Abu Dhabi Art: Small in Stature, Surprising in Status

When considered amongst gargantuan international art fairs, like last months Frieze or next months Miami Art Basel, Abu Dhabi Art is a boutique affair. Yet, in terms of programming, participating galleries and the quality of both organisation and work shown, it demands to be considered amongst the best in the world. In its sixth year, the fair is confidently assuming its place alongside the larger, longer-established shows.

Francois Mollerat, Pier and Ocean, 2014
Francois Mollerat, Pier and Ocean, 2014

As with other world cities, the standard of the annual fair suggests something of the state of its year round cultural offering. This symbiotic relationship is an increasingly reliable and relevant barometer in Abu Dhabi. The city, the unassuming capital of a quiet Middle Eastern country until just over a decade ago, had lagged behind the fair – which attracted big hitters from the beginning. But the change is happening and the city begins to bed in, to realise the promise and capitalise on its burgeoning international cultural significance, and both fair and city evolve in tandem.

Mohammed Kazem, Directions lo

Mohammed Kazem, Directions (Circle) 2014, White Acrylic, Aluminium and LED Light 

With 46 galleries this year, Abu Dhabi Art is a similar size to last year. And one can only assume this is deliberate: since its inauguration in 2006, then at the Emirates Palace, the fair has specialised in, and differentiated itself through an intimate, curated line-up. Unlike other fairs, this is a private showing, organized by Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and with the lure of the major international museums opening in close proximity, many galleries are showing work which is less straight-forwardly commercial. There is a palpable, confident anticipation amongst the crowds of arts professionals, collectors and public who look forward to the high-profile openings in the coming years. Works such as Biya Fayyazi’s hundreds of teeming ceramic ‘Cockroaches’, Mohammed Kazem’s Directions, and François Morellet’s serene ‘Pier and Ocean’ installation – a neon rendition of Mondrian’s work of the same name – are indicative of the museum standard of many of the works, meaning it is a pleasingly concept and experience led outing.

The galleries are amongst the best in the region, including Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde and The Third Line, both recent attendees at Art Basel, with a peppering of the best in the world, including Hauser & Wirth and Lisson Gallery. But it is the supporting programme that is unexpected and exceptional coup for this ever-culture orientated Emirate. The satellite events comprise performance art, sculptural installations which spill beyond the main hall, as well as a rigorous schedule of talks and seminars.

breeder gallery, vanessa

Vanessa Safavi, Intérieures (6), 2014, The Breeder

The complements to the main action of the exhibitions are unexpected and brilliant, almost to the point of being incongruous. This surprising quality and depth is epitomised by such wildly wonderful happenings as an opening night performance of the poetry of Nico by Patti Smith and her daughter, innovative seminars featuring Richard Long, Jean Nouvel, Ernesto Neto and Martin Creed, amongst many others, and a dazzling inaugural exhibition of works from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection.

This ability to defy international expectations has become a trademark move of Abu Dhabi. It would be valid to say that there are certain preconceived expectations held about the destination and its cultural potential, and some are not unwarranted, but, based on the evidence seen so far this week, and what is forecast in the not to distant future, the capital is very much asserting its bona fide credentials.

Abu Dhabi Art runs until Saturday 8th November at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Saadiyat Island

By Rachel Bennett

Originally written for Art in the City

About Rachel Bennett

Rachel is a freelance writer and strategist to clients and brands in the luxury industry. Defiant in the face of lazy assumptions too often made about the UAE's 'lack of culture', Rachel is a Dubai-dweller by way of London, having made the move to the Middle East in early 2014.