by Rahul KumarMay 04, 2022
Founded in 2007, Art Dubai is the platform to see and buy modern and contemporary art from the Middle East and surrounding region (MENASA – Middle East, North Africa & South Asia). The 15th edition, by far the largest in the history of Art Dubai, featured three sections - contemporary, modern and a debut digital edition. The event is well positioned at providing a relevant and increasingly important alternative to mainstream, largely western-led narratives.
Marking a return to full scale at Madinat Jumeirah, the 2022 edition of the fair featured more than 120 presentations by 104 galleries and platforms from 44 countries. The gallery programme was complemented by newly commissioned works from leading international artists and talks programme, and new Bybit Talks Series. The specially curated Bawwaba section included 10 solo artist positions from the Global South. Curated by the cultural theorist Nancy Adajania, the focus was on techne and facture. “…the global contemporary art world routinely privileges conceptualist propositions over haptic and expressive creativity,” she says.
I speak to Adajania on her curatorial references and her views on art fair as a format to engage with art.
Rahul Kumar: How did you approach the curation of the Bawwaba section for the 15th edition of Art Dubai?
Nancy Adajania: I have always been intrigued by the temperature, colour, odour and sonic valency of words. Bawwaba, which means ‘gateway’, has an invitational energy. An affirmative term, it signals acts of traversal and mobility, gestures towards the long histories of hospitality, trade and translation that have nourished the Arab lands. The term Bawwaba helps us to get away from the centre-periphery model of cultural diffusion and, instead, privileges the ‘off-sites’ or ‘off-centres’ of contemporary art.
At the same time, of course, we know that the doors of Euro-American institutionality still remain quite impermeable, even though a few invitees and many gatecrashers have sailed through them. Keeping this dual awareness in mind, Bawwaba’s brief of curating 10 solo artistic positions from the Global South turned out to be both a heartening and a challenging proposition. In this year’s edition of Bawwaba, I included artists from Peru, India, Pakistan, Mexico, Nigeria, Angola and Chile.
Rahul: What were some of the curatorial challenges that you had to overcome?
Nancy: When I conducted my preliminary research, I realised that some of the artists from the Arab and African countries that I wanted to include in Bawwaba did not have gallery support. In a biennale context, this would not be an issue. You could draw on funding from the Mondriaan Foundation or the Goethe-Institut and other agencies to support the selected artists. This is not the case with an art fair, where an artist must be represented by her/his gallery. After this mild initial disappointment, I did not look back. Rather than start from a position of what cannot be done, I decided to concentrate on optimising within the paradigm.
It was a pleasure to work with the fair’s artistic director, Pablo del Val, who soldiered on courageously despite the disruptions caused by COVID. The Bawwaba section could not have come together without Pablo’s generosity and the support of the participating gallerists and artists. The Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery even agreed to my request to show a multi-panel video installation by Ranbir Kaleka. This was a big ask in an art-fair context. And it was rewarded many times over by the attention that viewers lavished on it. It became a caesura or poetic pause in the middle of the hurly-burly of the fair.
Rahul: Further, how are the artists and works specifically chosen communicating the ideas of facture and techne? In a sense, almost any work of art could become a point of reference for these ideas.
Nancy: My choice of privileging facture and techne must be seen in a specific context, which is that of the global contemporary art world, which routinely privileges conceptualist propositions over haptic and expressive creativity. So, in fact, a lot of the work that gets shown in the global biennial and museum circuit does not valorise facture and techne. My curatorial choice is articulated in precise opposition to this prevailing tendency.
In such a context, as we have seen for several decades now, the emphasis tends to be on a discourse of ideas and ideological statements, on a questioning of the scaffolding of language and conditioning that shapes our world. Thus, it is important to assert that techne – by which I mean a haptic investment of the self in making and unmaking things – remains a valid and significant mode of engaging with the larger world and its urgencies. Techne is not simply caught up with techniques of producing beautiful objects sufficient unto themselves. In fact, to me, facture is a praxis that invites us to confront the raw seam between consciousness and materiality, choice and chance, aesthetic desire and political imposition. Between them, techne and facture redeem us from being trapped in a rhetorical affiliation to cold, alienating conceptualisms.
Rahul: How did you tie the section together with these different artistic positions?
Nancy: Rather than beginning with a predetermined thematic, I worked intuitively, choosing works that connected with each other at a formal and philosophical level. What bound these distinctive positions together was an aesthetics of slowness, an intense engagement with the languages of the ornamental and the decorative that were nevertheless attuned to political urgencies or philosophical disquiets. Some of these positions also explore both the expressive and political potential of abstraction. Taken together, these varied manifestations of techne reject a dry conceptualism. They foreground the affective over the mere illustration of the political.
As a friend and fellow curator who attended the Bawwaba walkthrough said, “the ornamental can be so generous.”
I used the proximity of the booth logic with the thoroughfare in between to create a dialogue between artists from Central America and Africa, South Asia, Latin America and India. For a few days the booths of India and Pakistan shared the same mohalla, as it were – something that is close to impossible in political reality.
To stake out what I would term the politics of adjacencies, I positioned the Nigerian artist Tonia Nneji’s group portraits – which offer a critique of religious orthodoxy from a gendered perspective – and the Mexican artist Rodrigo Hernandez’s hand-hammered brass sheets with astronaut/sage figures gesturing towards barkat and redemption, next to each other.
The languages of the ornamental and the decorative were referenced or repurposed by Tonia Nneji (African textile patterns but also Bedouin weaves), Pakistani artist Wardha Shabbir (the miniature tradition of painting), Indian artist Mona Rai (motifs and devices from ritual and popular culture) and the Peruvian artist Jose Luis Martinat (ceremonial embroidery) to comment on gender or socio-economic asymmetries or the politics of the sacred. Just as Hernandez worked with Portuguese artisans to achieve his brass works, Martinat worked with embroiderers from the Grados family in Peru, which has for decades embroidered insignia for the president. By contrast, Martinat’s works are made from distressed industrial materials and inscribed with signs questioning the enlightenment idea of ‘progress’. The Indian artist Vipeksha Gupta does not politicise abstraction like her next-door neighbour Martinat and instead makes meditative, labour-intensive works using layer upon layer of charcoal and graphite, the surface incised or folded to create a ripple in the viewer’s consciousness.
Surrealist landscapes of epic disquiet haunt the woodcuts of Soghra Khurasani and Ranbir Kaleka’s video. The opening sequence of Kaleka’s video slitting open a wall to make it bleed and Khurasani’s gouging and scarring of her woodcuts, the colour of blood, remind us that the spectres of the partition have not been vanquished. Khurasani, as a Muslim woman in a composite society being increasingly torn apart and polarised along religious lines, deploys techne as a tool of resistance against the forces of religious fundamentalism.
Having returned home, as I process the Bawwaba section, the burning Lahorian yellow of Shabbir’s paintings melts into a sweltering Bombay afternoon. I see Martinat’s silver-streaked banners hanging like torn promises and the Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda’s rusted sign ‘Mirage’. We share each other’s predicaments more than we think. We are both singular and plural.
Rahul: How was your experience in interacting with the audience at the fair, more specifically when compared with other similar events that you have experienced?
Nancy: I must say that I was pleasantly surprised to experience such a high degree of engagement from the viewers in an art fair. You might see an East European mother purposefully leading her five-year-old daughter from booth to booth, or you might meet an Iranian professor based in France, intrigued by the surname of one of the artists. His hunch is right – settled in Baroda now, but originally from Vishakhapatnam, Soghra Khurasani’s family has ancestral links to Iran’s Khorasan region. You could hear differently cadenced English, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, Malayalam, Spanish, German and French. I took people on as many impromptu walkthroughs as I could.
It was quite amazing to see the gallerists in action. A cynic might say that their sales depend on their ability to solicit reactions from the viewers. But what I witnessed in the main was the viewer’s hunger to know more and the gallerist’s mission to make legible the context of the artist’s practice, regardless of whether the viewer was a potential buyer or not. The gallerists were aided by a larger number of volunteers, Dubai-based college students studying AI or art, who were assigned to each booth. I think it also helped that ours was a curated section, so we could manage the crowds better and be more attentive to viewers’ needs.
Rahul: Dubai is strategically positioned to be at the crossroads of the east and the west. Did you experience a ‘coming together’ of the two worlds?
Nancy: Dubai occupies a special position in the global economy – as a bridge between the east and the west – but it is also true that its economy is sustained by the sweat and labour of a large migrant population mainly from South Asia. The drivers ferrying us to the fair came from remote villages in Rajasthan or Baluchistan. Many of them go home only once a year. How do we express solidarity with these communities of drivers and construction workers who lack the social and cultural capital to visit the fair? Could special tours be conducted for them? How can their lives and labour find a place in the capital-intensive dream of world-domination?
Rahul: What in your opinion is the future of an ‘art fair’ as a format to engage with art? Would you agree that initiatives like specially curated sections, encouraging younger artists that have lower price points are ways to reinvent?
Nancy: Yes, that makes sense. Affordable art fairs in NYC, Brussels, Stockholm, London and elsewhere cater to different kinds of aesthetic taste and offer price points that would suit a first-time art buyer. And in Delhi, too, we have experimented with this model. The specially curated sections of the second edition of the United Art Fair (2013) included a range of practices from young to senior artists, as well as historical works. Even if this initiative could not be sustained over a long period of time, we must improvise new formats to reach out to diverse constituencies. A pluralistic approach is always better than a monolithic one. It makes the art ecosystem more inclusive and multi-directional.
STIR was a Media Partner of Art Dubai 2022 that took place at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai from March 11-13. See the exclusive coverage here.