Hala Khayat joined Art Dubai in 2020 as the new Regional Director. In this key role at the region’s largest art fair, her responsibilities include developing strategies for local and regional collectors’ engagement. Her extensive expertise in the Middle East and UAE is helping to drive the growth and development of sustainable long-term engagement in fostering regional relationships. She is a scholar on Arab and Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary art and previously been integral in developing Christie’s Dubai since its inception in 2007, playing a key role in the expansion and globalization of the Middle East’s art market both within the UAE and the greater region.

We spoke to Hala about the upcoming 16th Edition of Art Dubai where she gave us an insight into the program and its key highlights. She discussed the integral role Art Dubai plays in promoting creativity in the region and how it brings people together around art. This year’s fair is set to make yet another mark and continue to be the driving force behind the region’s evolving art scene.

Hala Khayat by Aasiya Jagadeesh

Saira Malik (S.M.): What can we look forward to at Art Dubai 2023?

Hala Khayat (H.K.): Art Dubai 2023, is our most ambitious event yet, featuring an eclectic mix of artists and inspirational and creative thinkers from across the global south. We have over 130 participants from more than 40 countries from the best cutting-edge contemporary galleries from around the world. We will have a bigger digital section this year, a food-based performative and live element, as well as a series of thought-provoking conferences, talks and workshops. It promises to be a fantastic event – we can't wait. 

S.M.: What are the themes for this year and how were they picked? What were the most important criteria for the selection of the galleries and artists for this year’s fair? 

H.K.: Our annual event has always provided a powerful and prominent platform to champion our artists and their art. This year is no exception. Art Dubai 2023 will feature a set of new site-specific commissions, alongside premieres from established international artists.

Collaborating with our colleagues and friends in Dubai is at the heart of what we do, but we also aim to reflect our wider role as convener of great minds and thinkers across the Global South, which is why we have chosen to partner with some of the key organizations from South Asia on our commissions programme for the upcoming fair.

We felt it was important to have a performative element which would celebrate the breadth of artistic practices in South Asia, as well as spotlight the key organizations supporting art and artists from the region. There is a real desire – and not just in the art world – to bring people together, for live experiences and the exchange of ideas across cultures. Universal human themes such as hope, community and connection are, arguably, more important than ever and they will be brought to life with daily performances and food-based experiences. 

The event also offers a glimpse into the past, present and future of this important region. For example, we have a section called Bawwaba, which means gateway in Arabic, dedicated to working from the under-represented Global South. Curated by Vipash Purichanont, a lecturer at Silpakorn University, Bangkok, it serves as a portal for work made in the past year, or specifically for the fair. It offers visitors an analysis of current artistic developments through ambitious solo artist presentations. 

Photo by Cedric Ribeiro (Getty Images for Art Dubai)

S.M.: Is there anything new included in the program for this year that you can tell us about? 

H.K.: Not only will you see the largest presence to date of UAE galleries, but this year we are also partnering with a greater number of the most important and influential organizations from across South Asia.

They include the Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, as part of the fair’s commissioning programme. Together we selected contemporary artists from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and UAE, who will present work alongside five artists from our participating galleries including Prajakta Potnis (represented by gallery Project 88), Rathin Barman (Experimenter), Gunjan Kumar (Exhibit 320), Anoli Perera and Tayeba Begum Lipi (Shrine Empire).

Our thought leadership programme will further expand this year with a two-day edition of the Global Art Forum, our flagship talks programme and we will also be hosting the first Dubai edition of Christie’s Art+Tech summit at the fair. For the second year running, we will be linking up with 421, Abu Dhabi’s independent platform supporting emerging artists – 421 will present a group exhibition curated by UAE-based artist and researcher Dania Al Tamimi. Another highlight will be the return of our dedicated digital section, Art Dubai Digital, to give a 360-degree look at the digital art ecosystem.

S.M.: What gallery are you most excited to present this year? 

H.K.: We are excited by all of our galleries but one of the most important sections in the fair is Art Dubai Modern, which is a one-of-a-kind platform, focusing on Modern art from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. This year it will focus on solo shows and feature a selection of the region’s very best artists who were working between the 1950s and 1990s and whose works are retrospectively playing a key role in today’s artistic landscape.

For example, there will be a presentation by the master photographer from Ghana, James Barnor (October Gallery in the Modern section), whose career spans six decades. Having worked as a studio portraitist, photojournalist and Black lifestyle photographer since the 1950s, Barnor has documented many of the major social and political changes that have occurred in Accra and London. Sfeir-Semler Gallery will showcase work from Syrian artist Marwan from the 1960s to the 1980s. His cold style of socio-critical realism is fascinating and it was, in many ways, influenced by the cultural legacy and spiritual traditions of the Arab world.

Photo by Cedric Ribeiro (Getty Images for Art Dubai)

S.M.: Who is the one artist at Art Dubai 2023 whose work we should not miss?

H.K.: It is impossible to pick out one artist among the dozens – indeed hundreds – on show but we are delighted that Swiss Wealth Management group Julius Baer, which is renewing its long-standing partnership with Art Dubai for a further five years, will premiere a major new commissioned artwork by Refik Anadol, who is a new media artist, and pioneer in the aesthetics of data and machine intelligence. This particular commission is part of Julius Baer’s new initiative ‘NEXT’, which is designed to foster collaboration between forward-thinking artists and institutions committed to new forms of cultural production.

S.M.: Art Dubai Digital is returning for its 2nd Edition. Can you talk more about how this section has evolved and the response of the audience to it?

H.K.: We founded Art Dubai Digital in March 2022 with the aim of giving our visitors a snapshot of what’s happening at the moment in a space that they may read about but may not fully understand. We want to build bridges between the worlds of art and tech by exploring how artists are using new, immersive technologies and collapsing the boundaries of the traditional art world. 

The response to last year's debut  of Art Dubai Digital was hugely positive. I think many people will be surprised that our digital section has expanded for 2023 despite the recent challenges in the crypto sector – that points to it being here to stay. 

This year, UAE First Immersion will be a big draw, featuring a presentation of new artworks produced by some of the leading names in crypto art, as will other collaborations with various organizations including the Lian Foundation and 6529’s Open Metaverse project. 

S.M.: How would you describe the current regional art scene?

H.K.: As vibrant and thriving. Art Dubai is now a truly global event and an opportunity for artists and galleries from across the global south, including the GGC, the African continent, as well as Turkey, Iran and South Asia, to come together on the world stage.

We have come so far in a little over 15 years. Before our first event in 2007, I doubt that many would have considered the UAE a global art hub but the growth in the scene has been incredible. Mirroring the economic rise of the region in recent years, and the UAE government’s commitment to supporting art and culture, the UAE has become a key creative and international cultural centre, with more artists, galleries and art collectors than ever calling Dubai home. It is now firmly established as the link between East and West and is a platform for regional artists to receive international exposure. 

S.M.: Talk to us about the collectors at Art Dubai. What is the fair doing to attract a younger generation of collectors?

H.K.: The art and culture scene in the UAE has developed enormously and many great grassroots initiatives are now really maturing, including both commercial and non-profit, more philanthropically led initiatives. 

Dubai is now home to multiple generations of collectors from all over the world and is increasingly home to artists from across the region. In the last 12 months, several major international galleries have opened here in Dubai, including Continua and Perrotin, who have some of the biggest names in the world on their rosters. Having a base here enables these businesses to work across the region, supporting the building of relationships with artists, institutions and collectors from across the whole Gulf, and MENASA regions.  

Any fair that genuinely wants to attract younger collectors needs to be accessible, not only in terms of content but also the price point. Whilst the high-value sales often attract headlines, our fair exhibits unique works and editions available at much lower levels. 

Our work beyond the event itself plays an integral part in attracting collectors. Art Salon, for instance, is our year-round VIP programme that provides a framework for a fantastic group of engaging art collectors and cultural enthusiasts. They attend monthly talks, cultural events and art exhibitions and they play a fundamental part in shaping the art in the region. 

Photo by Cedric Ribeiro (Getty Images for Art Dubai)

S.M.:  What makes Art Dubai different from the other art fairs around the world?

H.K.: We are grounded in our home city of Dubai and in line with its spirit of thinking outside the box we continue to produce cultural initiatives that push boundaries and redefine what an art fair can and should be. 

As the global art fair landscape continues to evolve and new centres emerge, we believe our independent model will have increasing relevance – we are a sustainable, innovative and independent institution that foregrounds practices from geographies that have historically been under-represented in the mainstream Western art world. 

Our fairs not only display the best art in the world but also have an array of talks, thought-leadership events and academic programmes to inspire discussion and debate, and I think other events across the world are catching on. We believe we play a role that is more than an art fair – we’re an institution in our own right and we want to be the moment of gravity that brings all the key players together. 

As the landscape of international art fairs changes, we continue to play a significant role in highlighting and assisting the cultural ecosystems of the global south, and the program this year completely represents this region’s increasing importance, vitality, and vibrancy. A key element of this is showing top-quality art and artists that you simply will not see at any other art fair and showcasing them first. 

S.M.: Lastly, why should people attend Art Dubai 2023?

H.K.: There are so many artists across all genres that there are highlights for everyone. Our fair is about exploration, discovery and innovation – we have the best art all under one roof. 

It can open all minds but opening children’s minds to the wonders of art is a central part of what we do at Art Dubai. Artistic and creative education from an early age is so important and we encourage children of all ages to come and explore the whole programme, from our galleries to our commissioned programme. We also have a lot of fun and exciting workshops so bring the family – entry is free to under-18s (and students) is free!

Art Dubai 2023 will be taking place 1-5 March, 2023 at Madinat Jumeirah, for more information, visit www.artdubai.ae 

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