DUBAI (Reuters Life!) - Stirring canvasses inspired by the unrest sweeping the Arab world feature in a four-day contemporary art show, Art Dubai, running this week through Saturday.
Most of the artists from Artspace Gallery in the Dubai International Financial Center were in Egypt during the uprising that brought down veteran ruler Hosni Mubarak and many had been unsure if their pieces would be completed in time.
Their work is a testament to freedom of expression and the spirit of revolution, said the gallery's Sossy Dikijian.
"In the Middle East, there's a lot of censorship in art. There's not a sense of freedom, and we felt we needed to put a statement out there," he said. "We had to do something that really reflected 'now.'"
This, the fifth annual fair, is the most geographically diverse yet. The number of galleries represented is up to 82 from 72 last year, while the number of countries represented increased to 34 from 31.
"Dubai has been developing as an international center for 10 years," Antonia Carver, fair director of Art Dubai, told Reuters. "But in the last 10 years, in terms of Middle Eastern art, you have seen a very steep growth and interest from international museums and collectors and curators."
This year the fair is exhibiting in cities across the UAE.
Around one-third of the participants are based in the region, one-third is in Europe and the rest in the United States and Asia.
Dubai, one of the seven members of the United Arab Emirates, is a cosmopolitan city whose reputation as a regional trade and tourism hub took a hit during the world financial downturn when it was forced to restructure debt in Dubai World, a government-owned conglomerate.
But that has not stopped exhibitors from places like New York, Zurich and Hong Kong from featuring paintings, sculptures, photography and video installations this year.
Adrian Turner of New York's Marianne Boesky Gallery said he was curious about art in the region and that his main goal this year was to meet people. The gallery is selling pieces ranging from $7,000 to $175,000.
Andree Sfeir-Semler of Hamburg and Beirut's Sfeir-Semler is showcasing art ranging from $1000 to $140,000 and has been at the fair since it began in 2007.
She said she has seen Art Dubai become "more professional" over the years and an increase in people who are more serious in buying art for its cultural and not resale value.
Dubai is one of a number of Gulf Arab cities -- including Doha in Qatar and neighboring Abu Dhabi in the UAE -- striving to become the leading center for cultural activities.
"If you look around the rest of the Gulf, you don't have this kind of thirst for contemporary art and thirst for discussion around the subject," Carver said. "Dubai is the gravitation point where everything comes together."
(Additional reporting by Martina Fuchs)
Editing by Steve Addison