Art scene: making a mark

Each year, flourishing cultural event Art Dubai uses its Art Marker programme to highlight its role as a place of discovery and fertile exchange of knowledge and ideas

As the global art market continues to grow and expand Dubai’s high profile art fair each March becomes a key hub for art collectors, museum directors, curators, gallerists and artists from across the world. Here, contemporary art spaces from New York and London rub shoulders with galleries from Beirut, Riyadh and Jakarta. Artists from Iran, Pakistan, and India dialogue with creatives from Dakar, Beijing and Singapore.

One key component of the increasingly popular global event is the annual Art Marker, a curated programme of galleries and art spaces, which focuses each year on a particular theme or geography. The Marker initiative seeks to facilitate new links between geographically detached regions, whether that is East meets East or South meets South. “It’s perhaps artists that can really explore these concepts and ideas in the most interesting ways, and we really take this into the heart of the fair,” says Antonia Carver, director of Art Dubai.

In 2014 the Marker programme at Art Dubai is curated by the art collective Slavs and Tatars, who take central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as the complex elements of faith, identity and language in this region, as its focus. Particularly rich in history and cultural heritage, the geographical area has been realigning itself since the collapse of Soviet Communism and the art displayed by six arts groups from countries such as Georgia and Azerbaijan is expected to reflect this.

“The relevance of the Caucasus and Central Asia to the Middle East and Muslim world in general – from nation building to syncretic rituals of faith – is difficult to over-estimate,” comments Slavs and Tatars. “We are excited to tell a different story of these regions, one which argues for cosmopolitanism, through equally discursive, participatory and visual platforms.”

Slavs and Tatars are the latest in a line of global arts luminaries invited to curate the initiative. Last year, Lagos-based art expert Bisi Silva coordinated five West African art spaces, including the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria and Espace doual'art in Douala, Cameroon, for Art Marker’s 2013’s focus on Africa.

Along with the rapid development of West African cities such as Dakar in Senegal and Accra in Ghana, contemporary African artists reflect societal changes and the challenges of urbanisation, consumerism, and environmental problems. Painting, sculpture and large-scale textile works tackled the theme ‘Cities in Transition’, a theme that West Africa shares with Dubai, another city characterised by remarkably fast growth. Ablade Glover is one artist, who exhibited in Art Marker 2013, interested in the identity of these cities, vividly capturing the dynamic energy of market places and underprivileged neighbourhoods.

Turning towards the theme of the emerging Indonesian arts scene, curator Alia Swastika selected five galleries from the country to participate in 2012’s Art Marker. One striking work ‘Bird Prayers’ set the tone for the thought-provoking cross-cultural nature of the marker series as a whole. The striking birdcage head dresses depicted in the piece symbolise the Jewish, Catholic, Hindu and Islamic faiths present in the country. Wimo Bayang develops that cross-cultural dynamic further in the work ‘Ka’bah’. Here, he shows how the visual representation of Mecca’s most holy place can be understood in various ways depending on cultural background.

As the buzzing event hosted each year in Dubai’s glamorous Madinat Jumeirah district demonstrates, Art Dubai is a marker of the city’s modernity and outward-looking vision for a future based on cross-cultural dialogue.