It started off as a bit of an in-joke but the phrase March Madness is now in common use across the UAE to denote the annual peak of the art season. With Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial acting as anchors to pull in crowds of art lovers from across the region and the world, most artistic entities save their best presentations for the month of March, leaving us all spoiled for choice when it comes to checking out exhibitions and events.
Whilst technically a commercial event, Art Dubai’s programming has a reputation around the world for its strength and significance. This year, under the new joint leadership of Pablo Del Val and Chloe Vaitsou, the programming is even more streamlined, with a general focus on the Global South (art from South Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America) present across all sections. Outside of the gallery halls, there is a nonprofit exhibition of work from the graduates of the annual Campus Art Dubai programme, the Global Art Forum series of lectures and presentations and the Modern Symposium, which gives intellectual focus to the history of art in the region.
New for this year are two commissioned performances curated by the team behind Kunsthalle Lissabon. Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith is working with the Filipino community in Dubai to produce a kind of Caribbean carnival, and Samson Young has produced a muted version of the Chinese lion dance where the percussion is coming from the movement of the dancers. Over in Alserkal Avenue, the galleries are galvanising their programmes with some stimulating and fascinating presentations. A semiretrospective of work by Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim will be on show at Lawrie Shabibi, and at Ayyam a new body of video animation by Sadik Alfraji is bound to turn the cavernous space into a meditative and immersive experience. El Marsa will be showing the feminist work of late Algerian modernist Baya Mahieddine, whose practice was influenced by Picasso, with whom she worked for a brief spell in southern France. There will also be several guests in the avenue, including an open studio with Lawrence Abu Hamdan, a collection of works from the Atassi Foundation as well as the second edition of Fully Booked, the art book fair.
erhaps the biggest news coming from within Alserkal Avenue for March is the opening of the Ishara Art Foundation. Founded and supported by Dubai resident, collector and patron Smita Prabhakar, the Ishara Art Foundation will be the first permanent space in the Gulf dedicated to expanding knowledge and understanding of contemporary South Asian art and artists in the region.
The foundation will launch with Altered Inheritances: Home is a Foreign Place, which is being billed as an “intergenerational conversation” between Shilpa Gupta and Zarina and is curated by Nada Raza, the newly appointed artistic director of the foundation. Gupta is also one of the 15 artists taking part in the curated exhibition in Concrete for March. Alserkal Avenue have teamed up with the Samdani Art Foundation in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to present Fabric(ated) Fractures. The exhibition is an extension of a previous one held at last year’s Dhaka Art Summit and is curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt, the artistic director of the Samdani Art Foundation. It will present new works from artists with a connection to Bangladesh.
Finally, to round off all the happenings in Alserkal, a commissioned six-week
programme of artists interventions will take place under the title Rhodiola. Put together by an Athens-based artist collective called 3137, the programme will be revealed in the Nadi Al Quoz venue inside the avenue’s Yard area. Whilst there are many other exhibitions opening all over Dubai during the month of March, one of the most notable is at Meem Gallery, who are hosting Moataz Nasr’s The Mountain. This 12-minute film was shown in Egypt’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017, and it is a metaphorical take on the stance of the youth against the establishment in Nasr’s home country.
In Sharjah, the 14th edition of the Biennial is unfolding in three exhibitions by curators Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons. Under the collective title of Leaving the Echo Chamber, the show encompasses a range of experiences and works – including major commissions, large-scale public installations, performances and films – to explore how contemporary life, enabled by rapid technological change, has created a seemingly inescapable “echo chamber” of information, complex personal networks and shifting narratives that are physical, spiritual and virtual.
The opening week programme includes performances off site at Al Hamriyah, Kalba Ice Factory and at the site of an abandoned airplane in Umm Al Quwain. In the many venues of the Sharjah Art Foundation, a robust variety of talks, panels and readings are happening during the March Meeting, which also happens over the opening weekend of the biennial.
Further north, in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the annual Fine Arts Festival is taking place within the recently restored historic village of Al Jazirah Al Hamra. It takes the form of an open-air art exhibition under the theme Old Meets New, with works by local, regional and international artists.
Down in the capital, New York University Abu Dhabi is hosting the regional debut of Zimoun, a Swiss artist who constructs extraordinary, immersive sensory experiences using lo-fi, analogue motors connected to various functional objects, like wooden sticks, cardboard boxes and foil. All of the sound in his installations comes from the movement of these simple objects. This exhibition will feature five immersive audio-visual installations, including a new commission and an expansive room-sized installation.
In Warehouse 421, the other major non-profit institution in Abu Dhabi, is an exhibition conceived and curated by Dr. Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès. Nomadic Traces: Journeys of Arabian Scripts explores the role that scripts have played in defining and preserving the cultural identity of past and present civilizations, as well as their ability to cross borders and cultures, which is pertinent in the migrational nature of humanity. The exhibition focuses on the development of some of the key alphabets of the Middle East.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Frequently Asked Questions in Art #48, pages 22-28.