A new future for art fairs? Highlights from Art Dubai’s first digital program

Arab News, 24 March 2020
Art Dubai decided to showcase various aspects of its programming through curated online and digital experiences. (Supplied image: ‘Picasso in Palestine #3’)
DUBAI: Back in February as the rapid spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) threatened the global art calendar, Art Basel Hong Kong was the first to go.
Day by day, the art world watched as fair by fair was either postponed or cancelled. Frieze New York, 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, Milan’s Salone del Mobile, Art Paris and the list goes on. As of early March, Art Dubai originally planned to still stage a slimmed down program of events and talks for UAE-based galleries and arts organizations and the Residents section, which has had artists from the African continent working on specially commissioned artworks for that past six weeks.
Most recently, after more stringent measures of precaution have been enforced in the UAE, Art Dubai decided to showcase various aspects of its programming through curated online and digital experiences. These include the second edition of its Online Catalogue comprising approximately 90 galleries from, primarily, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region, a live-broadcast condensed version of the Global Art Forum, titled “Do You Story? Newshour Special,” and Online Performances curated by Marina Fokidis.
Shaikha Al Mazrou, Untitled, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi)
“Digital and online experiences are coming rapidly to the fore because of the unprecedented global situation,” Art Dubai’s Artistic Director Pablo del Val told Arab News. “This is the second year that Art Dubai has launched an online catalogue, and while it is an initiative we intended to continue, for now it is a way of keeping things online and adapting to the current situation to support our participating galleries, connecting them with visitors and clients while things are being shut down throughout the world.
“In these strange times, we have to adapt and cooperate,” said William Lawrie, co-founder of the Lawrie Shabibi art space in Dubai’s artsy Alserkal Avenue. “What Alserkal Avenue and its community has managed to do in almost no time has been incredible — to put all of these exhibitions online in 3D in time for the slated opening date. We are showing an expanded version of what we had planned for our presentation in Art Dubai, artists” responses to Op-Art. Our planned March gallery show — Peruvian/American sculptor Ishmael Randall Weeks — will come to the gallery in autumn.”
Tadesse Mesfin, Pillars of Life Grace III, 2020. (Courtesy: Eyerusalem Jiregna)
There’s doubt among many art world professionals that online viewing can replace the beauty of physical interaction with a work of art. “Nothing can compare to being physically in front of an artwork or conversing in person with art collectors,” said a gallerist from the Middle East on condition of anonymity. “But in times like this we need each other more than ever. Viewing works of art and performance digitally is a gift and a reprieve from the current state of world affairs.”
In the following list we’ve placed a spotlight on highlights from seven galleries from across the Middle East and Africa participating in the Online Catalogue of this year’s Art Dubai. For collectors eager to buy, you can browse works and filter through a range of criteria as well as place purchase enquiries directly with the galleries.
Akka Project, Dubai and Venice 
The architect of the continents, 2020, Goncalo Mabunda, Akka Project. (Supplied)
First time participant Akka Project, a gallery focusing on artwork from the African continent, showcases a group showing of work by artists from Mozambique, including Filipe Branquinho and Goncalo Mabunda. “Both artists explore the social condition of the people, not only in their own country but globally,” said the gallery’s director Lidija Khachatourian. “While Mabunda works with decommissioned weapons and scrap metal to create beauty from former objects of war, Branquinho analyzes the impact of the petrol market on everyday people in Mozambique and beyond.”