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Art Dubai 2024: Focusing on shared connections in the Global South

Two sections at Art Dubai 2024 stand out for their focus on healing and empowerment in an increasingly fraught world

'Turmeric' by Manjot Kaur, gouache and watercolour on paper (2024). Courtesy: Gallery Latitude 28
'Turmeric' by Manjot Kaur, gouache and watercolour on paper (2024). Courtesy: Gallery Latitude 28

A painting of a tree, laden with tendrils, vines and blooms, catches the eye. Framed within an upside-down jharokha (a stone window), it seems suspended between sky and earth, the sole sovereign presiding over a vast empty landscape. Manjot Kaur’s work, The Portrait Of A Tree In A Jharokha, on show at Art Dubai’s Bawwaba section, in her signature style, melds the beauty of Indian miniature painting with a compelling contemporary narrative. The 35-year-old contemporary artist from Chandigarh has always explored speculative fiction, challenging human-centred narratives.

“Manjot Kaur’s works explore what it means to be human and what it means to be non-human, and where these modes of being meet and are at tension with each other. Her paintings open up possibilities for a post-gender and post-human world,” explains Emiliano Valdés, curator, Bawwaba and Art Dubai Commissions 2024.

Kaur, who is represented by Delhi’s Gallery Latitude 28, is just one of the Indian artists whose work Valdés is excited to be featuring as part of the Bawwaba segment of Art Dubai. Bawwaba, which means gateway in Arabic, focuses on emerging artists and is one of the most compelling sections of the three-day fair, which is on till 3 March at the Madinat Jumeirah Conference and Events Centre, Dubai. This year, the section is themed around Sanación/Healing. Other artists from India include Laxmipriya Panigrahi (Anant Art), AVAF or Assumed Vivid Astro Focus (Baró), Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai (Blueprint12), Debashish Paul (Emami Art), Manuel Chavajai (Extra), and more.

The annual fair has been showcasing modern and contemporary works since 2007. The 17th edition, featuring over 100 presentations drawn from nearly 40 countries, continues to emphasise shared histories in the Global South, while also showcasing community-led narratives and offering an alternative to Western-led narratives of art. Many organisations and institutions across Asia, and beyond, choose the fair to reach a wider audience, given Dubai’s location at an intersection between the East and the West.

Also read: What's driving the vibrant contemporary art ecosystem in the Middle East

Moreover, people from all over the world, including a sizeable population from the subcontinent, are choosing to base themselves in Dubai. The fair addresses such pluralities of cultures as well through its programming, making it an apt converging point for contemporary galleries from India such as Shrine Empire, Experimenter and Exhibit 320.

The theme of healing is pertinent in a world that is still grappling with the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, as well as war and conflict, and the works examine the personal and the sociopolitical. Valdés says the idea of healing is generally positive, but the impact of our search for a better relationship with ourselves and the world on society remains to be seen. “Sanación inquires into this relationship: Is personal and spiritual growth necessarily linked to a better society or has it been co-opted by the individualism of the West and is only an exacerbation of the self?” says Valdés. “Art has historically been a space for introspection, which, in turn, is connected to spiritual notions but how are these ideas connected, exactly?”

The art on show explores such questions, looking at a series of practices, which range from the deeply personal to the collective, and resulting in a showcase that is more of an inquiry than a statement. Valdés hopes the art will prompt visitors to draw their own conclusions about how looking within might prompt us to reconsider the way we relate to others. “I believe that the way we treat ourselves is our first political stance. Are we empathetic? Are we compassionate? Are we respectful?” he says.

The Bawwaba and the Art Dubai Commissions Programme both revolve around similar ideas. While the Bawwaba focuses on one-person presentations, the Commissions Programme has a series of performances and activations during the fair. Valdés cites the example of Guatemalan artist Manuel Chavajay who draws from his ancestral indigenous heritage to speak about the importance of being connected to one’s landscape and lineage in order to deal with worldly issues. The artist’s self-portraits show moments just after waking up. According to the beliefs of his community, this is the time when messages from ancestors are transmitted to ‘aware individuals’. “This is an example of a practice from non-Western cultures, and provides a more rooted relationship with the world,” says Valdes.

Another artist who is challenging set norms around the body and intimacy and who is part of the Bawwaba is Debashish Paul from Bengal. The multidisciplinary artist is known for his performances, and uses site-specific photography to express complex emotions and draw connections between the body and the landscape. At Bawwaba, Kolkata’s Emami Art is presenting his new drawings and photographs along with sculptural costumes from a recent performance. “Debashish Paul uses ritual and performance to develop a high sense of awareness with his body, his context and his ideas. Movement and props allow him to temporarily become creatures through which he (re)thinks of the relationship with himself and with the world,” elaborates Valdés.

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Debashish Paul is known for his performances, and uses site-specific photography to express complex emotions and draw connections between the body and the landscape. Photo: Emami Art
Debashish Paul is known for his performances, and uses site-specific photography to express complex emotions and draw connections between the body and the landscape. Photo: Emami Art

Another exciting and relevant section at the fair is the digital one. In fact, Art Dubai is the only international fair to have a dedicated digital segment. Benedetta Ghione, executive director, Art Dubai, says artists have always been among the first to experiment with and embrace new technologies, and so it’s no surprise that this is the third year they are presenting a digital section. “The technologies around blockchain, Artificial Intelligence and Extended Reality (XR) are moving so fast, and we felt it was important to create a kind of bridge between what the artists are doing, and the general public,” she says.

The visitors this year will see everything from a show celebrating 10 years of blockchain art presented by Dubai-based collective MORROW to cutting-edge robotics, AI and generative art. “The idea of growing with the scene is important, and we are launching a new Digital Summit this year, bringing together leaders in their fields to share their expertise on where art and technology coincide,” says Ghione.

While technology acts as a medium and an aid in producing art, human thought and creativity remains very much at the heart of digital art. Alfredo Cramerotti and Auronda Scalera, who are the curators of the section this year, explain that the artists address this tension and how it can be experienced in daily life by from re-thinking notions of identity and the body in the digital realm as well as rebalancing time and awareness through virtual and phygital experiences.

Stephan Breuer’s work, presented by Espace Gallery, for instance, blurs the lines between virtual reality and divine consciousness, inviting viewers to explore the transcendent through immersive experiences. “Shirin Abedinirad’s transformative installations at Sanji Gallery beckon us to ponder the interconnectedness of nature, technology and spirituality. Through the incorporation of light, digital technology and sound, Krista Kim’s creations challenge viewers to contemplate their embodiment, well-being and perception in a world increasingly shaped by technology,” says Cramerotti.

For now, Art Dubai Digital remains a platform for exploration, where art becomes a catalyst for introspection, reinvention, and societal transformation.

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