Issue 7, Dubai. Art Week

Dubai Modern. La Modernité,
des autres, Retrouvée

13 March 2017
Abdelkader Guermaz, Dunes Perverses 1978 – Oil on canvas, 161×129 cm – Courtesy Elmarsa

Modernity beyond the West remains relatively unexplored territory. A largely theoretical contribution was made by Roger Buergel, curator of Documenta 12. In 2007. He started out with the creation of Documenta which contained a series of questions he put to himself and to the public, the first of which was ‘Is Modernity our Antiquity?’
Put this way, the meaning is historiographical, but following this the questions became more complex and numerous, until the question is reached ‘What Modernity?” therefore, how much has western culture influenced modernity outside the West?
And if today the institutions have a debt to pay regarding modernity beyond the West, those who have faced the situation and continue to do so in an exhaustive way are the market, the galleries and the auction houses.
Much of the merit for this certainly goes to Art Dubai which has, for some years now, had a modern section, with works of the highest level, worthy of museum collections.

Raza, Bindu-Germination, 1986 – courtesy of Grosvenor Gallery

Every booth tells a story, and in this way Art Dubai takes the form of a small precious art history manual.
This year the Grosvenor Gallery in London holds just one show dedicated to the work of the Indian artist Sayed Haider Raza (1922-2016).
Raza is one of India’s best known modern artists, and in the second half of the 20th. century his works could be found in such major American collections as the Fuller Collection, the June and John Lewis Collection, the Weisblat Collection and the Guyer Family Collection.
When Raza founded, in 1947, together with M.H. Husain, K.H. Ara and F. N. Souza, the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, India’s first modern art movement, he was already very well-known in India. In the mid-fifties he moved to Paris, where he stayed for over thirty years. He lived in contact with the worldwide artistic masters of avant-garde art, gaining inspiration from contemporary western artists, but he remained forever tied to his own Muslim Indian culture. In the Grosvenor Gallery booth there are some emblematic works of his, amongst which Germination Bindu of the Bindu series, begun in the 70s when Raza gave life to new research in abstract art. Bindu was the seed – a font of energy which relaunched the artist following a time of deep reflection as a man and as an artist, but above all, Bindu, through its painting became, a patrimony of humanity.

Still in the theme of Indian modernity, the story, looked at on a different level, continues in the stand DAG Modern containing the works of G.R. Santosh (1929 – 1997) and Biren De (1926 – 2011).
These artists were exceptional colourists, both influenced by cubism and working in perfect harmony with international cultural models. However their artistic practices didn’t manage to get away from indigenous Indian traditions and from the Tantra culture. Santosh loved the narrative and his canvases were the perfect medium for telling the stories of his native Kashmir. For years Biren De painted people and the Indian life he knew, moving on towards the Tantra and the adoption of holistic representation.

African Modernity has also found space over the years at Dubai Modern. Ayo Adeyinka, director of the Tafeta Gallery in London, which had already exhibited one of Nigeria’s foremost modern artists, Bruce Onobrakpeya (born in 1932). His wood sculptures were a big success at the fair, as they had been with collectors at London auctions and Arthouse in Nigeria. Tafeta returns with a selection of works by Muraina Oylami (born in 1940) and Ben Osawe (born in 1931), whose fame is tied to the Nigerian Oshogbo School, between 1960 and 1970. Both artists were heavily influenced by western Modernity. Ben Osawe was trained and formed at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London, although his artistic past preceded that, as his father was a sculptor. Osawa is himself a sculptor and an extraordinarily skillful drawer.

Muraina Oyelami, Sango Festival, courtesy of Tafeta Gallery

In Oshogbo, Muraina Oyelami worked in contact with many western expatriates who were based in Nigeria. Ulli Beier, professor at the University of Ibadan, Jean Kennedy Walford, an American woman who opened in Lagos, on the western model, one of the first salons where artists and collectors met to talk about not only African but also international art. Oyelami worked deeply and fervently on the basis of a double stylistic and pictorial model – African and western – whilst always remaining firmly African. It has been said that Oyelami was so deeply involved in his continuous search, that he destroyed works which he felt were not a complete success.

The Elmarsa gallery of Tunis and Dubai brought in North African Modernity through the paintings of the Tunisian Aly Ben Salem (1910 – 2001) and the Algerian Abdelkader Guermaz (1919 – 1996). Their artistic history took shape in a cultural context characterized by the dual influence of their own country and of French colonialism. For both of them, at the end of the colonial period, the intention was to mediate between the two cultures, but in truth they remained a blend of the two; Salem with his strong representation and Guermaz totally dedicated to abstraction.

Aly Ben Salem, Dancing women, Circa 1950s, Gouache on paper – 76×55 cm, Courtesy Elmarsa

You can get lost investigating the history of modern Iranian art. Many artists, travelled all around the world to develop and find work. One good example is the sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, born in 1937, who studied and then taught at the Accademia di Brera in Milan at the end of the 1950s. At that time the top names in Italian art lived and worked in Milan, including, to name just one, Lucio Fontana. Tanavoli’s works are both in the permanent collections of international museums and they top lots at auctions.

At Art Dubai, the Aria Gallery of Teheran chose to present the works of Garnik Der Hacopian (born 1944) and Sonia Balassanian (born 1942) both of whom are Iranian artists of Armenian origin.
Hacopian was a front line figure in the construction of modernity in his country. At the height of his career he decided to work in solitude and not to exhibit his works; in 2016 came back with a show at the Aria Gallery. At Dubai Modern the gallery proposes a set of works dating from the late 80s, many of them on wood, abstract, where the artist experiments an ephemeral dialogue of daily life with reality, especially with nature.

Differently from many other countries in the area, In the Middle East there are numerous female artists and many of them are well-known. Among them we find Sonia Balassanian, painter and sculptor, who has always preferred the abstract model. Her work, dating from the 70s, is exhibited in the booth.

It’s difficult in a short article to summarise the many art stories which are told at Dubai Modern – better to think of it as an incipit to an art history manual which is yet to be completed in many of its parts.