At the VIP preview at Art Dubai yesterday, one booth stood out for its subtle but brave political statement in a country where freedom of speech is restricted. Gallery Artbeat, based in Tbilisi, Georgia, covered its booth table in a Ukrainian flag and the Georgian co-founder Natia Bukia also wore a matching blue and yellow outfit. “For me it was very difficult to come [to Dubai] after being totally frustrated about what is going on in Ukraine and not being able to concentrate on anything else,” Bukia says. “My main fear was exactly that here it would be ‘business as usual’ and how would I be able to handle that. That is why for me it was so important to make some kind of a statement to express what I feel and where I am emotionally but also to remind people what is happening in Ukraine and what has to be on everyone’s mind now.”
But the anxiety of war in Europe seemed far from the minds of fairgoers at the patron’s preview last night. Champagne flowed and spirits were high as Art Dubai celebrated the return to its usual lavish hotel venue of Madinat Jumeirah after the pandemic forced it to hold all-digital or smaller in-person editions for the past three years. Many gallerists mentioned that the fair was “a welcome distraction” from global politics.
Bukia says that despite being concerned that Art Dubai officials would object to her political statement, no one on the team has contacted her so far. When asked to comment on Bukia’s stand an Art Dubai spokesperson told The Art Newspaper: “The fair firmly supports the right for its participants to express their support for Ukraine and for our own part we will be donating 25% of all ticket sales this year to help the plight of Ukrainian refugees.”
A few people—particularly British expats—thanked Bukia for her quiet protest. “There was one Ukrainian girl who came and thanked me for my support, she had tears in her eyes. I nearly hurt too,” Bukia says. Coming from an ex-Soviet country that has also been a victim of Russian attacks, such as the war in 2008, she says that she and her Georgian compatriots know too well what the Ukrainian people are going through. Although Gallery Artbeat almost exclusively represents Georgian artists she says that the gallery wants to support and represent Ukraine too.
While there are no Ukrainian or Russian galleries at Art Dubai this year, an installation of works by the Russian artist Marina Fedorova, supported by the art incubator Sputnik Partners, stands conspicuously in its own spot outside the room where the Global Art Forum talks are taking place, close to the fair’s new digital section. Called Cosmodreams, the presentation includes paintings, sculptures, a video and a virtual reality environment. “With works vividly expressing the beauty of the outer space, Fedrova explores the role of the technological progress in our lives and its impact on our planet, muses of social adjustment and the legacy that the future generations will inherit from us,” a project statement says.
At the front of the show stands a sculpture in the form of a Matryoshka doll dressed as an astronaut adorned with the Soviet hammer and sickle symbol. “I don’t understand how these people are so insensitive in these types of situations. For them it is nostalgia but for so many nations [the Soviet period] was a horror story,” Bukia says.
When asked whether Art Dubai thought it appropriate to place such imagery in a prominent location at the fair given Russia’s current war on Ukraine, a spokesperson said: “Dubai is home to a wide range of peoples and cultures and we welcome and exhibit artists from all over the world. Marina Fedorova is an independent artist and her participation is not in any way an endorsement of Russia or their actions in the conflict in Ukraine.” Sputnik Partners declined a request to comment.
Despite recent reports that rich Russians are flocking to Dubai amid Western sanctions, there seemed to be few in attendance at Art Dubai’s VIP preview. Bukia also believed that there were “many fewer than previous years”. But if Russia continues to be cut off from the West, the Russian contingent may be much larger at upcoming fairs in the Emirates.
Bukia plans to keep her Ukrainian flag on Gallery Artbeat’s booth for the duration of the fair. She is also carving out plans to further support the Ukrainian cause. “I am thinking about organizing a residency for Ukrainian artists and maybe staging a group show together with Georgians about how Russia continues to attack our cultures,” she says.