Faiz Art Prize, 2011

Art Dubai: Optimizing Art Opportunities

There is a new kid on the block in the South Asian art world - the art investor. There have always been patrons and collectors but the stakes have been raised with the entry of million dollar art funds and art auctions. The recent sale of M F Hussain at 1.6 million by Christie’s auction in New York has raised the bar on future investment in South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art.

Art Dubai 2008 (previously known as Gulf Art Fair), held from 18-22 March at Mardinat Jumeirah in Dubai was an event that celebrated art as a commodity without any apology. Joining major art fairs in the world like Art Cologne and Art Basel, it was founded just two years ago and is a relatively smaller and younger entity but its location in a city that aims to attract an investment of three trillion dollars in the next decade, it has the promise to become an important event on the world’s art calendar.

The Art Newspaper reports that the event has expanded within a year to accommodate the rising demand as this year alone 400 galleries applied for the 70 slots. Galleries from as far away as Mexico, Somalia and Australia were present and keen to explore the emerging market. Last year, the most successful galleries were the ones that carried art from the Middle East and South Asia and they have returned this year with confidence. No Pakistan-based gallery was present at Art Dubai. This is largely due to the fact that while Pakistani Modern and Contemporary Art is well received internationally, in Pakistan the market is still financially modest. London-based Green Cardamom, run by Pakistan-born Hammad Nasser and supported by the Rangoonwala Trust, introduced a select group of Pakistani modernists and contemporary artists.

As Anders Petterson, the leading authority on art market research and founder of Art Tactic, an independent art market research company from UK, pointed out in his talk ‘Opportunities and Risks in the Indian Art Market,’ the South Asian Art market offers great opportunities to investors, but unlike the Western model which has influential art institutions, in South Asia where no such effective support system exists one can expect volatility in this market. Commenting on Rashid Rana’s success he said the artist was a star today because his career had followed the right path with shows at the most prestigious galleries and most of all he had been adopted as an Indian artist. At the Chemould Gallery, Mumbai, Rana was the only Pakistani represented with his ‘carpet’ made up of thousands of tiny digital images of slaughtered meat, a technique which bears his signature.

When asked why an artist could not receive the same status without such an adoption, Mr Petterson replied that only ownership by a community can open the doors of a powerful market. He cited the example of Iran-born Shirin Nishat’s success because she had been adopted by the US art market.        

 The Global Art Forum at Art Dubai devoted two days to ‘Art Patronage in The Business Age’ which covered topics like ‘Building A Corporate Collection’, ‘Working With Corporations’, and ‘Building Cultural Cities’ and brought internationally recognized names in these fields to Dubai to give an insight into the new possibilities of art investment in the region.

At one of the sessions held daily during the event, a discussion on the arrival of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi was particularly interesting. Led by Catherine David, curator from Paris, with Djamel Kokene, editor Checkpoint Magazine, Cairo / Paris, and Pierre Abi Saab, Editor Al Zawaya Bierut / Paris and Adila Laidi-Hanieh, Professor of Palestinian Art, based in Bir Zeit University, the group agreed on the benefits of exposure to international art the Louvre in Abu Dhabi would offer, but they questioned the priority given to the project while no national museum nor art education exists in Abu Dhabi. They emphasized that before allowing such a cultural onslaught of imported art it was important to match it with a culturally vibrant local environment.

The two non-commercial exhibitions were ‘Art Park’ and ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’, the first curated show of the event, by Salima Hashmi. These shows were both located physically and metaphorically in fringe spaces. The first was located in the converted car park where the unconcealed network of pipes and petrol fumes created its own ambiance. ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ from Pakistan was displayed outdoors on a narrow strip along the artificial lake and the raised road. While the show exposed a wider global audience to the works of a cross-section of contemporary Pakistani artists, the location left much to be desired. The larger work of Rashid Rana and Mohammad Ali Talpur just a few meters away from the glass encased latest Model of Range Rover brought home the fact that it was all about art as commodity. To do justice to the two huge cubes by Rashid Rana and Mohammed Ali Talpur, the open space around them needed to be bigger and certainly less visually ‘busy’. The narrow, improvised tented space which housed the two dimensional works were again rather awkward for the size of work on display. The space however worked well for Naiza Khan’s installation on the boat in the lake which was evocative of sea journeys that connect Pakistan and Dubai and closer to the theme, its possible reference to the legendary river of the dead that has to be crossed on the spirit’s final journey.

Durriya Kazi’s work was missed by quite a few people as it was installed in a cleared  patch in a flower bed where her terracotta ‘Witness’, the broken human figure, lay clutching an infant bringing  back memories of anonymous blast victims that have disappeared in national statistics. Huma Mulji ‘lost’ her stuffed camel installation the first day of the show to the disapproval of the powers that be, when it struck a cord regarding the camel children’s link between the artist’s country and Dubai. Ostensibly the stuffed camel offended the local sensibility, but then, as Huma said ‘The camel belongs also to us in Pakistan as it’s a part of our identity too’. Her two other pieces with cast larger forms of naans and Peshawari chappals in metal that simulated gold and encased in a large suitcase pointed to the displaced identity of migrant Pathan labor armies in search of the petro- dollar rush. It resonates with the human toll this migration takes on the lives of laborers that are constructing Dubai’s new billion dollar skyline. The newspapers constantly report on their sub-human existence as they live 8 persons to a room that can result in suicidal tendencies as quite a few have been seen throwing themselves in front of fast traffic on highways to escape from their marginalized existence and get insurance money for their families.

The other exhibition at Art Park was host to experimental art and site specific work. It focused on video work and also installed here was The Binoun Lounge and Artists’ Cinema based on the work of Middle Eastern artists.

Khalil Chishtee’s lone figures ‘loitering’ all over the spaces were fascinating for their skillful crafting from the familiar plastic bags. Like ghosts they inhabited the black painted space of the car park surrounded by the flickering light of the videos. Bani Abedi’s tongue-in-cheek video piece based on two frames that show a South Asian band learning to play the Star Spangled Banner echo with colonial and neo- colonial references. These works were offered by the Green Cardamom.

At the Collector’s Lounge two important collectors from South Asia, Hameed Haroon from Pakistan and Rajiv Chowdary, an Indian based in New York, were invited to give a talk on what their collection means to them, which added the investor’s perspective.

In South Asia, strong art institutions have not emerged due to a lack of social and political will yet provocative voices with their innovative art are gaining national and global success with Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi Aisha Khalid and Zeeshan leading the group.

Art Dubai is an effective platform that can help both collector and artist to optimize available opportunities, but as the latest Art Tactic report points out, no art market can gain long-term stability without the presence of Art Museums and institutions that provide critical validation to art.
Therefore, if the talent of the region is to be recognized on a larger scale and for a long time, national cultural strategies in South Asia must prioritize the building of an art infrastructure.           

- Niilofur Farrukh