The average art fair can be an underwhelming experience. It displays the disciplines it purports to represent in the most nakedly commercial, and necessarily least interesting, light. It is crowded with ugly advertising and second-rate art, all for the most part housed within an exhibition space ill-suited for the specifics of the dubious material its organisers aim to shift, with little thought to geographical specificity or curatorial competence. Taking all of this into account, you might approach the fourth edition of MENART Paris with a heavy heart: but trust me, you’ll leave wondering why you ever had such reservations in the first place.
First off, the space. The venue is the Palais d’Iéna, almost certainly the masterpiece of the hallowed architect Auguste Perret. It is a semicircular gallery composed of high ceilings in reinforced concrete and an ammunition belt of soaring, plate-glass windows. Indeed, according to the editors of the Guide d’architecture de la ville de Paris, 1900–2008, it is “one of the most beautiful achievements of 20th century architecture, and could quite correctly be described as a perfect monument”. It is, in short, an ideal venue for exhibiting visual art.
Second, the focus. MENART, which evolved from the Beirut Art Fair, specialises in the work of artists from the Levant, the Gulf and North Africa – many of whom have yet to claim much of a presence in Europe. It’s beyond doubt that much of the most interesting art being made today is coming from this region. That is the reason I write for Canvas; and, presumably why the opening night was packed to its béton armé rafters with young French artists eager to see what their contemporaries in Lebanon, Egypt and the UAE are currently up to. Although art from these countries is increasingly visible here in Paris, we seldom get chances to see so much of it in a single space – let alone one as sumptuous as this.
More conventional but no less sinister thrills are to be had at the UAE’s Hunna Art. A handful of photorealistic still lifes by Palestinian painter Reem R create uncanny atmospheres from plausible arrangements. In one, a plastic baby’s dismembered hand points up in a “heil!” gesture from a swathe of purple velvet, which it shares with a McNugget Meal (complete with supersize soda, naturally) and a wilting fleur de lys. All these elements appear to be recurring motifs in her work, which goes one further than Magritte by conjuring extraordinary effect from emphatically ordinary components.
A very different but spiritually aligned voice can be seen in the paintings of Aliyah Alawaleh, who draws on Cubism and the weirdness of interwar German expressionism to articulate what it means to be an independent female artist in the Emirates today. Her figures – or figure, as there seems to be but a single, recurring woman in these paintings – are either eating each other, eating consumer-branded goods, or are themselves trussed up to be eaten for a ceremonial dinner. These paintings rasp with anger and punishing introspection, and are all the more powerful for it.
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