Dubai has long existed in its own little looking glass, aloof from the conventions that dominate politics in the Arab region. According to The Economist’s “shoe-thrower’s index,” if you were to rank Arab unrest on a scale of 1 to 100, the United Arab Emirates comes in at 24.2, the third most stable country in the region, after Qatar and Kuwait.
While neighboring Bahrain has been struggling to attain democracy, Dubai is relatively immune to the surrounding unrest, mostly because 84% of its population is actually foreign-born, and half of its foreigners come from India. Where Arab brotherhood ties other countries together, the lack of it between Dubai’s wealthy immigrants and the region’s native migrant workers creates a schism.
The UAE’s deployment of troops into Bahrain to help stifle protesters on March 14 marked the first time any outsiders in the region got involved with another country’s protest. Politically, it set up a fracture between Bahrain and neighboring Gulf countries. Culturally, Dubai’s nonchalance still has yet to come under heavy scrutiny from the rest of the Middle East.
Which makes it interesting that Art Dubai, the Middle East’s largest art fair, which took place March 16-19, didn’t shun Arab politics, but rather used the unrest as inspiration for its many pieces on exhibit. “Spring 2011 marks a shift in the cultural life of the Gulf,” said Art Dubai’s new director, journalist Antonia Carver.
It was definitely the largest and most geographically diverse in the art fair’s five-year history, which brought a mix of 82 regional and international galleries from 34 countries this year. One-third of the participants are based in the Middle East, another third in Europe, and the last in the United States and Asia. More than a dozen of the participating galleries exhibited work for the first time in the Middle East. The fair saw over 20,000 guests this year, 60 museum visiting groups and a 30 percent increase in international visitors.
And the local art scene surrounding the fair? “It’s dominated by women- many Lebanese and Iranian,” said Carver. “Probably 75 percent of the patrons are female.”
“The art scene is the only organic thing about this place,” said art writer and Middle East expert Marisa Katz.
“This city is one of paradox,” said American artist Brad Downey. “It depends what angle you are looking at it from. If you look up at the tops of the skyscrapers, it is like you are looking into the future, but if you look closely at the gaps between the buildings, there is still a lot that is undeveloped.”
It was the gaps that fueled most of the pieces on exhibit with the various galleries. Most of the artists represented by Dubai-based gallery ArtSpace were in Egypt during the uprisings, and the gallery celebrated that with a video of spliced footage from Tahrir Square.
“The people of the revolution were from all walks of life,” said Artspace managing director Maliha Al-Tabari, “and I really wanted a political booth for Art Dubai — we’re in tough times now and people are not just concerned with pretty pictures, so to speak.”
One of Artspace’s artists, Mohammed Taman, who lost one of his eyes to a rubber bullet during the protests, painted two pieces about his country. Another, George Bahgory, displayed a painting of legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum wailing. Khaled Hafez reworked a piece following the unrest called “Revolution 11.02.2011.” Originally starting out as an abstract piece, the painting soon became a tribute to Hafez’s fellow protesters in its collage of demonstrators, soldiers and Tahrir Square. “My generation spent so much time blaming and criticising,” he said, “but it never crossed our minds to spend 18 days in Tahrir Square simply demanding what we want.”
Also in Artspace was Moroccan artist Zakaria Ramhani’s “Bye Bye Hosni,” which depicts a poster of the former dictator with jumbled lines of Arabic text. In front, there is a protester wearing a Facebook “like” button on his back as he tears down the poster. Nadine Hamman’s gold-leaf nudes hung in an alcove to avoid censorship. “It is strange to have been in that context, and then to be here at a fair,” she said. “My heart is in Egypt. You don’t come back from a protest and say, ‘I’m going to put on some gold leaf now.’”
“In the Middle East, there’s a lot of censorship in art. There’s not a sense of freedom, and we felt we needed to put a statement out there,” said Artspace art director Sossy Dikijian. “We had to do something that really reflected ‘now.’”
At another Emiriti gallery, Traffic, Palestinian artist Ayman Yossri put up two rolls of film stills of Denzel Washington giving the famous “house negro” speech about independence and sovereignty in an Arabic subtitled version of the film Malcolm X. Ahmed Mater’s “Revolution of Man” showed a gas tank turning into a man holding a revolver to his head. Iranian artist Hesam Rahmanian depicted Iran’s symbol, the lotus, caught like a fly in a bell jar.
Paris’s Galerie Hussenot showed an installation by Mournir Fatmi, which used all the flags of countries in the Arab League. Two of them- Tunisia and Egypt- stood in front on wooden flagpoles; the rest were pinned to the wall. Originally, the Tunisian and Egyptian flags were supposed to stand on broomsticks, but the gallery was asked to change them to flagpoles to lighten the piece’s political message.
Berlin’s Galerie Christian Hosp displayed a series of colored neons by Iranian artist Leila Pazooki, where she explores the self-awareness of the “Middle East art scene” through phrases from Western reviews of non-Western artists, including “Korean Mark Rothko,” “African Anselm Kiefer” and “Middle Eastern Louise Bourgeois.” Her other series, “Aesthetics of Censorship,” consisted of pages from Iranian art books where “provocative” images got marked over by censors, becoming, through Pazooki’s interpretation, “a kind of found abstraction.”
Iranian artist Ramin Haerizadeh showed a series of collages with pages from Dubai’s art magazine Canvas, where editors blacked out images of his work. They ended up selling for $25-$35,000 each. Farhad Moshiri, Iran’s highest-selling artist, had a piece called “Shukran,” in which the phrase, meaning “thank you” in Arabic, was spelled out with kitchen knives, swords and daggers stabbed into the wall.
In the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), a group of contemporary Saudi Arabian artists called Edge of Arabia presented a piece called “Terminal,” which looks at what it’s like to be a traveling Arab ten years after 9/11. It started with invites that looked like airplane tickets and guided visitors through a security checkpoint shaped like the door of a mosque, a baggage check that x-rayed “cultural baggage,” and a video of a road covered in Arabic graffiti in the airport praying room. “We are playing with the concepts of space and time,” said DIFC curator Bashar al Shroogi. “You will only be allowed to spend a certain amount of time in each section, such as immigration, check-in and customs. It is a unique concept.”
“These are the ones to watch,” he continued. “They bring fresh and diverse perspectives, and I believe they will be some of the most compelling voices in our industry in years to come.”
And then there was “Kite,” which depicts a ittle boy holding a kite reel, a girl next to him holding the string, and a third has her arms up in the air as if to catch it. The children are made out of corrugated iron, the kite’s string out of barbed wire, and the kite itself out of keffiyeh and hessian cloth. The boy and girl represent the children of Sabra, a Lebenese refugee camp that Palestinian artist Abdul Rahman Katanani calls home. “Despite conflict, depression and agony, these people are full of optimism and hope,” said Agial Art Gallery founder Saleh Barakat. “The Palestinian cause is summarized in this artwork. It’s full of poetry… Through ‘Kite,’ [Katanani] is showing the condition of his life. There is no blame or bitterness, there is simply hope.”
From that hope comes power, and perhaps the beginnings of a place where art and democracy can coincide, because with hope comes expression, and with art comes articulation and the free flow of ideas and dialogue. “Artists, like other intellectuals, question taboos, challenge norms, bring enlightenment,” Sharjah Art Foundation director Jack Persekian told The Economist.
Boris Groys once wrote, “Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics.” In contemporary art, this power comes from a piece’s ability to appear as both an image and a critique of that image. In Art Dubai, the line was blurred even more. “Artists of the younger generation were acting as citizens first, aesthetic ciphers second,” wrote The Guardian. Art was just as much of an encounter as it was a novelty.
“This is going to go down in history books,” said Artspace’s Al-Tabari. “People want to acquire a memento of these times because these events are going to be marked in our calendars.”
Art represents more than politics; it represents a community, one that has one foot out in the open, and the other still in the closet. Yet just as important as the existence of overbearing censorship that still occupies many of these artists’ lives is the positive collective they belong to, one that is working towards political change, either by celebrating triumphs or by reminding us that there is still work that needs to be done. The presence of political works in this festival is not one of propaganda, but of unlearning fear. These are artists who have something relevant to say about their countries’ politics, and they finally feel safe enough to hear the replies
“Being Arab is almost a genetic disposition,” one Middle Eastern collector told Artinfo. “We have to react to political turmoil, and, thankfully, most of our artists do it in very poetic ways.”
Photo courtesy of UggBoyUggGirl via Flickr