The strongest shows of Middle Eastern work at Frieze this year were not in the Frieze art fair itself but beyond them. The Beirut artist Rayanne Tabet, for example, opened his first significant solo exhibition in the UK, at the gallery of the Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art. Tabet himself came to the opening on his first visit to Britain. The show included The Sea Hates A Coward, a pair of wooden oars, four metres long, supposedly from a boat in which his father planned to row the family to Cyprus in the middle of the Lebanese civil war.
Frieze week in London is when the world’s art, and its collectors, converge on the British capital for the fair, founded back in 2003, and galleries around the city roll out new exhibitions to entice them. There are so many openings staged around the fair’s dates that it is more like Frieze month.
The British Museum, for example, has just opened Inspired by the East, a revisiting of Orientalist art, and the cultural impact of the Islamic world on Europe as far back as the 17th Century. A personal favourite is the Egyptian artist and activist Bahia Shebab’s circular four-screen film at the Aga Khan Centre’s new gallery at King’s Cross.
On the other side of town the Mosaic Rooms in west London, specialising in the art and culture of the Arab world, drew a lot of attention for its show by the Indian artist Praneet Soi. Anamorphosis, Notes from Palestine, Winter in the Kashmir Valley, was inspired by visits to Palestine by the artist, as well as the workshop of a master craftsman in Kashmir. The exhibition included the video, Yalla Yasmeen!, with scenes from Palestinian farms, workshops and factories, examining artistic distortion “caused by a disturbed political climate”.
The Frieze art fair is split into two main sections. Frieze London remains the contemporary flagship, and five major galleries focused on Middle East region work had stands. Alongside Sfeir-Semler, based in Hamburg and Beirut, were the Third Line and Green Art Gallery from Dubai, Cairo’s Gypsum, and the notable newcomer, Marfa’ from Beirut, in the fair for the first time.
Painting, critics said, made a come-back at Frieze London this year. In an uncertain market, it is said, buyers see a more traditional art form as a safer bet. The Bolivian-American Donna Huanca’s installation at the Simon Lee Gallery was stunning, taking over the space with swirling sea and sky-blue paintings, sound, scent and bright sand across the floor. It felt more like a little Venice Biennale pavilion than Frieze. Individual pieces sold for $50,000.
Frieze stands are in the business of making a splash. My eye was taken by a kind of horticultural piece by Urs Fischer, Untiled 2019, a kind of fountain redux. A mirror surrounded by pot plants was covered by the thinnest layer of water, with ripples spreading outwards from single drips. It was on sale for $350,000 at Galerie Max Hetzler.
The main aisles at Frieze are dominated by huge corner stands by the biggest names: Sadie Coles, White Cube, Gagosian, and the rest. The Mid East galleries were in the H section of the fair, in much more modest spaces.
Sfeir-Semler’s stand included Earwitness door instrument by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, the Turner Prize nominee – a car door in a wooden crate. The door opens and shuts; the clunk of the closing, the click of the lock, trigger memories. Hamdan is particularly known for his “acoustic investigation” into the Syrian regime prison of Sayndaya; the door sounds signal sinister arrivals and departures.
The gallery was also selling an untitled piece by the 94-year-old Etel Adnan, the Lebanese-American writer and visual artist now based in Paris. Adnan’s work has become hot art market property after years of being overlooked, and prices have skyrocketed. The Arts Club, in London’s Mayfair, was also staging an exhibition of her work.
Marfa’ is in Frieze for the first time and turned over its whole stand to Lamia Joreige’s project Under-writing Beirut. In contrast with the kind of splashy work around at Frieze, Joreige’s work is quite low-key. Many people thought the centre-piece, Ouzai, looked like a Kalashnikov, but it is not intended, she says: it is a mapping of the streets that have grown up organically and haphazardly in this part of Beirut.
The Third Line was showcasing new works by Hayv Kahraman and Rana Begum. Tucked around the back of the stand, however, pieces by Hassan Hajjaj caught my eye: one of his photographic portraits, Miriam in Green, framed by Aicha Tomato cans, and LVCC in Black, a crate and cushion made in marble and 24 carat gold.
Two years ago Hajjaj, who is British-Moroccan, was the centre of attention at the African art fair, 1-54, that also runs alongside Frieze. Like Frieze, 1-54 pulls in Middle Eastern galleries whose home markets, whether in Lebanon, Tunisia, Cairo, or Dubai, are facing sharp political and economic uncertainty. They included the Egyptian gallery Mashrabia, whose offerings included the strange fezzes by Qarm Qart, which it showed at the Beirut Art Fair last year. They were offset by the series of strange boats by an emerging Egyptian artist, Heba Abu El Ella, evoking journeys to the afterlife.
The attraction of 1-54 is that it occupies one building, with galleries focused on one continent. You can skim everything in an hour or two, and you always know where you are. It is a deep breath compared to Frieze. The disadvantage is that it feels a bit “samey” – same galleries, same artists, similar styles, one year after another. It might need a new curating look.
The highlight of 1-54 was Fortress, by the Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, a commission supported by the Kamel Lazaar Foundation, established by the leading Tunisian art patron, it is said to be an imaginary cityscape, inspired by “erosion and transience” in the Angolan desert. Whatever the meaning, the stark iron frame made a fine contrast to the creamy white quadrangle of Somerset House, designed in 1776, while the mirrored floor reflected a glorious autumn evening.
Feature caption: Yto Barrada, Untitled, 2017. Mobile out of wicker, 7 parts overall dimensions: diameter 3m x 2.1m x 1.5m