At Art Dubai, Collectors Are Buying But ‘Cautious’

The city 'is booming again,' a local art patron said. Many artworks at the fair allude to global challenges, particularly ongoing struggles in the Middle East.

Efie Gallery's booth at Art Dubai. Photo courtesy Efie Gallery.

There was bumper-to bumper traffic on the way to the 17th edition of Art Dubai, which runs through Sunday at its longtime home, the Madinat Jumeirah resort. The view from the slow-moving car was, at least, good: palm trees wrapped with sparkling lights line the city’s streets.

Post-pandemic, Dubai is undergoing an unexpected economic boom, and while many residents moan and groan about the resulting inconveniences, they are also beaming with pride. The emirate’s population has risen in the years following Covid, growing about 100,000 in 2023 to reach some 3.65 million, according to the Dubai Statistics Center. Demand for residential properties is high, nearly outstripping supply in this magnet for the uber-wealthy. Around six percent of the new residents are high net-worth individuals, with assets above $1 million.

“Dubai is booming again,” Rakesh Kumar, a Dubai-based collector and marketing consultant, said. “Everyone is coming here. The galleries were once locally focused and now they are very global. There is now a good global understanding regarding the potential that Art Dubai poses in terms of influence and economic power in the art world.”

The scene at Art Dubai during its VIP preview on February 28. Photo by Salih Seref/Anadolu via Getty Images

Long considered something of a regional fair, heavy on art from the Middle East and North Africa, Art Dubai wiped away such stereotypes at this year’s edition, with a diverse array of 120 exhibitors in its modern, contemporary and digital art sections; 65 percent of them come from the Global South.

“We’ve been trying to build our own identity and tried not to be a copy of what already exists,” Pablo del Val, the fair’s artistic director, said. “Dubai is a multinational community filled with micro societies. That is what we aim to reflect.”

Strong sales took place during Art Dubai’s VIP preview days on February 28 and 29.

At Dubai’s Efie Gallery, the renowned Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s large-scale work The Bend in the River (2022) went for $600,000 to a Dubai-based collector, several figural sculptures by Kenyan Maggie Otieno went for $3,000 to Dubai-based collectors, and Aïda Muluneh’s Idle Whims (2018) went print for $7,500 to a collector based in Ghana.

“We want to be a window to the African continent,” said Kwame Mintah, a co-founder of Efie, which opened in the Al Quoz area in 2022. “Often the Middle East and Africa are considered on the fringes of the international circuit, but here we are considered global.”

Thomas Brambilla, from Bergamo, Italy placed a Lynda Benglis sculpture priced at €160,000 ($173,000) with a Lebanese private collector, and international powerhouse Almine Rech sold a work by Umar Rashid for between $20,000 and $30,000 and a Thu-Van Tran for between $30,000 and $40,000.

First-time participant Gajah Gallery, of Singapore, sold Binatang Liar (Wild Animals), 2022, a large-scale abstracted figurative painting by the Indonesian artist Yunizar, for $36,000 to a Dubai-based collector.

Dubai’s Tabari Artspace, for its part, sold several works from its curated booth, “Corporal Landscapes,” which held seven young female artists from the Middle East, including three large paintings by Lebanese Tagreed Darghouth priced at $35,000each, multiple new mosaic works by Chafa Ghaddar (priced between $2,500 and $9,500), and a new neon work by Aya Haidar.

Despite the uncertain state of the market for digital art, several sales took place in that dedicated section, now in its third year. A work by Krista Kim titled 1005 v1 was sold at the preview for 12.5ETH or $42,600, and within minutes of the opening, the Dubai-based Morrow collective sold out its Brian Brinkman edition for a total of 5ETH (approximately $17,000).

“We’ve nearly sold out our booth,” said Joe Kennedy of Unit London, which was participating in the fair for the third time.

While the mood was upbeat and business was strong, there were reminders of the region’s political instability, with several works on display that reference the war between Hamas and Israel.

Zilberman Gallery’s booth at Art Dubai. Photo courtesy of Art Dubai.

At Palestine’s Zawyeh Gallery, which has branches in Dubai and Ramallah, there were six works depicting watermelons—a potent symbol of Palestinian resistance—by Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani.

“Most of the works have sold,” Ziad Anani, the gallery’s director, said. “We try to focus on artworks that have more affordable prices because we want to build an awareness about Palestinian art.”

The booth also has a painting filled with roses and titled The Promise by the Palestinian artist Bashir Makhoul.

Several artists from the West Bank, such as the esteemed painter Sliman Mansour, journeyed to Dubai to attend the fair, Anani said. “Despite everything going on they came to Dubai. This is a great platform for their art.” Also participating from Ramallah is Gallery One.

At Istanbul-based Zilberman Gallery, a large, poignant mixed media work on canvas of Jerusalem by Turkish artist Azade Köker was prominently displayed behind the gallery’s desk and priced at $80,000.

“Displaying this work is a reaction to what is going on and it is the right time to show it,” Moiz Zilberman, the founder of the gallery, said. “Many Palestinians here were happy to see it.”

It was still available on the first public day. Zilberman said he hoped it would be sold to a museum.

“I’ve been participating in Art Dubai for over 10 years now; sometimes the fair is good and sometimes it is not,” Zilberman said. “Last year was not good. The year before we did unbelievably well, and this year, I think Dubai is back. There is a real audience here and loyal collectors.”

Despite the buoyant mood in the fair halls, there were signs of anxiety—even among some collectors who were making purchases.

“The first day was a busy day, but the second day was slow,” said Dubai-based collector Gulpreet Kohli, the founder of Mylen Investments. “People are buying, but they’re cautious. There are obviously challenging situations in the region.”

Several artworks and performances captured this mixture of hope and fear, particularly in the Bawwaba section, curated by Colombian Emiliano Valdés around the theme of healing and transformation. (Bawwaba means “portal” in Arabic.)

Dia Mrad performing his work Again and Again and Again. Photo courtesy Rebecca Anne Proctor.

A performance by the Lebanese artist Dia Mrad at an upscale villa the evening of Art Dubai’s opening night captured the jarring, contradictory nature of life right now, as Dubai thrives and violence unfolds nearby in Gaza and the area surrounding it.

Mrad stood up amid a group of collectors, journalists, and VIPs, and destroyed two of his most popular photographs, which depict aspects of the Beirut explosion on August 4, 2020. The piece was titled Again and Again and Again, and Mrad said he undertook it to make “a statement about the cycle of construction, destruction, reconstruction, and destruction,” which is all too familiar in the region.

After that deadly explosion, many Lebanese who could afford to depart headed to Dubai. The country’s artists also began showing more regularly in the city, which is considered by many to be the Switzerland of the Middle East, a safe haven for those fleeing destruction and socio-economic hardship.

While the Gulf region mourns the ongoing violence, the art scene in Dubai has benefitted from the influx of both creatives and collectors from nearby countries. How long this continues, no one can say.

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