Text | Zarminae Ansari

Visuals | Paul Swanson

Issue 46

The annual Art Week in March is a series of events in Dubai and the UAE full of events, performances, exhibitions, installations and festivals. My first March in Dubai, and I found out the hard way: there is simply too much to do, and nearly impossible to cover it all, so here is a selection. The UAE, especially Dubai, has positioned itself as a hub for the region, for decades. From the establishment of Emirates Airlines in the mid 1980’s, to bigger, better airports, newer airlines, to regional exhibitions, conferences, and events such as Art Dubai. Each year since 2007 when it was inaugurated, the art world meets in Dubai to document and to explore, explain, and enjoy art. The Art Dubai Group runs Art Dubai, Downtown Design, Art Week and Dubai Design Week. It runs educational and non-commercial programmes, which are the most extensive worldwide. Art commissions showcase and expose artists to a wider audience, and its Global Art Forum brings together thought leaders from around the world. Art Week consists of Art Dubai, SIKKA Art Fair in the restored area of Old Dubai, exhibitions in the gallery district of Alserkal Avenue, the newly-opened contemporary arts museum, Jameel Arts Centre, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and this year, the 16th Abu Dhabi Festival and the 14th Sharjah Biennial! Pakistani artists represented here included Hamra Abbas, by Canvas Gallery, Adeela Suleman by AICON Gallery, and  a performance piece by Ayesha Jatoi at AlSerkal Avenue’s Fabric(ated) Fractures public programme.

Sikka Art Fair:
Sikka Art Fair, showcasing emerging Emirati, UAE-based and GCC talents was held in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood (16-24 March 2019). The Fair interested visitors and residents alike to the restored area of Old Dubai, which is full of galleries, art spaces, and cafes. One of the buildings is a unique boutique hotel with a beautiful adjoining café and the XVA Gallery, which always holds fascinating, well-curated exhibition. This time was no exception, with an exhibition by contemporary Pakistani artist Imran Channa, who lives and works in the Netherlands, called “Badshahnama”, and “A Night Sea Journey”, by New York-based Iranian artist Samira Abassy. Other installations by students and contemporary artists peppered the labyrinth of streets in the area, inviting the visitor to get lost and explore both art and the venue.

Global Art Forum “School is a Factory”:
This year, the Global Art Forum, held at the Madinaat Jumeirah (March 20-21, 2019), to discuss knowledge transfer and education in the arts through lecture-presentations, and conversations titled “School is a factory?”, brought together “a diverse cast of global minds – from renowned curators and critics to educationalists and entrepreneurs – under the theme of “School is a factory?’ to address some of the urgent challenges and opportunities facing education today.”

Some highlighted points under urgent challenges and opportunities facing education today were:

  • What should education prioritize in the coming decade?
  • How should humans be taught in the age of accelerated mechanization?
  • Is the notion of “learning for life” just an opportunistic tagline?
  • Will higher education escape the ghetto of elitism? DO past experiments in education have something to teach today?
  • Will we need humans to teach humans anymore, anyway?

Tirdad Zolghadr, writer, curator, Artistic Director of the Summer Academy at Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern and Associate Curator at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, in his presentation observed: “We need to de-glamourize art education, so it is not shameful to leave the field”, in his irreverent, yet highly pragmatic approach in his lecture “Schools and Factories”. He presents the thesis that the contemporary art world is already a factory and “the only question is how to make use of it”. Regarding art education he posited that “…the factory model has much to offer. Even then, the efficiency, de-personalization, automation, scalability, and disenchantment of a factory floor can be a promising blueprint for education today.”

An engaging discussion “School is the Establishment”, with the Director of Art Jameel, Antonia Carver and Director of The Showroom London Elvira Dyangani Ose, hosted by Curator of Sculpture Center Sohrab Mohebbi explored the importance and urgency of art education within the art establishment. Why do private and public museums and art events continue to emphasize the importance of education and what are the challenges faced by institutions while organizing their educational missions. 

Al Serkal Avenue:
“Fabric(ated) Fractures”, a collaboration between the Samdani Arts Foundation and Alserkal at Concrete, Dubai showcased from Bangladesh, the exhibition explores the shifting boundaries, the borders it shares with India and Myanmar, the “wider border issues that extend into Thailand, Pakistan, and Nepal – the countries that the 15 artists come from”. A “monument to a humanitarian and political catastrophe”, the monumental mural by Kamruzzaman Shadhin, “Haven is Elsewhere” was made by exchanging new clothes with refugees’ old ones, over a period of a year and a half. These garments were then stitched over with traditional “Kaantha” embroidery. Pablo Bartholomew’s installation of photographs, woven textiles, coconut tree leaves was commissioned and produced by the Samdani Art Foundation for Dhaka Art Summit 2018. The indigenous Chakma community is an ethnic minority divided by modern borders living in Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh. These communities wear traditionally woven clothes, ornaments and body-markings as their “cultural DNA”. Using the traditional back-strap looms, Bartholomew worked with the community across the political borders to “weave graphic DNA patterns whose imagery was rendered through scientific testing.” “Personal Revolutions – Women Artists from Syria” an exhibition by the Atassi Foundation was curated with a museum-like feel: an eye on the future while documenting the past, and celebrating critically acclaimed contemporary artists from Syria.  Ibn Arabi is quoted in an essay in the accompanying catalogue:“Any name that does not have a feminine form cannot be relied upon.”

A guided tour of the exhibition by Shireen Atassi, the Director of the Atassi Foundation for Arts and Culture, explained much of the history of Syrian art, especially of female artists, and the development of the Atassi collection, and finally of the establishment of the Foundation. This rare collection started by Mouna Attasi came about from a need to document the undocumented history of women artists neglected in the first half of the 20th century. The memorabilia in the form of catalogs, letters, photographs, postcards were often donated by artists themselves, or their friends and families; since not much has been retained in terms of documentation. According to Mouna Atassi, “It has proved extremely difficult to obtain documents and official papers covering this chapter of the history of Syrian art. This has been due to the neglect and lack of cooperation of official authorities.”

Revolutions such as that of communications and social media have allowed female artists autonomy in terms of expanding the methods of expression as well as getting their work recognized beyond borders. The objective of the exhibition, according to Atassi was to start the process of research in this neglected field. She quotes the art critic Linda Nochlin, who when asked in 1970 why there weren’t any important women artists in the past and she answered: “because of the way they were treated.” She chose to call this exhibition ‘Personal Revolutions’ because she says it has been a struggle for female artists to be taken seriously when art was considered to be a “hobby” at best, and some were only models or muses. Speaking about the history of contemporary art in Syria, Dr Nagham Hodaifa in “A Study on Feminism in Syrian Art” writes that from the first fine art exhibitions in Syria in 1929, there was a limited presence of female artists: most of them had been trained in artists’ ateliers and their production was often traditional art.  It was in the 1950’s that the state started supporting fine arts through annual exhibitions and awards. However, the female participation was markedly low: in the 1959 exhibition, out of 129 participants only 19 were women.

In an interesting exploration of the role of women in art, she also speaks about the influence of foreign trained artists who were the wives of Syrian artists, and who had settled in Syria. They had a notable influence on their peers, although they practiced their art as a hobby rather than a serious career. Another aspect was the role of women in art, but as models or “muses”. She narrates what can only be understood as a beauty context of sorts, in 1961, where the Gallery of modern International Art (AMI) held a contest judged by male artists for the most beautiful model or muse, something that even the Syrian community at large was obsessed by resulting – 52 portraits were then enthusiastically churned out by 48 artists: in which only two of the artists were female! Among the objects on display was the exhibition catalog for the first exhibition of female artists in 1975 to commemorate the International Year of Women by the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance in Damascus. The contemporary work included a moving performance piece by Khadija Baker: “My Little Voice Can’t Lie”. In this live spoken word performance, Baker sits on a pedestal/ platform with a resigned expression on her face, as people are encouraged to listen to her recordings of stories of displacement and loss through headphones woven through her hair in long braids. There is an uncomfortable intimacy that is created through this piece, and connections are created on various levels. Firstly, the audience has to move physically closer to the artist. Secondly, touching a stranger, especially a woman’s hair, crosses another cultural barrier. Listening to these personal stories encourages further intimacy, and finally, these stories become part of the viewer/ listener’s own memory and own experience. “Dress”, a print on fabric with QR codes by Sulafa Hijazi looks like a traditionally embroidered gown at first glance. Up close, the cross stitch patterns reveal themselves to be QR codes that can be scanned, with the codes all leading to different links: pictures, sketches, articles, etc. “It is within this space that Hijazi seeks to examine the intersection of individual and collective, social and international identities”.

Finally, a disturbingly moving piece of art by Hiba Ansari, was shown by Shireen Atassi wearing gloves to handle the piece “Mathematics Book: To Noura Baskadi”. After spending some time in Germany, artist Hiba Ansari returned to Syria and visited a bombed and destroyed village in Northern Syria, where she found a mathematics book among the rubble. The owner, whose name, Noura Bazkadi, was inscribed in the book, had been killed. The artist took the book and converted it into this work. The first part is “The Document”: the original maths book with the sixth grader’s name on its 2013-14 edition. The second part, “The Destruction” is an art book with damaged pages, fabric and paper layouts, and photos of cutlery, everyday kitchen utensils cut in disturbing ways and arranged in quasi-mathematical “equations” that make no sense and convey the irrationality of war. Finally, in “The Construction”, cement and sponge remind us of the concrete structures that are destroyed and reduced to geometrical shapes and rubble. And these include the house of the original owner of the maths schoolbook, Noura Bazkadi.

About the Author:
Zarminae Ansari is an architect specializing in Cultural Tourism, and founder of Joy of Urdu, a non-profit bilingual organization and publisher, revitalizing Urdu and literary heritage.

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