An art affair

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View from the hotel

Since its inception in 2007, Art Dubai has been growing and extending away from the typical capital-oriented art fair. Art Dubai is not just about introducing the masses to an array of artists, nor is it only about maximizing the exposure of those artists and the galleries that host them for the sake of fondling the art market. It’s also about a larger framework of events hosted in the city that aim to do one main thing: sell Dubai to the world.

The 7th edition of the Dubai Art Fair boasted over 500 artists and 75 museum groups. Over half of the artists exhibiting in the fair were from the Middle East and South Asia. Running and open to the general public between March 20 and 23, the fair along with parallel events in the city brought an influx of visitors who came to admire and inspect Dubai’s cultural scene – said to be one of the most vibrant of its kind in the Middle East.

The dedicated gallery spaces, spread over two large wings and outdoors spaces, resembled a city plan somehow – a patchwork of elements and districts that generate a slow feeling of attachment as you stroll through, all united under one roof. Just like every district in the city is a proud entity that showcases a very multi-faceted Dubai, the galleries exhibiting artists’ works join together to create a diverse mix of contemporary art from the region and beyond. But what the fair does in parallel is provide a hub for Dubaïote hospitality and exhibit a city that is eager for attention as it rebuilds its image.

Although I couldn’t afford to buy anything, it was just as satisfying to simply gaze upon a wealth of interesting photos, paintings, objects and everything in between. Significantly, the Art Dubai Projects of 2013 were dedicated to Farideh Lashai, one of Iran’s most important contemporary female artists who passed away in February. At the entrance of one of the fair’s two wings, a large space exhibited a painting with projections on it, facing another screen showing old Iranian ‘cabaret style’ cult films, now banned in Iran. On the one hand was an audience reacting to the show with excitement, and on the other were the performers on stage, creating a dichotomy of relations and visual perceptions.

It wasn’t easy to leave the works of artists, the networking with other journalists and gallery owners/curators, but I took in as much as I could before abandoning the fair later in the day to enjoy the city. No matter where you’re going in Dubai, you somehow always seem to find yourself back on Sheikh Zayed Road. It’s the city’s lifeline, connecting its districts, and it is almost impossible to cross as a pedestrian. Districts are laid out next to one another like in any other city, except here they seem to lack layers and are thematic. Outside of these neighborhoods and back on the highway, billboards and neon signs follow you along the length of the trajectory, like an urban showcase of ads and brand names all enticing you to disperse your cash. The main way to get to an exact location by cab is to give the name of the closest hotel. Hotels are like landmarks in the city, orienting people.

While Art Dubai was well worth the buzz, it somehow was overpowered by floating vibes constantly reminding me that I was experiencing only one side of Dubai’s wealth: money. The fair, although pioneering in terms of artistic outlooks and themes explored, does revolve a lot around the concept of spending money. At the end of the week, I found myself in love with a fair that I couldn’t keep up with.

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