A staggering 868 photographic works grace four large temporary structures currently standing in the middle of Dubai’s Design District. These pieces—drawn from 23 different countries—demonstrate the value of the inaugural Dubai Photo Exhibition. A thorough exploration of the fair reveals a two-fold mission: to expose Emirati to photography as an art form and to further Dubai’s positioning as a cultural capital. The exhibition succeeds at both in an almost overwhelming fashion. Further, this is a non-commercial art fair, meaning the works are seen, not purchased—and with photos from America’s Dorothea Lange to Japan’s Takashi Arai there might not be a more comprehensive pop-up photography show on the planet.
The concept was developed by HE Ali Bin Thalith, a photographer and the Secretary General of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award (HIPA), an organization that hosts an annual competition in Dubai for global photographers and carries the largest winners purse in photography. HIPA is a passion project of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. Bin Thalith called upon the World Photography Organisation to help with the debut event and the Dubai Photo Exhibition was born.
Each of the four structures playing host to work have been furthered divided into gallery presentations‚ with each gallery representing a different country. Walking through the whole structure feels like traveling through a photographic history of the globe, as work displayed within each section offers pieces both (very) old and new—with diversity ever-present. Managing the visual flow of the experience was tasked to Head Curator Zelda Cheatle, a renowned curator with over three decades worth of experience. Cheatle, who brought in and oversaw 18 other curators from around the world, explains to CH, “Because I have been working with all the curators [and thus, all the galleries] on their individual shows, and knowing and understanding all of the pieces, I built it around a spatial idea. I knew how I wanted everything to balance, and I used the scale of works to convey this.” Rather than arrange all of the galleries by alphabetical order or even the geographic proximity of the nations they represent, work flows from country to country based on scope or emotional resonance.
“I wanted people to feel that they were moving from one thing—or place—to another, but not in a shocking way,” she continues. “It’s very astonishing to move continents in only a few steps. No two galleries are the same shape or size, but one is immediately aware of leaving a specific country and entering the next—by osmosis and how you visualize.” Still though, there’s a cohesion and a resonance to the bigger picture that comes from immersion.
Work on display ranges from stunning landscapes and portraiture to photo journalism and experimental photography. Many of the works also challenge the viewer—especially as one grapples to place the nation of origin and year of production.
Still, among all 23 countries, some certainly stand out. Belgium’s gallery (sharing a space with Holland) was curated by Els Barents. Of the works featured, a series from Scarlett Hooft Graafland’s striking images included the 2014 “Balloon Burkas” shot in Socotra, Yemen. Only a few steps away, in Brazil’s space curated by Iatã Cannabrava, a large-scale work by artist/helicopter pilot Cássio Vasconcellos portrayed a composite of 100 airport terminals, assembled across 32 panels. The work, dubbed “Airport” (2015), expresses a sensation of both reality and fiction. A building away, one can find French selfies from the 1850s and a short walk reveals architectural photographs by India’s Madan Mahatta.
Arabic art plays an important role at the fair, as well. “The perception of art within and from Arab countries is changing. There is a lot of opening up,” Cheatle notes. “However, I did not know anybody in London familiar, for example, with photo artists in the UAE. There have been interesting Arab artists who have come to London and made a name for themselves there, but what’s most interesting about this is that we have come to them.” Aside from the UAE, Egypt and Morocco have strong representation at Dubai Photo Exhibitions. All three of the Arab nations’ exhibitions include works that focus on the female identity. Cheatle has observed that many Arab women are embracing photography as a medium. A standout across all three Arab exhibitions, Ahlam Al Ahmad’s “Unutterable Femininity” series plays—powerfully—with tropes of women masked for religion.
“This was a case of wanting to create a non-commercial exhibition of photography that really elevated the medium. We wanted it to be both elegant and relevant—a mini biennale,” says Scott Gray, founder and CEO of the World Photography Organisation. The space itself is a temporary museum. The 18 curators have procured pieces that defined style and technique in their home nations, while also presenting emerging artists that look toward the future of the medium. Altogether, it’s an educational adventure and the first of its kind in the region.
The Dubai Photo Exhibition is on now through 19 March 2016 in the Dubai Design District.
Images by David Graver