Art – expression or economics?

A visitor looking at the work of Qatari artist Salman Al Maliki during a recent exhibition in Dubai. (EB FILE)

There is a curious contradiction inherent in art: it is a commercial commodity as well as a form of pure expression. But not simultaneously. Though the Damien Hirsts of the world may disagree, economics and expression remain uneasy bedfellows.

So it was with Art Dubai, a sprawling festival of art, of which the centrepiece was a glitzy exhibition conducted at the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai.

The pieces there ranged from the sublime to the obvious, but the avant-garde was confined to the leper colony. The central exhibition at the Madinat was a brilliant experiment in the commodification of art and – if the number of red dots indicating sales were any measure – a highly successful one. Gallerists over Dubai concurred that the commercial element of art in the region is alive and thriving; with demand for ancient Far Eastern furniture to thought-provoking Palestinian and Iranian work; abstract landscapes to calligraphy; environmentally conscientious work to flights of narrative fancy.

Exhibitor conservatism stemmed not from self-censorship but pecuniary probabilities. Dealers usually typecast their audience when predicting what might prove popular. It wasn't as obvious as yesteryear but curators still assumed regional buyers were satisfied with a happy merger of style and safety, and so left commercially risqué pieces aside. The fringes of Art Dubai were an entirely different matter. Art Dubai has involved Dubai's galleries in various ways. The Art Bus, a wheeled venture hosted by the Jam Jar and Art in the City, was on hand to ferry artistically-inclined hordes to Dubai's little cultural islands: the industrial Al Quoz maze where renovated warehouses host collaborative ventures and progressive art; the old Bastakiya area in Bur Dubai preserved in its 200 year old incarnation; and the well-burnished galleries of Dubai's gleaming new financial district. The bus was chock-a-block with local enthusiasts as well as international curators, gallerists and investors bargain-bin browsing for the next big name.

Bastakiya is an enchanting mix of bijou living spaces and galleries, humid corridors and art that hasn't lost its power to surprise. Sequestered within the maze is The Bastakiya Art fair. The Pakistani and Iraqi art pavilions there confirm the suspicion that social unrest fosters genuine creativity, showcasing work melding genuine expressiveness with sly subversion.

The 'Art Shack' at the Majlis encapsulates Bastakiya's laissez faire approach to the creation and consumption of art. It is an apt moniker for a hot, humid room without electricity. Pieces from aspiring artists sprawl on the floor, pile against the wall and occupy dark nooks and cloistered crannies. The art is engagingly carefree perhaps by virtue of relative loose shackles of commercial selection. Rose Essa projects and the XVA gallery also host pieces that combine various media in interesting juxtapositions, while the Hunar Gallery in Al Rashidiya is a brilliant destination for purveyors of Qatari, Emirati and Gulf art.

Art Dubai, then, is a curiously two-headed beast. While economic nous drives the centrepiece exhibition, esoteric expression reigns on the fringes. It remains an experience regardless whether one prefers the obviousness of the economically viable or the allure of experimental work.

The Souk Madinat exhibition ended yesterday but the artists plying Bastakiya and Al Quoz remain alive, well, accessible and worth appreciating.


- The writer is a Dubai-based lecturer, sociologist and marketing manager. He holds an MSc from the London School of Economics. His Twitter handle is @HishamWyne


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