The exciting El Saadiyat Island project, contemporary art in the Emirates Featured

From Art Paris-Abu Dhabi to the Cairo, Sharjah and Venice Biennials through to Art Dubai.

by 07 October 2009

The Arabian lands seem to be true hotspots, also artistically speaking. The proliferation of auctions, fairs, biennials and museums in these areas today is incredible.

The crowded calendar started in November in Abu Dhabi, when Art Paris travelled to the deserts of the Emirates to stage the second edition of a fair. It gathered together 58 international galleries, several conferences and a host of sheikhs, experts and non-experts, art lovers and neophytes (actually very many) in a palm-swept embrace. The sun and the beach nearly won out over the cultural involvement, which we would have liked to seen better attended. Although the beauty of the place, the magical climate, the evenings with the flavour of a "Thousand and One Nights" and the stunning seven-star hotel, the Emirates Palace can take much of the blame.

It will be down to its name, but El Saadiyat Island at Abu Dhabi, known as the “Island of Happiness” is slated for completion by 2013 at a cost of 27 million dollars. It has a stated target of attracting 3 million foreign tourists in 2015, thanks to investments surpassing 175 billion dollars.

Crisis permitting and acquiring, literally, the cultural and the museum-style structures of a number of world architectural stars, the project includes the Performing Arts Centre designed by Zaha Hadid, the Guggenheim by Frank O. Gehry, the Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando and the Classical Museum by Jean Nouvel. The future museum hub will create a huge avant-garde cultural area built to the tune of petrodollars, luxury, art and, perhaps, at the end, culture?

And if, as far as containers go, we’re up and running, what can we say about their content? No problem. The Louvre is selling at a discount as is the Guggenheim, in a kind of franchising chain where, like at the supermarket. It seems almost possible to hear someone ask for “a few slices of modern art, a kilo of contemporary art and (like at Ikea) the kit to install it myself and as fast as possible. The outlook for the Emirates is this: Sharjah in charge of culture and the March Biennial, a fixture since 1993; Dubai the art fair centre and trade hub for galleries and shows; and, ultimately, Abu Dhabi, the cultural realm where every enthusiast and the “cultured” will want a piece of the happiness that the island offers.

While "Crossing Traversées" is the title of the splendid exhibition curated in the new space Darb (which means bridge in Arabic) this is an Egyptian arts and cultural centre on three levels, wonderfully designed and restructured by the artist Moataz Nasr. The venue presented impressive names and equally impressive works of genius, such as the compelling artist, Kader Attia, with his video of a man dressed in the veils of a belly dancer perfectly at ease and a great, even merry dancer. Or Saudi Arabian Faisal Samra in a video projected on a real bed in which we are shown an African woman attempting to commit suicide but failing, repentant, she starts to cry, provoking a deep sense of emotion and empathy in the watching bystander. Artists joined by Halim Al Karim, Yazid Oulab, Mounir Fatmi, Youssef Nabil and Ninar Esber, those geniuses of, respectively, painting, video, photography and performance, whose works also populated the March edition of Art Dubai.

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