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Art Dubai Bawwaba 2023 introspects on the value of skill in contemporary art

Through the theme of Against Disappearance, independent curator Vipasha Purichanon highlights the level of skill involved in creating works of art, at Art Dubai Bawwaba 2023.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Mar 17, 2023

'Bawwaba'—translating to ‘gateway’ from Arabic—has now been a section of Art Dubai, for its last three editions, and is dedicated to new works (made in the last year) by artists from across the Global South. In its recently concluded edition, Bawwaba featured solo presentations from 11 artists, originating from—Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, the Philippines, and the UAE. Entitled Against Disappearance, the presentation highlighted the artists' shared endeavour in making the level of skill involved in creating works of art visible, when qualities of workmanship and artistry are disappearing from all aspects of life, in the 21st century.

Independent art curator and lecturer at Silpakorn University in Thailand, Vipash Purichanont selected artists who responded through the art of lingering, establishing a contrast to the fast-paced contemporary world with short attention spans.

STIR speaks with Purichanont about his focus on skill versus concept and materiality, when it comes to the contemporary art featured in the Bawabba section at Art Dubai 2023.

Installation by Gunjan Kumar | Art Dubai | STIRworld
Installation by Gunjan Kumar Image: Courtesy of Exhibit320

Rahul Kumar: Against Disappearance is an intriguing thematic for this edition of Bawabba at Art Dubai. The focus on skill is usually kept at bay for contemporary arts, where concept takes greater importance. How did you arrive at this focus for the show?

Vipash Purichanont: Bawwaba is a curated section in Art Dubai that presents 10 solo presentations of artists from the Global South. And the selection was always done through an open call, in which galleries needed to submit their applications. We received a wide range of applications. But the one thing in common was that the quality of skill was on par with conceptualisation. With democratisation of knowledge in the contemporary world, I don’t think it is true anymore, that concept takes greater importance in contemporary art. With the abundance of information, it is very easy to be distracted and float from one concept to another. Therefore, I think skill plays its part as an anchor that moors one to one’s practice. I wanted the section to be a celebration of individuals, for the persistence and endurance in mastering of the knowledge they acquired. Bawwaba presented what I believed to be the best combination of concept and skill.

Viewer admires the work on display | Art Dubai | STIRworld
Viewer admires the work on display Image: Courtesy of Exhibit 320

Rahul: Why is there a need to celebrate the 'handmade', especially in a world where machines are effectively taking over much of the manual labour, according to you?

Vipash: It was not the machine that is a concern here, but the digitisation of everything that turns materials into information. Things are disappearing, or we only have them in a form of information. For example, our clock lives virtually on our phone. I am concerned with the disappearance of materiality and traces of ‘hand’ in a work of art. When an artificial mind can generate an image and respond conceptually, it brings about a question on the necessity of an artist in art-making. Bawwaba presented how contemporary artists from the Global South handle this transformation. Working in geography, where information technology is not accessible by everyone, I see more artists hold on to their skills, techniques, and material that is embedded in their tradition and upbringing. Photography liberated painting from realism in the 19th century. Perhaps, AI would liberate art from conceptualism.

Vies parallèles, 2021, oil on canvas, Achraf Touloub | Art Dubai | STIRworld
Vies parallèles, 2021, oil on canvas, Achraf Touloub Image: Achraf Touloub

Rahul: Materiality and process naturally become significant when focussing on skill in an art practice. Did you consciously choose a wide spectrum of mediums—Maharjan’s pages taken from thrift books and Kumar’s earth pigments?

Vipash: Yes, I was conscious of mediums. I wanted to present diverse traces of skill in the section, which means I was also looking for artists who work with materials that are disappearing from our everyday life as our trace of it is vanishing. (Youdhisthir) Maharjan and (Gunjan) Kumar fit well in this category. Maharjan’s practice is based on secondhand books that he found in thrift stores. These books might be digitised and go through the process of deaccession from local libraries before they end up there. Maharjan gave these books another life as artworks by cutting and weaving, in other words, by deconstructing the textuality of the book. Kumar gathered yellow organic and inorganic pigments from around the world. We rarely see the laborious process of sourcing the material in the contemporary world; what we see is only end products and we have no option but to trust the label.

Between the Lines, Book strips embroidered on reclaimed, deacidified book pages,  Youdhisthir Maharjan | Art Dubai | STIRworld
Between the Lines, Book strips embroidered on reclaimed, deacidified book pages, Youdhisthir Maharjan Image: Courtesy of Blueprint12

Rahul: Fragility also seems to be a common thread across many artists in the show. Is there a metaphorical layer to this aspect in how you think about art practices?

Vipash: When it comes to an exhibition that highlights skill, I don't think fragility is inevitable. In fact, I think fragility is an inheritance from tradition. Although artists may opt to use different techniques in production, we could still see traces (of it) in an artwork. For example, Siamak Filizadeh, a senior Iranian artist, presented large-scale digital art prints. He was influenced by miniature paintings, a widespread tradition that practiced from Persia to India and some parts of Southeast Asia. Rather than using painting, he worked with photography. The works were created from a combination of thousands of images from seven years of studio photography. As a result, he is able to enlarge his miniature works. They became more dramatic and epic. However, fragility is still there because digital prints need to be so fine in order to present delicate details that digital photography provides.

The End of the Beginning, Hand-cut text collage on reclaimed, deacidified book pages, Youdhisthir Maharjan| Art Dubai | STIRworld
The End of the Beginning, hand-cut text collage on reclaimed, deacidified book pages, Youdhisthir Maharjan Image: Courtesy of Blueprint12

Rahul: Lastly, in your research to make selection, what were some of the key trends that emerged from the contemporary arts of the broader region?

Vipash: I found painters in Bawwaba made me excited about painting again. Zico Albaiquini, an Indonesian artist, used archival resources that became available to us on the internet to challenge the production of representation that Indonesia inherited from Dutch East Indies. He superimposes images from different periods to subvert the grant narrative. Achraf Touloub, a Moroccan artist, developed a unique brushwork from eastern tradition. While he is aiming to depict the unseeable signals and systems that conduct our life, he wants to contradict the regime of representation. On the contrary, M. Smart, a young Iranian painter, embraced the internet as the only road to freedom in the country with a strict learning environment. With overproduction and overconsumption of image that the internet and social media bring, it is interesting to see how painters, the oldest occupation in the regime of image production, deal with it.

Art Dubai Bawwaba Curator, Vipash Purichanont | Art Dubai | STIRworld
Art Dubai Bawwaba Curator, Vipash Purichanont Image: Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

STIR was a Media Partner for Art Dubai 2023 that took place at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, from March 1-5. See the exclusive coverage here.

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