Sylvain Gaillard, Swiss-born Director of Opera Gallery Dubai, is a creative visionary. Not only does he oversee Dubai’s installation of one of the twenty-first century’s most important cultural institutions, but his most recent exhibition, Urban Poetry, is an exercise in the masterful balance between the commercial and intellectual interests of high-net-worth modern and contemporary art collectors.
Curating a highly exclusive collection, Urban Poetry showcases work from some of the world’s most prolific and influential street artists: Blek le Rat, Os Gemeos, Stink Fish, London Police, and eL Seed, to name a few; more importantly, the exhibition is part of a larger transition in urban contemporary art from graffiti to street art and from street art to asset class; we know that because Banksy’s Girl with Balloon-cum-Love is in the Bin, initially sold for $1.8 million, is now worth an estimated $2.8 million; and while an original Blek le Rat may not go for the same as a Modigliani or Giacometti, what the art industry’s 212% growth since 2008 makes abundantly clear, is that the boundaries around which art, money, and value have been traditionally demarcated, are themselves becoming less so.
“For a very long time,” Gaillard tells Upscale Living, “we’ve always compartmentalized things. That’s contemporary, that’s post-art, that’s impressionist … the hierarchy of an oil on canvas is inherently better than a gouache on canvas than a piece on paper. We live in interesting times because this is being broken down. And although Banksy has nothing to do with my exhibition, what happened at Sotheby’s was the best example. You can’t box things in anymore. Art is art.”
One, however, need not necessarily be versed in Picasso or Renoir to enjoy them. From their wildly successful 2015 Icons of Art show to their equally dynamic 2017 Gold exhibition, Dubai’s response to Opera Gallery group shows has been overwhelming. And yet, with such successful exhibitions behind them, a “street show” was not in the gallery’s repertoire.
When asked about the inspiration for the current show, the Northeastern MBA grad was clear. “I love street art,” Gaillard says, “and I collect street art. It’s always easier to work with something that speaks to you. I picked these artists for a very specific reason, more than what they represent visually,” he adds. “There is something deeper behind their art.”
Graffiti’s metamorphosis into street art has always been about more than tagging walls. What was once freedom of expression has now become a responsive instrument that dignifies people in otherwise undignified conditions. Blek le Rat, the “Father of stencil graffiti”, for example, is most noted for his painted stencils of rats, calling them “the only free animal in society.” His artwork birthed an entire generation of graffiti and guerilla artists from Speedy Graphito to Miss Tic, and Futura 2000. That the “rat” is a symbol of art itself should not be lost on anyone.
French-Tunisian Calligraffiti artist, eL Seed, as Gaillard notes, “is always socially-engaged and doesn’t do calligraphy for the sake of doing calligraphy.” His use of Arabic graffiti transcends language through projects like Perception, a piece covering 50 buildings visible only from Cairo’s Muqattam Mountain and, what’s more, his TED talks inspire millions.
Stink Fish, by way of Bogotá, Columbia chimes in. “I work from the perspective of free public space, trying to recover the street as a place to make information available to everyone. Different from advertising and institutional information,” he tells Upscale Living, “my work lives in the street … I also work with ideas about transit, borders, and equality. Anybody can be portrait on a wall because everybody is important. That´s why I use materials that tell stories.”
Nevertheless, art auction and collection is still a big boy’s game; all of the artists chosen for the exhibition have, in their own way, helped to take street art from the walls of cities to the walls of galleries; a discerning collector that spends 300k a year on art will spend 300k, but it must be for the work of tried and true masters; and while Blek le Rat, el Seed, and Stink Fish pieces can be “viewed in the wild,” their canvas works sell for 6 figures as buyers look for more creative ways to invest.
Opera Gallery Dubai’s place in the city’s evolving art market opens a door of sorts. One behind which locals, expats, and passersby alike can peek, thus becoming more and more intimate with the mind-blowing vastness of street art while, at the same time, learning more about themselves. But isn’t that the purpose of art anyway? In the end, though: “art is the great equalizer,” Gaillard says. “Whether you are eight or eighty, it will always find you.”