At London’s Frieze Art Fair in October last year, the Middle East had its fifteen minutes. A report by Bidoun in the Art Newspaper’s daily edition about Middle Eastern collectors at the fair caused a momentary stir: such is the thrill of a mashup of the most contemporary of art markets with what is apparently the most traditional of societies. And of course news of a “new” market, is always a good excuse for another glass of champagne.
With something of a frisson, Frieze Art Fair VIP manager Daisy Shields told Bidoun that this was “the first year we’ve had calls on behalf of Sheikhs.” The Fair had worked with Galerist’s Murat Pilevneli to invite and host Turkish buyers at the Fair, and Pilevneli was confident that this first step would encourage greater investment in international and local artists by Istanbul’s growing numbers of collectors, and ultimately “force up the local market.” London darlings Haluk Akakce and Hussein Chalayan sold well at the Fair.
In our last issue, Bidoun included news of Ebrahim Melamed’s plans for his 5,000 square-meter Honart museum, scheduled to open in 2008 on the outskirts of Tehran. Home to his extensive collection, which includes works by Anish Kapoor, Ugo Rondinone, Shirin Neshat, Parvis Tanavoli, Julian Opie, and William Kentridge, the museum will play a significant role in the region, which has few public spaces with active collecting policies — and few galleries that put local and international artists on a par. “We curate as we buy, taking our time and working with gallerists and artists to collect major pieces of museum quality,” Melamed told Bidoun. He was infectiously enthusiastic about one key purchase: a set of three major works by Monica Bonvicini from London’s Max Wigram Gallery. While Sharjah is known for its public museums (Sharjah Biennial director Hoor Al Qasimi was at Frieze, considering works for the museum collection), Dubai rarely makes headlines for cultural eminence. But in late December came the announcement that the emirate had commissioned Zaha Hadid to design an opera house complex on an island in the Creek, followed by the revelation of vague plans for two museums, one dedicated to art.
A few months earlier, the nascent contemporary art scene in Dubai was invigorated by the opening of The Third Line, a slick, warehouse-style space in the industrial Al Quoz area. Local gallery devotees, many of whom are new collectors, buy work by first-time exhibitors such as Raghda Bukhash, Lamya Gargash, and Amna Al Zaabi, and regional hotshots Youssef Nabil and Farhad Moshiri.
The Gulf states have also been instrumental in keeping Beirut galleries going during a politically and economically grueling year. As Agial Art Gallery director Saleh Barakat told Bidoun, “We suffer from the force majeure like any other market, but let’s say that the art market in Lebanon stumbles but doesn’t fall. The burgeoning economies of the Gulf have encouraged collectors to come to Beirut on buying sprees. The Lebanese diaspora, visiting from the US and Europe, and accustomed to buying art, also equilibrates the situation to an extent.” The opening of the Sfeir-Semler Gallery, with its roster of high-profile international artists, and the success of Homeworks III helped Beirut’s art scene remained relatively buoyant in 2005.
The Third Line also runs a consultancy, tasked is to build a corporate art collection for the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), which aims to be Wall Street’s UAE equivalent. The DIFC is focusing on regional and international contemporary art. Its first commissions for the two lobbies of The Gate building are due for completion this spring: huge numbers and letters canvases by Tehran–based artist Farhad Moshiri and abstract landscapes by Bahraini Balqees Fakhro.
When Christie’s launched its first Arab world office in the Dubai Metals and Commodities Center in April 2004, the local art world assumed it would be relying on jewels and other typical Middle Eastern interests. Indeed, its first foray in the region was the Camel Caravan Gala Auction, a charity sale of kitschy fiberglass camels decorated by local artists and enthusiasts, which grace the roundabouts and expressways of the city.
A presale exhibition of Orientalist art in Dubai in May 2004 saw a subsequent increase in interest from Gulf buyers at the June sale in London. (The growing importance of the Gulf market for Orientalism is illustrated by a show opening this March at the Majlis Gallery, Dubai: London’s Mathaf Gallery, specialists in nineteenth century paintings of the Arab world, are bringing their wares directly to their Gulf clients for the first time.)
Meanwhile, other Christie’s departments reportedly noticed a rise in interest in twentieth century international art in the region.
Perhaps it’s not so much of a surprise that on May 24, Christie’s will be holding their first official auction in the region at the Emirates Towers Hotel — and that it will be of international modern and contemporary art. Alongside a handful of big international names, including Damien Hirst, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Shirin Neshat, the sale will offer a mix of works by artists from across the Arab world, India, and Iran, including Chant Avedissian, Mahmoud Said, Dia Al-Azzawi, Parviz Tanavoli, Hossein Zenderoudi, and Shadi Ghadirian.