After a year of canceled events and forced digital presentations, Art Dubai made its highly anticipated in-person return this Spring, making it the first major live art event of 2021. Since its conception back in 2007, the annual art fair is the unparalleled leader in emerging art and sales in the Middle East, attracting thousands of international visitors, galleries, and artists in a diverse showcase that rivals any other in the world. With a new year, comes a new venue for the festival, one that was smaller and more intimate as the world slowly reemerges from its social pause. Set under the iconic Gate Building at Dubai International Financial Centre, purpose-built structures were erected specifically for the showcase, allowing the most free-flowing accessibility to visitors. 50 international galleries from 31 different countries were housed within, with the events calendar stretched to six days this year to accommodate as many visitors safely as possible.

Art Dubai has grown exponentially over the years, much like the art in the neighboring regions. Most notably, the Saudi Arabian art market has blossomed into one of the most exciting and talked-about displays of the festival, highlighting young artists with exciting voices and stories to tell, touching on all-encompassing subjects such as women’s issues and environmental concerns, changing the perception of Saudi to the rest of the world. With a push from the Saudi Ministry of Culture, people are more aware and excited about the art coming out of the region, as it takes its place among the leaders in the art world.

Peter Halley “Concent”, 2009 Custom Gallery

Farhad Ahrarnia Nasim “No.2”, 2018 – 2020 Lawrie Shabibi

Tomas Dauksa “Ready to go Home”, 2019 The Rooster Gallery

Author Editor-in-Chief Oona Chanel had the chance to speak with many gallerists, artists, and collectors during Art Dubai, many of which were focused on the booming Saudi craft. The overall feeling of the festival was one of excitement and joy to be back amongst colleagues and art lovers, viewing displays in real life. Oona spoke with two Saudi galleries about their thoughts of returning to an in-person showing and the artists they were representing.

When asked about the new venue and the overall feel of being back at Art Dubai this year, Alia Fattouh of the Athr Gallery in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was enthusiastic:

“…unlike the previous years, I think the new location is great because it is close to a lot of offices. Just the fact that it’s in a tent makes it feel more accessible, and it’s quaint! It’s much smaller so people can do it in a much more concentrated way…There’s definitely a lot of excitement. In a way, it feels like a school reunion where everyone is just really excited to see each other in person and see art in person.”

The importance of returning to a live production was at the forefront of conversations all throughout Art Dubai. The hiatus of the past year affected everyone differently, but to be able to reconnect with artists and collectors in person was an invaluable experience. Fattouh noticed an abundance of new collectors this year, a large majority coming from Asia, who may have been attending for the first time due to a lack of live global events. The influx of new collectors was a great boost for Middle Eastern art exposure, allowing it to reach new audiences for the first time. Fattouh explains:

“I think opening this new audience for artists is very important because, during [the past year and a half] Saudi has been very active, and so people have been hearing a lot more about Saudi art than before….I think people are a lot more curious, and a lot more open, because there was a time when people didn’t take it seriously and didn’t think much of it really for a long time. They didn’t even know there was an art scene in Saudi, so with the new push that the Ministry of Culture has been doing in Saudi, I think people have become a lot more aware, so the expectations have changed, but also the reception has changed, so they are more willing to consider it, and of course that translates into more sales and more literature and more just general knowledge of what Saudi art is.”

With this newfound global interest in Middle Eastern, and Saudi art, in particular, people are curious as to what they can expect to see from the region, and Fattouh thinks people will be surprised.

“It is very vibrant, very active, very youthful, and has a great sense of humor. It’s conceptual, abstract, unlike what we might think, it’s not all traditional calligraphy, but there are also forms that we really don’t expect what Saudi art would look like or the subjects it would tackle. Saudi artists have learned to adopt or create a language of their own to tackle things that could be sensitive, and so there’s a way of expressing these ideas that is a bit subtle. I find it very unexpected.”

This year the Athr Gallery was showcasing three young artists, working mostly in video and multimedia. Ahaad Alamoudi is a young, female artist in her early 20s who references pop culture and gender roles into her art, often using dance and music as inspiration. Sarah Abu Abdallah is another optimistic female artist who focuses on everyday life moments and scenes, shooting a majority of her work in her own home with her family. Mohammad Alfaraj rounds out the trio for Art Dubai this year, showcasing his work with palm trees in his family’s fields, and the impact of global warming on agriculture communities in Saudi.

They are tackling issues related to Saudi culture and what it means to be Saudi today and Saudi identity in relation to all these changes that are happening. [They are] using popular culture in their work, everyday life and mundane scenes to highlight the absurdity of life also in Saudi, women’s issues – driving, or not – but also environmental issues.”

Afifa Aleiby “White Kerchief”, 2020 Kristen Hjellegjerde Gallery

Lee Bae “Untitled”, 2018 Perrotin

Islam Zaher “Reclining Statue in a Passive Concrete Space – III”, 2020 Gallery Misr

Reem Yassin from the Mono Gallery in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was participating in Art Dubai for the first time this year, bringing with her several new, young Saudi artists, five of them female, as well as one Egyptian artist that was discovered through an annual open talent call, put on by the gallery with the intent of discovering new and emerging artists. The Mono Gallery also has the privilege of representing Princess Reem Al Faisal with her groundbreaking collection titled “Only the Lonely”

“…she’s a street photographer, she’s been around for a while but this is her first participation in Art Dubai. She’s a very close friend to the gallery, and she is the first Saudi female artist-photographer to document the entirety of the Hajj Pilgrimage, actually, Saudi or not Saudi, she’s the first female artist to do that. What we have here is a collection of her work called “Only the Lonely” which depicts the solitude in contemporary societies. We felt this collection of pieces was very relevant to the situation that we’re all emerging from as a society.”

The Mono Gallery also has the honor of representing several other female Saudi artists, some showing at Art Dubai for the first time, others returning with new exhibits. Lulwah Homoud is a well-known artist who has previously shown at Art Dubai, and whose work is displayed in Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s private office. Tarfa Alsaud is a painter who also works with video installations, documenting aspects of quarantine. Kholood Al Bakr is an emerging name in the Saudi art world. She documents the everyday life of Saudi society. And rounding out the five powerhouse female artists being represented is Amani Mousa, the Egyptian artist who was discovered through a talent call. She is showcasing her images of urban Cairo. 

When asked about her thoughts on attending Art Dubai in person and how things have changed in the past year Yassin says:

“We’re really, really pleased to be here. The support that we’ve seen from Dubai Art, or from the locals and everyone who visited was very positive, the feedback that we received was very positive. We’re very excited to be presenting five female artists this year. We had a couple of art fairs that got canceled, so we’re very excited that they pushed Art Dubai and made sure that it would go through, so we’re very excited to be here!…I think after spending a year at home people are much more appreciative of art and wanting something beautiful to look at and appreciate in their own homes. Everyone thought the market would plummet after the year off, but we were very positively surprised that the market was still steady on and the art collectors are still collecting…”

So what does the future look like for art in Saudi Arabia? With the influx of attention that Saudi artists have received from Art Dubai, there are several exciting opportunities on the horizon. 

“…we’re very optimistic about where it’s headed. Locally the attention has been absolutely wonderful. We currently have a festival going on in Saudi called the Noor Festival and we have artist Lulwah Homoud who has an installation, and this is something that has been launched by the Ministry of Culture under the patronage of His Royal Highness Mohammed bin Salman. So we see the support shifting tremendously to the culture and art scene. And you can see you got your really typical, local Saudi person whose interest has exploded tenfold in the last couple of years. When we started Mono Gallery, there was a couple of art galleries in Riyadh, Jeddah has always been more prominent, but Riyadh has been a bit poor in the art presentation. But now we see that it’s booming everywhere! You have galleries emerging left and right and we love this kind of healthy competition, and we think it’s going to be wonderful in the coming years in terms of Saudi.”

Sudarshan Shetty “Untitled”, 2007 Leila Heller Gallery

Optimism was the overall feeling sweeping through Art Dubai this year. The international market proved to be as strong as ever, delighting collectors, as well as galleries and artists. The outpouring of support for Saudi art, both locally from the country, as well as from international buyers, has launched new interest and life into the emerging scene, proving to be a country to watch as its unique point of view and perspective on the world captures our interest. The success of Art Dubai hopefully means the return of more and more in-person events, as the world is proving to be eager, poised, and ready.

Seydou Keïta “Sans titre/Untitled”, 1953-1957 Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

Shakir Hassan Al-Said “Ta’amol 3”, 1979 Elmarsa Gallery

Ali Chaaban “I  Fought the Internet and the Internet Won”, 2019 Hafez Gallery

Alia Ali Beat “From the FLUX Series”, 2019 Peter Sillem Gallery

Bashar Alhroub “My Son’s World #5”, 2021 Zawyeh Gallery

Loris Cecchini “Aeolian Landforms (Zawilah)”, 2020 Galleria Continua

Suliman El-Salem “The Stairs”, 2019 Hafez Gallery

Clemens Wolf “Parachute Painting (White)”, 2017 Sanatorium

Dia al Azzawi “Desert Landscape”, 1978 Meem Gallery

Dia al Azzawi “Waking Dream, 2017-2018 Meem Gallery

Umberto Mariani “La Forma Celeta”, 2015 Custot Gallery

Farrokh Mahdavi “Untitled”, 2021 Dastan’s Basement

Goncalo Mabunda “O Rializante da Mente”, 2021 AKKA Project

Hayv Kahraman “Untitled”, 2020 The Third Line

Thilo Heinzmann “O.T.”, 2019 Perrotin

Hoda Tawakol “When the Dates Turn Red #7” 2017-2018 Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde

Hussein Madi “Untitled”, 2012 Mark Hachem

Ian Davenport La Cra “Harvest (After Van Gogh)”, 2018 Custot Gallery

Tchalé Figueira “Untitled (Series Eros)”, 2018 Perve Galeria

Sarah Abu Abdallah, Athr Gallery

Reem Al Faisal “Only the Lonely (1)”, 2001 Mono Gallery

Reem Al Faisal “Only the Lonely (2)”, 2008 Mono Gallery 

Lulwah Al Homoud “Malik Al Mulk”, 2008 Mono Gallery

Kholood Al Bakr “To Where I Belong 1” 2019 Mono Gallery

Tasneem Al Sultan “Bibi and her Grandsons”, 2016 Mono Gallery

Islam Zaher “Female Head Study”, 2006 Gallery Misr

Iván Navarro “Clown”, 2021 TEMPLON

Julien Boudet “Drapeau Prada”, 2020 Stems Gallery

Youssef Nabil “Natacha and Crown, Cairo”, 2000 Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/Brussels

Youssef Nabil “Say Goodbye, Self- Portrait, Alexandrie”, 2009 Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/Brussels

Kehinde Wiley “Portrait of Jae White”, 2021 TEMPLON

Khalil Nemmaoui “Untitled”, 2018 Comptoir des Mines Galerie

Mohammed Kazem “Directions Triangle”, 2006 Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde

R Omelia Contadina “Processione, Paper Block #2 Venise, Italie”, 2020 Galleria Continua

Rachid Koraichi “From the Series Salome”, 1990 Aicon Art

Ruba Salameh “Tangram”, 2020 Zawyeh Gallery

Safwan Dahoul “Dream 185”, 2021 Ayyam Gallery

Salah Elmur “Ethiopian Pastor”, 2021 Circle Art Gallery

Ahaad Alamoudi “Iron Man”, 2020 Author Gallery

Mohammad Alfaraj “The Last Session I & II,  Athr Gallery



Cover Artwork by Ahaad Alamoudi

Text by Elizabeth Kramsky