As Abu Dhabi Art 2023 is poised to be the largest yet, featuring 91 galleries from over 31 countries, could you discuss how this substantial expansion influences the fair’s global art scene significance and its implications for the regional art community, while also considering how this year’s edition will further promote cross-cultural dialogues and offer access to a diverse array of art histories?
One of the ways in which we have expanded the number of galleries is by introducing new Focus areas that bring galleries together under a topic or curatorial theme. This year that includes a Focus on Women Artists, a Focus on Art Histories from Hong Kong, a Focus on Sustainability & Art, and a Focus on Latin American art amongst others. Each of these enable our visitors to discover more about global art histories and artists. I would highlight the Focus on Women Artists in this context, which brings women artists to the fore, many of whom address or engage with female histories and traditions in their practice. In the words of our curator for this section, Essia Hamdi:
‘Choosing to unite women around an artistic project means confronting the inequalities that have existed historically between artists of opposite sexes, that have led to a late recognition of the female artist. This project is an attempt to rectify these gaps and divisions, but above all, it is a reconstituting of the forgotten stories of certain women in history, many of whom were actors of change and contributed greatly to shaping various cultures and religions.’
With the inclusion of galleries from countries like Georgia, Mexico, Brazil, Singapore, and Chile for the first time, what opportunities and challenges does this global expansion present, both for the fair and the artists involved?
The opportunity is for people to discover new artists or under-researched artists from new geographies. This is one of my favourite parts of attending an art fair. The challenge could be to ensure visitors have a chance to speak with new galleries and learn more about the works they have chosen to show – but luckily our local audience is one of the friendliest and most engaged fair audiences you could hope for, so this isn’t usually something I worry about.
You’ve brought an anthropological lens to your work as the Director of Abu Dhabi Art. How has this unique perspective influenced the fair’s approach to presenting art, offering deeper insights, and engaging a diverse audience?
I like to think there is more narrative at the fair – more stories that link galleries together, and within individual booths more emphasis on the wider practice of a single artist or two artists in dialogue, rather than mixed hangs – which perhaps relates to my interest in storytelling, and cross-cultural dialogue. I purposefully work with different curators or Gallery Reps each year, to allow others to tell these stories and enable multiple perspectives to be shared. That said, the fair belongs to the city and responds to the interests of our visitors and long-standing galleries that participate from the region – so it has an organic nature to it.
As the fair’s scope has expanded over the years, what goals or visions do you have for the future of Abu Dhabi Art, and how do you see it evolving to meet the changing needs of the art community?
We are fortunate to have had the steadfast support of our Host Committee, chaired by HH Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan from the outset and to have as our Patron HH Sheikh Khaled bin Mohamed bin Zayed. The fair was created and is supported by them because of the opportunities an art fair can provide for the local art ecosystem. So, the longer-term aim of the fair is to continue doing that, supporting the development of the local art ecosystem, whether through developing the art market and related cultural economy or by networking local cultural producers with international peers or by enabling the development of arts professionals including artists in particular. Hopefully, the fair gets better in these endeavours year on year, helping the local art scene continue to flourish.
The 2023 Visual Campaign Artist, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, draws inspiration f rom the environment and natural beauty of Khorfakkan. Could you tell us more about the selection process and the role of the Visual Campaign Artist in defining the fair’s identity?
The selection process for the visual campaign is really an internal one! It’s discussed between me and the Abu Dhabi Art team, and we usually select someone from the UAE or a wider region. Existing works by the artist become visual markers of the fair and are seen across billboards, ads, invitations, and communication – the idea is to amplify the voice of the nominated artist, for their works to welcome people to the fair. Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim is a long-term collaborator with Abu Dhabi Art – we have worked with him on multiple occasions, for public art, as part of our exhibitions, as a curator and through his gallery presenting his works commercially as well. Mohamed is almost family to us and not just to us, but to anyone in the art scene here. For our 15th edition it was important, that he as a huge mentor and inspiration for artists in the UAE, be at the forefront of the fair.
Abu Dhabi Art has also initiated year-long programmes such as the Art + Technology Programme and the Pavilion Prize for students. How do these initiatives contribute to the fair’s mission and the growth of the local and regional art scene?
The main driver for these projects is to enable students to also participate and be involved in Abu Dhabi Art. For Art + Tech the aim is to connect students with artists, this year Nujoom Al Ghanem has led the way for this as our guest curator and mentor for the programme. For the Pavilion Prize winners, we create their proposal at the fair and it becomes our Welcome Pavilion at the entrance. The fair provides a platform for a wide audience to discover the winning proposal and gives students the chance to work creatively, to a budget and on an ambitious project.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the first interactive online edition of the fair in 2020. What lessons were learned from this experience, and do you see virtual elements continuing to be part of Abu Dhabi Art’s future, even as in-person events return?
Yes absolutely – we now always show our works online alongside in real life, so that collectors can easily access information about what’s available even if they are unable to attend in person. That was an important enhancement that came out of the pandemic and having to create a virtual fair – I think the art world had been quite slow to use online platforms to reach audiences prior to the pandemic. Looking back, I think our website and means of communication with our audiences were quite basic!
Could you share some highlights and milestones that stand out from your time as the Director of Abu Dhabi Art and how they have shaped the fair’s identity and impact on the art world?
We had the opportunity to support the creation of the Special Olympics Sculpture Park one year, and on another occasion to work on permanent Public Art for Reem Park. I would say those were two wonderful highlights for me. I have also loved working with artists on commissions for Al Ain every year and with emerging artists for our program Beyond Emerging Artists. I have learned a lot from the artists I have worked with and have loved understanding their work all the better because of these experiences. Highlights include getting to know some of our galleries and guest curators better too – I am full of admiration for all the work they do.