At Art Dubai 2019, Modern Galleries face space, sustenance challenge

A drawing work by Susanne Wenger exhibited by Tafeta Gallery at Art Dubai Modern

As Art Dubai, in UAE, keeps expanding in its 13th year of existence, Modern galleries section of the yearly fair is raising challenge of sustenance. Such challenge, by extension, threatens visibility of modern African art and other regions at such a global stage.

Since the creation of the Modern Galleries section of Art Dubai in 2014, some old masters of African descents, Middle East and South Asia have enjoyed quite a wide window for visibility. However, while the contemporary section of Art Dubai keeps having more galleries, the modern space continues to shrink every year.

Most art fairs and biennials across the world are always dominated by contemporary art, no doubt. But regions such as, Africa, Middle East and South Asia, which had less visibility of modern art — on the global stage during most parts of the last century — are at disadvantage in the current contemporary art dominance at international art events.

For example, as modern artists from Africa have lost a huge mileage on the international space, the gap in both critical and commercial value, between art of the western regions and others confirmed the disparity.

And when art of these less focused regions started getting more visibility towards the end of the last century, the contemporary space was the focus of most art connoisseurs.

The creation of the Modern Galleries at Art Dubai in 2014 added vigour to the return of the less focused continents’ old masters.

Prior to the coming of Art Dubai Modern, the secondary art market in Africa and Europe were the only main windows for modernists of the continent. However, from the eight edition of the fair — when the modern section debuted — to the last event held from March 20 to 23, 2019, the space has shrunk.

In 2014 and 2015, nearly 20 galleries showed every year, the number dropped to 16 galleries in 2018 and further shrank to 11 in 2019. The space could shrink further or disappear all together next year.

The glaring challenge of Art Dubai Modern was more obvious this year as its four-year-old expansive space was lost to ‘Residents’, a two-year-old addition to the fair. The ‘Residents’ space, though described as ‘non-commercial’ further boosted the contemporary art sections of the fair.

From over 20 to now just 11, the Modern section has been moved from its traditional large space to a small corridor inside Contemporary Hall 2. Interestingly, losing the expansive space to ‘Residents’, strangely, appeared like an ‘advantage’.

Some of the exhibitors were less worried about the drop in number of modern art galleries this year. The concern was about being visible to visitors. Lisbon, Portugal-based Perve Galleria, which had shown in nearly all the editions of the Modern section, seemed satisfied with the new space inside one of the Contemporary halls.

Manager/Curator of Perve, Nuno Espinho da Silva argued, “here is better.”

He noted that being in the same hall with the contemporary galleries allows more visitors to see the modern section too, compared to a separate space that existed in the past.

Another exhibitor at the Modern Galleries, London, UK-based Tafeta made its second appearance at the section. Its proprietor, Ayo Adeyinka, also agreed that the new space inside Contemporary hall “is good for us.”

He explained that as the Contemporary halls attract more visitors, the modern galleries would benefit from that visibility.

Between 2014 when it debuted and 2019, three artistic directors and two international directors have been in the saddle. Antonia Carver, the fair’s director for six years was on seat when Art Dubai Modern debuted in 2014. From 2017 to 2018, Myrna Ayad was the fair’s director. For this edition, Chloe Vaitsou, came in as international director, joining artistic director, Pablo de Val, few months ahead of opening.

When Art Dubai Modern started, it was created to showcase art from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia under the presentation of what the designers of the concept described as “regionally and internationally based galleries.” The space was created for the regions’ “modern masters of the 20th century.”

In her second year as director of the fair, Ayad, who previously had covered nearly every edition of Art Dubai as a writer, boasted: “It is here that new initiatives are made.” For example, she insisted, “the Art Dubai Modern is the only one with museum quality art” among art fairs anywhere in the world.

Ayad was right: In 2015, one of Africa’s modernists, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya’s works were shown by Lagos-based Mydrim Gallery at Art Dubai Modern. The famous Guggenheim Museum, among other prospects, showed interest in Onobrakpeya’s works during the year’s fair.

Also on display were works of Moroccans Mohamed Melehi and Mohamed Hamidi represented by Loft Art Gallery, Casablanca; and a Cape Verdian master, Manuel Figueira shown under Perve Galeria, Lisbon, among other modernists from Africa and other regions.

However, the sustainability challenge of the Modern section appeared not lost to the artistic team.

In 2017, more energy was deployed to strengthen taste for modern art at the fair. A forum tagged, Modern Symposium, was organised with the focus to celebrate what Art Dubai noted as “the cultural impact of 20th century masters from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.”

The two venues inside Art Dubai Modern hall and Alserkal Avenue confirmed the importance of the subject in focus. Also, this year, more efforts were deployed to promote modernism. The Modern Symposium was scheduled under the theme, Cultural Hubs of Modernism.

With new international director, Vaitsou, perhaps, the Art Dubai Modern has a stronger future. For Vaitsou, it is not about the numerical strength of the modern galleries, but integration.

Just four months old in the saddle, Vaitsou, during a chat inside the Madinat Jumeiran venue explained that the new space for the modern section is about “integration to show the impact that modern art has on contemporary artists.”

Vaitsou, whose previous work was Head of Audience Development, insisted, “it’s more of integration than reduction” in number of participating galleries.

Despite the obvious challenge in thickening the modern texture of Art Dubai, the fair, no doubt keeps expanding in other areas. VaI boasted that Art Dubai continues to develop original content to redefine what an art fair can be.

“We represent an art world that is truly global and inclusive, rooted in artistic discovery and the promotion of new and alternative perspectives, community building, idea generation and cultural exchange,” the fair’s new artistic director said during preview.

“Geographies, galleries and artists, art typologies and themes that are not often seen side-by-side, or even as part of the same conversation, will converge on the fair. We hope that new discoveries will be made and new synergies formed.”

With more than 500 artists representing 80 countries across Contemporary, Modern, Bawwaba and Residents galleries. Art Dubai 2019 no doubt asserted the fair’s status as a global convergence in art lexicon.

Beyond the regular visual culture spaces, Art Dubai 2019 added a photography show of archival contents. Titled, Tolerance Has History, it was an exhibition of photographs from the private collection of His Highness, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. The exhibition narrates the region in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly, the building of Dubai from nearly ground zero.

Art Dubai is sponsored by Julius Baer and Piaget with Madinat Jumeirah as the home of the event. The Dubai Culture & Arts Authority (Dubai Culture) is a strategic partner and supports the fair’s year-round education programme.

The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation support global Art Forum and Residents. BMW is the exclusive car partner of Art Dubai.

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