What the organisers say...

Both the Sharjah Biennial and the Gulf Art Fair were conceived out of a desire to reach a new public, internationally and locally.

An abstract piece by Jean Dubeffett from the Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts, Miami. This art was exhibited at the Gulf Art Fair
An abstract piece by Jean Dubeffett from the Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts, Miami. This art was exhibited at the Gulf Art Fair

Both the Sharjah Biennial and the Gulf Art Fair were conceived out of a desire to reach a new public, internationally and locally. John Martin, director of the DIFC Gulf Art Fair, which took place last month, says: "I felt Asia needed a major art fair and a centre for contemporary art commerce but the most important thing was to reach a wider audience and new collectors." While the Gulf Art Fair brings galleries together, the Sharjah Biennial assembles the actual artists. This year's sixth Biennial entitled,'Still Life: Art, ecology and the politics of change' will be held from 4th April - 4th June. The Biennial includes exhibitions, performances and screenings, as well as a symposium. Mahita El Bacha Urieta, Biennial coordinator, says: "The first Biennial in 1993 was an initiative between the art community in Sharjah, consisting of members of the Emirates Fine Arts Society and the Department of Culture. It is very much a homegrown event."

While both remain true to the appreciation and promotion of art, the Gulf Art Fair focuses on the international aspect of art through bringing galleries together in Dubai whereas the Biennial principally concentrates on the promotion of the Middle East through artwork. Martin says: "We wanted to keep the fair international and bring new galleries to Dubai. Visitors were encouraged to visit Dubai-based galleries during the day. Over the next two years I would like to see the fair grow to around 80 galleries and continue to bring the best Western contemporary galleries alongside established and emerging galleries from Asia."

International artists do exhibit at the Biennial, but the emphasis remains true to the founder's vision of promoting the Middle East first and foremost. An in-house residency programme as well as dedicated studios and a two month long opening to the public encourages the promotion of the artists work. Urieta says: "The art community based in Sharjah comprises of Emiratis, Sudanese, Syrians, Lebanese and Iraqis who all take part in managing and developing the arts scene locally. They are a very active group and also either curate or write for magazines."

When Hoor Al Qasimi took over as director, the Biennial was transformed into the curated show it is today. Says Urieta: "Visiting artists are often fascinated with Sharjah and its surroundings as the Biennial gives them the access to the region and provides a point of contact in politics, region and language."

Encouraging an appreciation while promoting international and local artists is a positive step for the art scene but what can interior designers learn from these events? Urieta says: "If interior designers open their minds they will definitely find something that would help in their designs. My advice to any designer would be to push the limits of space and not just use art as an aesthetic. Art is more than simply a picture on the wall - it can transform a space while pushing the boundaries of social and political change." Martin advises to remain open-minded, he says: "People are finally realising that contemporary art isn't 'difficult'. It is instinctive, easy and can be one of life's most enduring pleasures. Collecting art is an intuitive thing. The golden rule when collecting is to buy the best pieces by the artists you like. Art tends to ignore a lot of the barriers that society puts up: it is a shared language and abstract art in particular, owes a huge debt to Islamic art."

While the developing art scene cannot yet be compared to more established markets, it looks set to continue to flourish and not only influence and educate but also encourage great design within the region. Martin says: "I have a romantic notion that the Middle East is the spiritual home for much of the greatest western art of the last hundred years and the aesthetic sense in the Arab world is exceptionally sophisticated. In abstract art we have this great common bond. If the East and West understand each other a tiny bit better through art, then events like the DIFC Gulf Art Fair have been important."

The artist community agrees that the fairs are imperative in promoting the arts industry in the Gulf region. Artist Carrie Wareham says: "The Gulf Art Fair and the Sharjah Biennial are vital in letting people know what is available and serve as a reminder that art is an integral part of life. A better understanding and appreciation of art will continue to grow with this type of activity."

All designers face the issues of time and budget restraints and art is often the victim of a last minute reshuffling of priorities and budget but installing a few select pieces of original art or sculpture in a commercial project can not only enhance the aesthetic quality of an interior, but also add the corporate image and brand ethics of the client.

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