The first edition of Start, in the Qatari capital of Doha, has to be the smallest art fair in the world, says Caroline Roux
David Ciclitira, a dapper 60-something resident of Monaco, was one of the brains behind the foundation of Sky TV in 1980, and now his Parallel Media Group is one of the major names in sports and music promotion and events. So it’s quite a surprise to find him, with his wife Serenalla, in charge of the smallest art fair in the world. But on the 29th floor of the W Hotel in Doha last weekend, the Ciclitira’s first Qatari edition of the Start fair comprised stands by four galleries, another organised by the studio of the Indian (but Dubai-based) artist Owais Husain showing a selection of his paintings, and a small curated section of young local talent.
“We didn’t look at this fair as a business opportunity,” said Ciclitira. “The original London edition of the fair is to help young artists get exposure and this was about drawing attention to local talents.”
Start Doha is an off-shoot of Start London, which has taken place for the last three years each September at the Saatchi Gallery. In London, the objective is to showcase work by emerging Asian artists, and to bring in a younger audience who are very new to collecting, as well as collectors who are new to contemporary Asian art – hence the name. “Above all, it’s a voyage of discovery,” said Nigel Hurst, the CEO at the Saatchi Gallery. “The participating galleries can’t be more than eight years old. It’s unlikely you’ll see work you’ve seen before.”
The story began when the Ciclitiras visited an exhibition called New Asian Waves in Karlsruhe in 2007. The couple were already collecting, and for over 23 years, they had underwritten an annual painting prize and a sculpture scholarship at the Royal College of Art which had exposed them to the best of young British artists. But the show in Germany of over 100 artists from 20 or so Asian countries made them realise there was a whole other world of contemporary art out there, of which they had little knowledge or understanding.
They first travelled to South Korea and subsequently to Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, learning, collecting, and creating published volumes of the work of young artists, since they found there was almost no existing documentation. The aim is to include 75 each time, though quality control prevails, and in countries where fine art activity is limited, such as Vietnam, they only made it to 56. In other places, like Malaysia, the problem was getting artists to supply 300dpi jpegs (the level of resolution necessary for full-colour printing.)
The publishing, explained David Ciclitira, always receives government approval (in a communist country like Vietnam, it has to), but no government money, while the Saatchi Gallery has helped make it possible to stage the ensuing art fairs.
But why bring an art fair to Doha, a city where an art market barely exists? Well, in this instance, it coincided with the third edition of the Art for Tomorrow conference, organised by the New York Times, which brings together some heavyweights from the art and culture worlds over three days in March (just before a rather more significant art fair kicks off in nearby Dubai).
There has been a heavy emphasis on culture in Doha in the last decade under the guidance of the 35-year old Sheika Mayassa, the wordly sister of the Emir, who was educated in the US, and worked on the Tribeca Film Festival. As chairperson of Qatar Museums, the Sheika has overseen exhibitions by Murakami and Damien Hirst, as well as the delivery of the architecturally extraordinary National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel in the form of clustered desert roses, which will open next year.
So while the tiny art fair plied its tiny trade at the top of the W hotel, on the mezzanine floor 27-and-a-half floors below, big issues of immigration and identity were being debated, by speakers including the artist Cristo, the general director of UNESCO Irina Bokova, and the Times own influential columnist Roger Cohen. While delegates and participants were all guided to the 29th floor in the breaks, it was interesting to see how many of the W’s more general constituents – holiday-makers in shorts and shades, and youthful Qataris in full Vuitton and Gucci – were wandering through to stop and look too.
“When I set up my gallery five years, people used to come and look at the Tracey Emin neon works, that spell out phrases, and they’d say "My electrician could make that’,” said Ghada Sholey, whose Anima Gallery is the only commercial space in Doha. For the fair, she had chosen to dedicate her booth to the Qatari artist Ali Hassan, whose work always includes calligraphy, sometimes in a three-dimensional sculptural form.
“But now people come and take photos of the neons instead,’ she said, “so I think things are moving in the right direction.” There is still work to be done, however. “My husband is my best customer,” confessed the gallerist when pushed on her clientele. But then, he is one of the region’s most influential developers, so it could be worst. And Start is clearly a start, too, even if there is quite a way to go.