DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It was a scene reminiscent of pre-pandemic Dubai: Art lovers dressed in designer clothes or alternative fashion, walking around in one of the city's many swanky locations. Bloggers, VIPs and influencers filming on their mobile phones. People mingling and laughing.
The only difference? They all wore masks.
After being canceled in March last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Art Dubai returned this week to the sunbaked desert metropolis it calls home, becoming one of the first in-person international art fairs of 2021. The show is part of the city-state's efforts to reopen to international trade and tourism that power its economy.
"Art Dubai was the first art fair to be canceled, just when the pandemic started" and now it's the first to be back live, said Pablo del Val, the show's artistic director.
"I think it's been an emotional, fantastic moment," he added. "I think everyone was looking forward to stop looking to screens and having a physical relationship with a work of art."
This year's installment is different, however. Typically held at the vast conference space of Madinat Jumeirah in the shadow of Dubai's iconic, sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel, the 2021 event instead came to Dubai International Financial Center. Temporary galleries sprung up around the center's Gate House, the landmark structure at the business hub.
Signs of the pandemic are still everywhere: Social-distancing signs and hand sanitizer dispensers stand visible in the tents housing the galleries. People attending the fair can book a specific time slot in advance to guarantee their entry. Those worried about being around a crowd can take a virtual tour of the fair from home.
Even some of the art is teleconferencing into the event. Art Dubai introduced a program allowing galleries unable to travel to Dubai to connect to visitors via video.
The fair features 50 contemporary and modern galleries from 31 countries, specializing in regions that are not main players on the international art scene. It also focuses on artists from the Middle East.
One of them is Rashed al-Shashai, a prominent figure of the contemporary Saudi art scene. He recently designed a piece entitled Concise Passage, 2020 in the kingdom's al-Ula historical district — a feature made of shipping crates divided by a pink-lighted walkway symbolizing a region that was once a key stop on an incense trade route linking Arabia to Asia.
"Taking part in this fair shows the determination of art to be part of bringing life back to normal, for people and humanity," al-Shashai said. "It helps people live in a better way, even when there are disasters and tragedies happening in the world."
As Dubai went into a lockdown in early 2020, the city's big events shut down, along with its long-haul carrier Emirates. The autocratically ruled emirate moved aggressively to reopen in July to tourists. Coronavirus numbers however spiked to levels unseen following New Year's Eve. Other countries also blamed Dubai for outbreaks of coronavirus variants.
Since then, reported daily new infection numbers have dropped to over 2,000, from highs of nearly 4,000 at the worst of the winter. The United Arab Emirates is vaccinating at one of the quickest rates in the world, hoping to be ready for Dubai hosting its Expo 2020 world's fair in October, after the pandemic forced a delay of the event last year.
With airlines flying again, big events back on the calendar, and bars and restaurants open to residents and tourists — albeit masked when not eating or drinking — the UAE hopes to power through the rest of the pandemic.
"Corona changed life as a whole," al-Shashai said. "I found that people are just waiting for a chance to come back, and they will, and they will rebuild, and they will forget everything that happened, and it will all become tales to be told."
The pandemic also featured in the art exhibited in the show. One piece, a giant outdoor display reading "NEWS: IT WON'T BE LIKE THIS FOREVER" drew many a selfie.
"I think that culture is something that should never be canceled and I think it doesn't matter the times that you're going through," del Val said. "I think it's a way that we can really interrelate with each other and where our senses and our positiveness come back to life."
"I think that one of the magics that Art Dubai is managing this week is precisely that ... bringing people (into) a completely different state of mind," he added.
"We are becoming humans again."
Follow Malak Harb on Twitter at www.twitter.com/malakharb.