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Abu Dhabi Art, Flagship Fair of the Emirates, Returns In-Person with a Slow Start But Strong Local Presence

The lights never go out in Abu Dhabi, but during the countdown to the United Arab Emirates “Golden Jubilee” this December, the night is especially dazzling. Sparkling advertisements for the 50th anniversary of the unification of the Gulf nation decorate the highways and wrap glass skyscrapers. After a quiet pandemic year, the capital and wealthiest of the Emirates has prepared to party.

But the opening of Abu Dhabi Art on November 17, marking the fair’s first in-person edition since 2019, presented a more subdued scene. International visitors were scarce, and several veteran exhibitors said that attendance was slim in comparison to years prior. One gallerist estimated that less than half of the typical crowd had shown up.

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The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s dramatic entrance

But Shirin Partovi Tavakolian, the founder and director of Shirin Gallery in Tehran, sold two sculptures on the first day and, as a longtime participant, maintained faith. “You always sell—it’s never a disappointment,” she said of the fair. “Abu Dhabi really supports the arts, so I’m sure [Abu Dhabi Art] will turn out well in the end.”

Exhibitors pointed to Abu Dhabi’s travel restrictions, which are among the strictest in the region. International travelers to Abu Dhabi must present a negative PCR test result received within 48 hours of their departure and take an additional PCR test before departure, as well as verify international vaccination certificates by completing an online arrivals form with the Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship. An approved form enables access to a mobile Covid tracking app that vaccinated visitors and residents need to enter most public spaces.

Despite the constraints, it was clear that exhibitors and buyers were glad to be reunited. Greetings rang out and hands were clasped throughout the fair, and the VIP preview on Tuesday was attended by members of Emirati royalty, who put several pieces on hold. Compared to the early rush at fairs like Art Basel or Frieze, Abu Dhabi Art tends to move at a more measured pace. Regional collectors are more inclined to place pieces under consideration on the first day and return to confirm their purchases in the fair’s final hours.

Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (T.D.I.C.) launched Abu Dhabi Art in 2005 as a cornerstone of a $27 billion cultural and tourism initiative to transform the Emirate into a global art hub on par with Dubai. In 2016, Dyala Nusseibeh—the daughter of Zaki Nusseibeh, the UAE minister of state and a prominent art collector—took the helm. Under Nusseibeh, the fair has expanded into a series of curated shows, performances, and commissions for artists to create site-specific works in heritage sites across the Emirates, as well as a dedicated section for emerging artists. The fair has also garnered increased international attention bolstered by the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island in 2017. 

The 13th edition of Abu Dhabi Art runs through November 21 at Manarat Al Saadiyat, with booths featuring 50 galleries from near and far. Among the 14 first-time exhibitors this year is Perrotin, whose booth includes works by Takashi Murakami, JR, and Bharti Kher. Big enterprises like Pace, Gagosian, and David Zwirner again declined to participate, but the recent announcement that construction on the long-delayed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi would be completed for an opening projected for 2026 had some at the fair speculating that the museum may finally draw such galleries in the future.

Several enterprises reported sales on the first day, including Dubai’s Third Line Gallery, which presented mixed-media works by Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri, a tapestry by Palestinian American artist Jordan Nassar, and a photo installation by Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi. Nassar’s Evening sun you are pure (2021) went for $25,000, and Al Qasimk’s Hand Print (2021), from her series “Imitation of Life,” sold for around $6,000. “It’s been great to be back in-person—we all really missed it,” Third Line manager Gabriella Moore said of the gallery’s second post-pandemic fair, after Art Dubai. “It’s nice especially to be presenting at an international fair, since we’re a local gallery and longtime exhibitor.” 

London’s Colnaghi Gallery, a first-time participant, dedicated its booth almost entirely to works on paper by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Most prominently displayed are plans for the unrealized project The Mastaba, conceived in 1977 to stand south of the city of Abu Dhabi in the desert of Liwa. During the VIP preview, Sheikha Fatima Bint Mohamed Bin Zayed reportedly stopped by the booth to express her admiration for the presentation. According to Anastasia Dolgopolova, a sales associate at the gallery, talks between the cultural ministry and Christo’s estate to revive the project are underway. “It feels special that our first presentation in Abu Dhabi is pieces from The Mastaba, Christo’s project created just for this city that he did not get to see [and] that still may be realized,” Dolgopolova said. If completed, The Mastaba would be Christo’s only permanent large-scale public artwork. 

Elsewhere, artists from the Gulf as well as the Levant (the common term here for Southwest Asia and Mediterranean Arab areas like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine) and South Asia are well represented. Galleria Continua, which has spaces in San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Havana, Rome, São Paulo, and Paris—plus a forthcoming temporary outpost in Dubai—presented Anish Kapoor’s Black Mist to Pagan Gold (2019), a concave mirror made of iridescent stainless steel, as well as a splendid ceramic folding screen by the Lebanese artist and writer Etel Adnan, who died on November 14, that was already on hold. Like a large-scale version of Adnan’s leporellos, a painting of San Gimignano spanned the screen’s panels. (Two paintings by Adnan were also presented by Custot Gallery from Dubai.)

Green Art Gallery in Dubai brought works by Iraqi American artist Michael Rakowitz, as well as pieces by Syrian painter Elias Zayat and French Lebanese sculptor Chaouki Choukini.

Rossi & Rossi from London had a solo presentation of mixed media and works on paper by Iranian American sculptor and architect Siah Armajani that ranged in price from $95,000 to $500,000. Several works are under consideration from local institutions. “We’ve been invited a few times, but the movement has never been right until now,” said gallery director Mauro Ribero. “The response to our work has been great and, because it’s not a huge art fair, the organizers really take care of us. It feels like there’s a personal relationship with each gallery.” 

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