Thursday, 6 December 2007

Art Paris-Abu Dhabi, Women in Art, Nja Mahdaoui and Warhol weirdness

This is really three posts in one so its very long. Each month I have a slot to write about art in the UAE on the US site Absolute Arts. So what is here is basically the same as my December post for them. I realise this is a bit lazy but am calling it an output optimisation strategy (corporate language can be useful sometimes) i.e. use the same material in as many places as possible to maximise efficiency, coverage and search engine results! The main difference is that all the pictures come up first here so if you just like looking at pics and can't be arsed to read the endless block of text this ones for you...... if not then here's the post...

1. Art Paris in Abu Dhabi

Art Dubai in March this year may have been the first ever regional Art Fair but I think Abu Dhabi trumped it this month with Art Paris-Abu Dhabi. It was held over three days in the Emirates Palace hotel, a rather appropriate venue seeing as its gold and marble ornateness does bear a passing resemblance to the Palais de Versailles. Art Paris has been a key event in the French arts calendar for the past 9 years. This collaboration gives French and other European galleries good exposure in the region and also provides a prestigious platform for the Middle Eastern galleries.
The Abu Dhabi and France connection is interesting. There is already a branch of the Sorbonne and a branch of the Louvre is coming soon. Interestingly, it was UK galleries that dominated Art Dubai in March so maybe there is some slight diversion in foreign cultural policy between Dubai and Abu Dhabi! The UAE as a whole, however, were represented at Art Paris-Abu Dhabi by four of the Dubai galleries. It seems that Abu Dhabi doesn’t have the level of galleries that can access this kind of event.

There were a number of publicity assured names such as Chagall, Dali and Picasso and given the absence of security concerns and alcohol it was possible to get very close which was a real treat. The most expensive piece in the show was the Olympic Rings collaboration by Warhol and Basquiat for a cool 7 million dollars (last pic above). I don’t think that this is a particularly interesting picture but it is certainly an excellent example of the triumph of branding and extreme commoditisation of art over the past few decades. Andy must be laughing in his grave.

However, the point of the fair is not only to sell. There is an underlying desire on all sides to use it as a platform for cultural exchange and this is where it works best. To fully appreciate the work, a greater understanding of the culture and history from which it comes can be useful and these events do provide a neutral space in which to learn. It can also work the other way and render origin irrelevant if appreciation is based purely on sensual and emotional responses.

There was so much to see in this fair that I really needed to go twice but the regional galleries that stood out for me were Al Ayyam (Syria), Al Bareh (Bahrain) and Galerie El Marsa (Tunisia).The French Gallery that seemed to have the most interesting and diverse contemporary selection was the Thessa Herold Gallery Unfortunately they are not very forthcoming with images on their website which is a shame because the mix of Spanish, French, Chinese and other artists they represent was really impressive.

2. Woman in Art III

The theme of exchange also connects to a current exhibition in Dubai. A few weeks ago I was asked to participate in a show called Women in Art III at the Courtyard Gallery. This gallery was the first to be established in Al Quoz Industrial Zone 3 and is a great space with unusually high ceilings so it can accommodate huge pieces of work. (see June 26 post).

The Courtyard’s first “Women in Art” exhibition was held in November 2004 with the intention of showcasing female artists from different cultural and artistic backgrounds who were living in Dubai. This initial exhibition worked well and it has now become a regular event. Women in Art III opened on November 14th and featured 14 artists – six from the UAE, one each from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Germany and the UK and two from France. The work was accordingly very mixed and was an interesting show of contrasts in both content and form. However, given that I have been searching for Emirati artists, the four images from this show are all by Emiratis. The image that looks like a blue pearl is by Dr. Najat Makki, the abstract flower image by Hasna Abu Baker, the figure of the woman by Salma Almerri and the blue square by Mona Al Khaja.
The gallery organised the show in partnership with Art Connection, a small Dubai arts management and marketing company. Art Connection organises special events and exhibitions of both Emirati and international artists and also publishes great catalogues of key shows. Both the Courtyard and Art Connection want to promote ideas and art that not only reflect the diversity of Dubai’s population but also contribute to its cultural development by exposing these different ideas to each other. So the theme is essentially similar to that of Art Paris but on a local rather than international scale. I think this is becoming increasingly important in Dubai where it seems that different groups can so easily stick to their own with few opportunities for interaction, especially with Emirati nationals. Of course, it is a minority of any nationality that are interested in art anyway so I realise that this isn’t a comprehensive social cohesion policy!

There isn’t a link to this show because both the Courtyard and Art Connection have a website problem! One hasn’t been updated since October and isn’t great anyway (they’re working on it) and the other is being reconstructed but will be up soon. The only reference was in a review in Khaleej Times which is here.
3. Meem and Nja Mahdaoui

Last but not least, further exploration of the glorious Al Quoz Industrial Zone 3 has revealed another gem. The Meem Gallery only opened this year and specialises in Arab and Islamic art. Its opening show was of veteran Libyan artist, Ali Omar Ermes and the current show is of veteran Tunisian Nja Mahdaoui. Now 70 Mahdaoui is one of the masters of contemporary Arab art and in this show it is easy to see why. He uses Arabic script but unlike traditional Islamic calligraphy in which meaning is as important as form, Mahdaoui is concerned only with the form. As a consequence he has created huge scrolls, pieces on papyrus and parchment and huge colourful abstracted paintings of what appear to be words. However, they are only letters executed for the beauty of their form and thus freed from the tyranny of meaning.
I actually saw some of his work earlier this year in a fantastic British Museum exhibition called Word Into Art so it was great to see more in Dubai. As well as his calligraphy and painting, Nja Mahdaoui has designed tail fins for aircraft, fabric patterns for clothes designers and entrances for buildings. His website is in French but if you don’t speak it, just keep clicking and you’ll find some pics eventually! To read an interview with him about this exhibition see Letters from Tunis.
To end on a slightly bizarre footnote, the XVA Gallery is accompanying an exhibition of Warhol prints by screening the Warhol movies. Watching Chelsea Girls with its sex, drugs and tranny references, while hearing the call to prayer from the local mosque is a contextual inconsistency that is going to stay with me for some time….


  1. No mention of the DFX VIP who opened the Courtyard Show. Laish? I thought the euro quota in the Art Abu Dhabi fest more than a bit obligatory, mostly average with the exception of the 2 Chagalls. One was almost a snip at a $1m. The Warhol/Basquiat union was pure harra and was the triumph of market over message. The latest Warhol flick at the XVA is to be Basquiat with a suitably throw away role by Bowie wigging it up as the mad Andy himself. Camp as irony or some such crud.

  2. a beautifully optimized out put :)