Afifa Aleiby, Flute, 2012, Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery. Featured at Art Dubai 2021

By hosting the first in-person international art fair of 2021, Art Dubai is paving the way back to normality for the art world. After being one of the first art fairs to be canceled in March of last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Art Dubai returned more determined than ever to host an in-person fair in 2021. Thanks to a number of innovations and one of the quickest vaccination rates in the world, the fair was able to safely welcome the 18,000 visitors who attended the event from March 29 and April 3.

Since its debut in 2007, Art Dubai is considered the Middle East’s leading art fair for the local, regional, and international art world. And despite its reduced format this year, the fair still exhibited 50 contemporary and modern art galleries from 31 countries, featuring art and artists from across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and the Global South. 


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This year, the 14th edition of the fair was held in a purpose-built venue at the Gate Building in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) instead of the usual location at the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel. Alongside standard social distancing procedures and regular testing of participants, the fair also extended its dates and opening hours, allowing visitors to book specific time slots limited per hour. To accommodate the unique pandemic landscape, Art Dubai also offered a new remote participation program for galleries unable to travel to Dubai. This program used digital technologies to connect those remote galleries with fair visitors and provided video introduction to the artworks on show. Art Dubai also implemented a new payment model to help galleries participate. This year, galleries did not need to pay a fee upfront to participate. Instead, they paid 50 percent of sales made during the fair, up to the cost of the booth. Benedetta Ghione, Executive Director of Art Dubai, said that although some of these innovations will be one-off initiatives reflecting the current times, they expect others to enhance for future editions.


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The hand sanitizers dispersed throughout the fair and the floor stickers reminding visitors to social distance reading “Enjoy the art, two meters apart,” weren’t the only unique features of Art Dubai 2021. To mark the 50 years since the founding of the United Arab Emirates, 50 Years United, an exhibition of photography by Ramesh Shukla dating back to 1971, was exhibited at the DIFC Gate Avenue. The exhibition detailed portraits of the Founding Fathers and historical landmarks as well as traditional customs and heritage.

Art Dubai also presented a video program featuring single-channel films produced by over 20 regional and international artists. Each film was thematically categorized to curate a specific experience for the viewer such as nature, journeys, conversations, and dystopias, among others. 

“Art Dubai pulled off something amazing, at a time that much of the rest of the art world is at a standstill,” William Lawrie of Dubai-based Lawrie Shabibi gallery said. “I was stunned by the number of collectors who had come from all corners of the world, despite travel restrictions and red tape. There was a concentrated energy throughout the run of the fair, lots of excitement and some great sales.” 

As Lawrie noted, galleries did see robust sales throughout the week, with artworks being placed in major private collections and international institutions, and others in process of negotiation. Seeing a nation that is both successful in vaccinating its people as well as returning to a sense of normalcy can offer the rest of the world a taste of hope.

“I think that culture is something that should never be canceled and I think it doesn’t matter the times that you’re going through,” Pablo del Val, the show’s artistic director, said. “I think it’s a way that we can really interrelate with each other and where our senses and our positiveness come back to life.”


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