SIKKA Art Fair – Hipsters, hairy people and creepy statues

By Mike Boyle

Event: SIKKA Art Fair 2014
Location: Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, Dubai
Date: 20–25 Mar ‘14

This week we attended 2 days of the SIKKA Art Fair to see what all the fuss was about. Art fairs are typically full of weirdly dressed hipsters, making sighing noises and stroking their pretentious beards as they pretend to know about art. I wasn’t really expecting this one to be any different, and I wasn’t disappointed.

But despite all the weird-beards and pretence, it was a remarkably relaxing experience. I don’t know the first thing about art and would never claim to, but I do enjoy it. I like looking at an exhibit and trying to place myself in the shoes of the artist and decipher just what s/he is trying to convey. I fucking suck at it, but the lord loves a trier. The past two nights gave me the opportunity to do just that, and hear some incredible music while I was at it. 

SIKKA was staged in the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding this year. It’s a sprawling expanse of traditional Arabic buildings, wind towers and all, with narrow alleyways and small courtyards in between. It’s a stunning slice of days gone by and among the very few authentic Arabic experiences left in this city.

We arrived and were met at the door by a dude and his camel. I never bothered to ask what their deal was. I thought it might ruin the magic of a dude and his camel just lingering outside a venue. But I digress. The exhibits were all set up in the various buildings in the complex, each focusing on various issues such as environment, sex, love, skateboarding, politics, childhood and graffiti.

There were so many that we never got round all of them, but I did get to speak with a few of the artists.

One exhibit that caught my attention was a collection of humanoid statues, with big aluminium biscuit tins stuffed with women’s lingerie for heads. I had a chat with the sculptor who was staying in the hotel room (did I mention that a guest house comprised part of the gallery?) next to one of the statues. He was an Iraqi fella, the name of whom escaped me, but he was so typically artist-y in appearance. Long hair, scruffy beard, sort of hippie-like. I asked him what the story behind the statues was. His response nearly knocked me off my feet, it was so brutally honest.

“It’s basically about how relationships started to revolve solely around sex.” 

This guy had obviously had his heart broken by someone. There was so much resentment in his voice that it almost stung me and it was my first time meeting him.

I asked a few more stupid questions, mostly trying to fool him into thinking that I wasn’t just some dude who got lost and ended up in the gallery. I have no doubt that I failed but the guy was cool about it. I thanked him and got on my way.

The next exhibit wasn’t really an exhibit, but a tiny store that’s permanently set up at the venue. It’s an Arabic guy, soft spoken, welcoming and friendly, who basically carves blindingly intricate images out of sheets of brass, using a hammer, and tiny chisel and a huge imagination. He was hard at work on a portrait of Sheikh Hamdan, the crown prince of Dubai, when we got there. He was kind enough to tell us a bit about his work and allow me to photograph him doing his thing. He showed me around his shop and explained the process behind his work. I must have said things like “Wow”, “that’s amazing” and “incredible” no less than 50 times in just a few minutes. I’m not easily impressed, but this guy’s work was astounding. Buying one of his pieces has been added to my to-do list for this year.

The rest of the gallery (the bits that we saw anyway) was full of art, like paintings and statues and weird contemporary stuff like plastic water bottles hanging from the ceiling and a tree with light bulbs hanging from the branches. Art doesn’t talk, and I don’t know enough about it to talk for it. I’ll let you, the reader, take what you want from the photos accompanying this article.

Art’s a personal thing. I’m not a dick high school teacher telling you that you’re wrong because the piece drew different emotions from you than it did from me. I’m not that guy. Go ahead and enjoy the photos and feel whatever they make you feel, because I’m going to go ahead and move on to my favourite part – the music.

SIKKA has a history of setting the stage for local musicians to strut their stuff in front of an otherwise unobtainable audience. The way the organisers had it set up was great. Outdoor courtyard, tiny stage, ground covered in beanbags. Pick a bag, park your arse and enjoy the music. Nothing fancy – no gimmicks. Just music.

Not all of the bands were great, but with that setting, I’d happily lie and listen to Gilbert Gottfried farting through a saxophone. There’s something about a tiny venue that makes the music sound so much better. The acoustics were great, there were no fuckheads screaming or whistling and drowning out the music, nobody bumped into me, not even once, and it wasn’t so loud that it left me with a case of tinnitus. Everything was unplugged – another personal preference of mine. There were guys and gals from all over the world sharing that stage, and not one of them disappointed me. Some of the bigger bands were a little out of sync because they only had a few minutes to do sound checks and get a feel for their instruments, but the duets and solo artists were just awesome. I could have lay there all night, letting the music melt away my stress, but … Oh fuck, it’s 11.20pm and I have work tomorrow.

SIKKA, despite my only attending two of the five nights it ran, was a brilliant and very rare opportunity to interact with strangers who were in a place for the exact same reasons as me. It didn’t draw a huge crowd, which was both a shame and a blessing at the same time. I had a blast because I don’t function in crowds, but the artists didn’t quite get the exposure they were hoping for and deserved. I hope to see a bigger crowd at next year’s event. I for one wouldn’t miss it for the world.