Militant Snoopy. Third Line drew the greatest interest at the fair, suggesting there is room for more local and regional galleries to participate.
Alongside the art and artifice of the Dubai cityscape, the fair included an impressive lecture series with artists Wim Delvoye, Kader Attia, Haluk Akakçe and Jitish Kallat alongside influential curators Jerome Sans, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Lance Fung, Jack Persekian and Vasif Kortun, who spoke in a shaded tent along the Arabian Gulf shore. The audience, mainly students, artists and expatriates, listened to talks on contemporary art practice, the Middle East art situation and the creation of “global art cities.”