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Art Dubai celebrated its 10th edition this past March, taking place once more at the Madinat Jumeirah from March 16 to 19. It was our first time visiting the fair, held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the U.A.E. and Ruler of Dubai. What we found was an noticeably mature event that felt very much like a melting pot for culture and ideas from not just the Middle East, but North Africa, and South Asia, or as we learned, the MENASA region.
Dubai felt very international, at least the parts that we visited during our short time there. We started off at the fair’s preview day, where we heard from the fair’s then director Antonia Carver (who stepped down in April, a few weeks after our visit, replaced by Myrna Ayad) about the milestone edition. The 2016 edition showcased booths from 94 galleries and 40 countries, representing some 70 nationalities and 500 artists (45 percent of which were women). New this year were galleries from Georgia, Ghana Lithuania, Oman, Palestine, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. After hearing about projects like the film program, Art Dubai Radio, the Abraaj Group Art Prize, the Global Art Forum talks, Art Dubai Projects, and more, we headed toward the halls of the Madinat Jumeirah to take in some contemporary works.
We found glimmering reflective works by Yayoi Kusama and Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian at Ota Fine Arts (Tokyo), colorful works at Galerie Lelong (New York) by Barthélémy Toguo and David Hockney, charming vignettes of figurines and postcards by Risham Syed at project 88, an embroidered dome by Alke Reeh at Lakeeran (Mumbai), large-scale paintings critical of consumer culture by George Hughes at Nubuke Foundation (Accra), immersive sculptural pieces by Nadim Karam at Ayyam Gallery (Dubai, Beirut), dripping and disappearing sculptural wall and floor works by Diana Al-Hadid at Marianne Boesky Gallery (New York), and paintings of hands in prayer by Y. Z. Kami at Leila Heller Gallery (New York, Dubai).
Across the courtyard, up a few steps, and down an escalator was a more subdued portion of the fair, devoted to modern masters from the MENASA region. This section of the fair was all about discovery for us, taking in the work of artists—a lot of them women—like Yahia Turki of Istanbul presented by Elmarsa (Tunis, Dubai), Laure Ghorayeb’s work at Galerie Janine Rubeiz (Beirut), and Maliheh Afnan presented by Lawrie Shabibi (Dubai).
Taking place during Art Dubai, in a tent that sat just beneath the towering Burj Khalifa and the up-and-coming neighborhood of the still-being-built Opera House, was Design Days Dubai, which included a wide range of presentations from design galleries, collectives, manufactures, and even solo designers like Marcel Wanders. A presentation of silver serve ware and tabletop items made by Ted Muehling at Wiener Silber Manufactur in Austria caught our eye, as did a lush red-and-black tablescape and chandelier made of black agaals by Khalid Shaffar of Nakkash Gallery (Dubai) and jewelry-maker Zuleika Penniman’s dazzling Coral Wall, the result of her residency with the Tanween Program run by Tashkeel.
The following evening, we found ourselves invited to the coveted event of the week, The Wedding Project, presented by Dubai Projects and the Delfina Foundation. It was a riot of a night, with Aaron Cezar acting as emcee for the evening, his Southern twang coming out more and more as the evening went on, and the Absolut spiked cocktails continued. We knew very little of what to expect for the wedding we found ourselves invited to. Entering a room that was covered in flora and filled with pungent yet pleasant smells, we were told we could start our dining adventure, despite still waiting for the bride and groom to arrive.
Alas, they never did, but we got to experience their reception all the same. The night was really more about the marriage of food and art, a delight of senses during an 11-course meal that walked us through the same number of stages of love. We foraged for food in a root vegetable garden bowl by Sunoj D, meant to symbolizing the second state—attachment (coming after the inevitable first part of love, attraction). We moved on to infatuation with appetizers like beans, mezze, and pita by Larissa Sansour; and then desire, where we ate what was meant to feel like consuming a small, nearly extinct songbird (it was a creatively concocted fig in a crisp chow mee noodle nest), while shamefully placing our napkins on our head. Then came passion, affliction, and of course grief, where Matheus Rocha Pitta baked sand into bread, which we tore apart and poured out (and some, mistakenly, still ate . . .). Most fun of all was the eight-course enslavement, where a dozen or so clay-baked whole chicken pies came out, with the clay formed into faces that resembled art-world players like Larry Gagosian, Ai Weiwei, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Iwan Wirth, David Zwirner, Marina Abramović, and even Delfina Entrecanales herself (not to shy away from self-deprecation). We excitedly volunteered for our table, to take delight in smashing the clay mug of Iwan Wirth. All for the sake of art, and eating.
Dessert, like many of the other courses, was not what it seemed, and perhaps the pièce de résistance for the evening. Created by Taus Makhacheva, the cake ended up being a wood limited-edition piece we could take home, totally inedible, but the plate it came on was edible. As were the napkin, fork, and spoon it accompanied, made from sugar, marshmallow, and we’re not sure what else. We and a number of other guests snapped selfies while taking bites out of plates the size of our heads, chomping away at forks and fluffy, sweet serviettes.
We never ended up meeting the bride or groom, but who cared? We’d toasted and tasted and were a bit tricked in their honor nonetheless.