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Fun of the Fair – the wacky world of Art Dubai

The annual culture blast is a good barometer of the emirate's economic fortunes

An installation at Art Dubai 2024. A highlight of the cultural calendar, the Fair attracts many high net worth individuals Supplied/Spark Media
An installation at Art Dubai 2024. A highlight of the cultural calendar, the Fair attracts many high net worth individuals

I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like, as they say. And I like Art Dubai.

The premier art event in the Middle East and an increasingly global draw, Art Dubai has been going since 2007, and I think I’ve been to almost every one, pandemics and global financial crises allowing.

The brainchild of Ben Floyd, a former banker turned culture impresario, Art Dubai is one of the must-attend events in the emirates’ calendar. Le tout Dubai really is there.

It’s not just the art (more of which later), but as much the whole glam-culture nexus, and the interesting people it attracts.

One fellow art lover advised me to look at the floor as much as the walls, and she was right – the most astounding collection of high-heeled Choos, Louboutins and Blahniks my amateur eye has ever witnessed.

The Fair – as it’s properly called – is also a reliable barometer of the local economy. So, Thursday night (the media and sponsor guests opening) was hectic, despite the very un-Dubai wind that howled around the Johara ballroom in Madinat Jumeirah.

Predominant nationalities were south Asian, upmarket European and, of course, Russian, being led around in large groups with Russian-speaking tour guides. So, a reasonable cross-section of Dubai’s high-net-worth individual community.

Proceedings have changed subtly over the years. Veteran Fair-goers still fondly remember the Abraaj era, when ex-CEO Arif Naqvi generously funded the event and can be credited with giving it critical mass in the global art circuit.

That came to an end with the chain of events that led to the Abraaj collapse and Naqvi’s arraignment on fraud charges by US authorities.

He is currently fighting extradition from London, but his name cropped up many times on the opening night, with little vignettes about him crooning along with Barry, the pianist from the Hotel Europe in Davos, in artistic karaoke.

The Abraaj role has been taken over by Julius Baer, the Swiss private bank – not to be confused (as somebody once did) with Jules’ Bar, an establishment near Dubai Airport that is the focus of entirely different cultural activities.

Strangely, in the post-Abraaj era the Fair also seems to have become more commercial. During the Arab Spring In 2011 there was a subtle protest in the form of a troupe of donkeys; on Thursday the show-stopper was the new BMW 7 series (also a sponsor).

Julius Baer is less interested in media than Abraaj was.

As for the art, well I just let it wash over me, as they say.

I do like a bit of politics in my art, so spent some time looking at the works in the modern section that focused on cultural exchanges between the former Soviet Union and the “Global South” in the Cold War era.

It was all news to me that Moscow used art scholarships and bursaries to big up the reputation of Marxist-Leninism in the Arab world and much of Africa and Asia. The current Russian leadership could learn a cultural thing or two, I thought.

There was one spectacular work based on a photograph of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem seen from behind an Israeli security fence, created out of what looked like giant jigsaw pieces.

I have a lot to learn about contemporary art, I must admit. I often found myself standing in front of a landscape or portrait thinking “my five-year-old granddaughter could have done that”, as they say.

A good game to play at Art Dubai is to search for the wackiest exhibit of the night, but I must report that in 2024 the standard of wackiness has declined.

The works on display were all pretty tame in comparison with previous years, even in the zappy mind-blast that is Art Dubai Digital. Over in the nearby Mina A’Salam hotel, it was all gimmicky moving paintings and 3D works with a strong AI theme.

In the end, my “Wacky ‘24” award went to Gallery Now of Seoul for a series of sculptures that were so quintessentially weird, in a Cat-in-the-Hat kind of way, that they blew my mind. Readers must go and see for themselves.

The Fair pulls you into a mesmeric reverie.

As I was strolling dreamily past the Julius Baer lounge towards the exit, I could have sworn for a split second I heard Arif and Barry belting out Uptown Girl.  But it was another Art Dubai illusion.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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