Bright eyes, contentious images at BAF

BEIRUT: For its third edition, Beirut Art Fair aimed high, in both quality and quantity. Last year BAF (nee MENASAART) showcased 25 galleries and attracted 9,000 visitors.

This summer event at BIEL saw just over 40 galleries attend, and the fair’s art director, Pascal Odille, confirmed Monday that the target number of 12,000 visitors had been met.

Attracting over 4,000 visitors, the opening night last Thursday was largely hailed a success by organizers and participating galleries. By Friday afternoon, although many galleries had not yet made a sale, the atmosphere was lively and participants for the most part seemed upbeat.

“We haven’t sold yet, but we have options,” said Véronique Jobin from Munich-based Galerie Prinzessin Michaela Nikolajewna Wolonsky.

Jobin, who has 35 years experience as a curator, said she was impressed with the attention of visitors to each individual artwork on display. “People really take time over it,” she said. “The art of looking at art here is very different from other fairs.”

This sentiment was echoed by other international galleries attending the fair. “I was very happy with the quality of the visitors last night,” French gallerist Sophie Lanoë said Friday. “They were people who are very interested and ... well-versed in contemporary art.

“We have sold one piece already,” Lanoë added, “and there are some other people who are interested.”

Her Galerie Sophie Lanoë, in Paris, specializes in art from the MENESA region, and their display featured a stunning painting by Egyptian artist Reda Abdel-Rahman, “Angels of the Revolution,” on show for the first time in the Middle East.

Abdel-Rahman painted the piece in Tahrir Square in February 2011, at the height of the Egyptian revolution, collecting messages and signatures from over 3,000 people on his enormous canvas as an artistic record of the protests.

“Angels of the Revolution” was not sold, Odille confirmed Monday, due to the gallery’s reluctance to sell it to a private collector. “We want to sell it to a museum or other public institution,” Lanoë explained. “It should be seen by many people.”

An unexpected addition to the fair was high-profile Galeria Cordeiros, from Portugal, whose selection included work by the father of pop-art Andy Warhol, celebrated Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies and German photographer Thomas Struth. The gallery also exhibited a 1983 work by Spanish painter Miquel Barcel?, priced at around $1 million.

By Friday afternoon the gallery – who decided to attend BAF just weeks before the fair opened – had sold nothing, but remained hopeful.

“Usually on the first day it’s difficult to have sales,” said Goncalo Albuquerque. “We came at the last minute and I understood that many people were not expecting to find these kind of pieces ... quite high-value art pieces. It’s normal that the first day they came ... they asked [for] information and maybe on the last two days they will come back.

“We are impressed and surprised with the number of people coming,” he added. “The people coming are mostly people who appreciate and understand art, which is very important.”

The fair’s art director disclosed that the gallery was in discussion over three pieces, though no sales had been finalized by close of business Sunday.

Despite a generally positive attitude from galleries and from the public, speculation was rife over the extent to which travel warnings (issued in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the past two months) had affected the number of collectors in attendance.

Organizers downplayed the effect of the warnings on the fair’s attendance. “Maybe it affects the tourism,” said fair manager Laure d’Hauteville, “but the really interesting people – our clients, the people who understand art ... They came. We had [collectors] from Saudi Arabia, from Bahrain, from Kuwait – we had the government of Abu Dhabi, we had from Dubai.”

Many galleries, however, were not convinced that the warnings had not affected attendance. Two Dubai-based collectors told Lanoë that it was dangerous to attend the fair, she said, adding, “I haven’t encountered many collectors from the Gulf.”

“I know there were a lot of people in Dubai who were going to come and didn’t,” said Camilla Chaudary of Pakistan-based gallery Art Chowk. “They changed their summer plans.”

Two Dubai-based galleries attended the fair despite the warnings, though Art Sawa admitted they were there to support the fair, rather than in the hope of making sales, which they felt might be negatively affected by the political climate.

Still, most galleries seemed willing to make the best of the situation. Khaldoun Hamad of the Spanish Galeria Sabrina Amrani, a MENESA art specialist, was philosophical about what he termed a “political issue.”

“We took it into account, but in the end our will to participate in this art fair and in the Middle Eastern art scene was much stronger than our fear of being caught in a difficult situation,” he said. “I’m sure some [collectors] would have probably not come because of this, but in the end – what can we do?”

In spite of speculation over reduced attendance from the Gulf, the overall message during the event was one of positivity from both international and local attendees.

“It’s much better than last year,” said Lea Sednaoui, of Beirut’s The Running Horse, who also attended the 2011 fair. “The vibe is a whole other level to what it used to be.”

This spring Art Dubai, BAF’s more established MENASA rival, hosted booths from 75 galleries and attracted 22,500 visitors in its four-day event. The BAF remains a modest affair by comparison, however, it does appears to be prospering.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 13, 2012, on page 16.




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