Onwards and Upwards

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Over the past five years the world has begun looking to the Middle East for contemporary art. The considerable rise in official arts funding and the competitive building of national profiles by cultural sectors that are vying for the international spotlight have prompted notable developments in the Gulf, in such places as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Doha. Amidst plans for the establishment of branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in the UAE, blue-chip commercial galleries have also popped up, while auction house giants such as Christie’s have been shaping a newly introduced art market since 2006. Although the emergence of the Gulf art scene has been both praised and criticized, one thing that can’t be debated is its immense impact on the rest of the region.

Leading cultural hubs such as Cairo and Beirut have had to reassess their positions, with artists and cultural practitioners seizing the opportunity to gain international support for their initiatives, and gallerists working diligently to lure foreign clients. Outstanding, long-established organizations and art spaces such as Lebanon’s Ashkal Alwan and Egypt’s Townhouse Gallery, which have shaped local contemporary art with cutting edge initiatives despite receiving little to no backing, are now regulars in the global art circuit. This growing attention has also benefited from the rising profiles of artists, namely those belonging to Lebanon’s “post-war” generation who began working with new media in the mid 1990s and a small group of Palestinians in the diaspora who frequently work in the territories but are active in the Western art world.

With this momentum has come a wave of events and projects aimed at sustaining interest. First came the blockbuster exhibits, organized by colossal institutions such as the British Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Notwithstanding problematic curatorial approaches, these sought to serve as openings to prominent contemporary artists and art scenes. In the beginning, virtually every high-profile venue was organizing an exhibit or symposium that dealt with North Africa and West Asia. Now that the global art world has been saturated with exposure to Arab and Iranian artists the next step has been the publication of texts on the subject.

Somewhere within this frenzied ascension of the region as a cultural hotspot, the idea that artists and cultural practitioners were working within a vacuum went from something that was mentioned in passing amongst overworked curators and nonprofit heads to an accepted truth that the international art world quickly latched onto, then twisted into the presumption that the region is lacking in art historical scholarship and art criticism in general.

Two texts that have surfaced within this context are Saatchi Gallery’s Unveiled: New Art From the Middle East and Saeb Einger’s Art of the Middle East: Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran. Both produced in London, they reflect varying levels of engagement.

Unveiled: New Art From the Middle East, which accompanied an exhibition organized by the maverick London-based gallery, opens with an introduction by Lisa Farjam, the founder and editor in chief of the glossy arts and culture magazine Bidoun. Since its inception in 2004, the periodical has seen its fair share of fans and detractors, covering a select group of artists and events while carving out a niche for itself amidst the upper echelons of Emirati society. Farjam’s contribution offers a quick, scant insight into the formation of modern and contemporary art scenes in the Arab world and Iran while attempting to shed light on how artists are debunking long-held stereotypes. The only form of writing that appears in the book, it is informative enough and fares well as a glimpse into the art scene for novices.

From Farjam’s entry onward Unveiled offers stunning reproductions of paintings, installations and photographs by young, emerging artists who are mostly known in the UAE and have just begun attracting international art practitioners. Perhaps the most well known artist is Iranian Shadi Ghadirian, whose iconic works are at once quick-witted and stinging. Her “Like EveryDay Series” photographs of a chador-clad figure, whose face is hidden by ordinary objects such as a broom or teakettle, have become synonymous with the Middle Eastern art scene and the feminist-oriented work that foreign curators salivate over. This does not take away from the brilliance of Ghadirian’s images but rather points to a trend in the ways in which the global art world has been assessing these artists, the Saatchi Gallery included.

Flipping through the oversized catalog, it quickly becomes apparent that the prominent British art space sought to fulfill a particular curatorial slant—the featured works are dark, heavily influenced by prominent American and European artists such as Phillip Guston, Francis Bacon, Anselm Kiefer and Mona Hatoum, and are all overtly political. Several artists deal with sexual repression and gender issues, while the remaining address topics of war and political conflict. Although these subjects are frequently explored and are of the utmost importance, they also happen to be what the West has designated as exclusively representing the region, acting as a ubiquitous cultural lens that is used to reinforce prevailing notions of the Arab world and Islam. Although Farjam is correct in insisting that the works of Unveiled “mark one step in moving beyond the magic of the fetish,” the Saatchi Gallery’s definition of “new art from the Middle East” seems to suggest otherwise.

Taking a different vantage point is philanthropist and businessman Saeb Eigner, whose Art of the Middle East reflects an interest that goes beyond sensationalism. With the assistance of a research team and the consultation of a number of artists, galleries and curators based in Beirut, Cairo, Tehran, Doha and Dubai, Eigner was able to put together a survey that includes over 200 artists and 450 images. This is unprecedented, and although impressive in its scope—from early modernists in Egypt such as Mahmoud Said (1897-1963) to budding contemporary Lebanese artists like Oussama Baalbaki (b. 1978)—there are significant gaps in the book’s coverage.

Take for example the exclusion of such seminal figures as Palestinian painter Suleiman Mansour, Lebanese new media artist Lamia Joreige and Omani painter and conceptualist Hassan Meer. Not only have these three artists created work that has influenced subsequent generations, they have also been crucial to the development of their respective art scenes. Mansour co-founded the highly respected Al-Wasiti Art Center in the 1990s and now teaches at the International Academy of Art Palestine in the West Bank; Joreige has recently co-founded the acclaimed Beirut Art Center, and Meer has fostered the use of new media and installation work in the Gulf with his “Circle” art symposiums that have brought an exciting selection of artists to Muscat. Many in the diaspora have also been overlooked, most notably Emily Jacir, who lives and works between New York and Ramallah and whose recent success has brought enormous attention to Palestinian art.

Further giving Art of the Middle East a disjointed feel is the book’s organization of the artists it does include. Reading more like an extended version of the catalog that accompanied the British Museum’s group exhibition “Word into Art” (2006), of which Eigner was a senior adviser, than a comprehensive survey, art works are divided according to sweeping topics such as the use of calligraphy and portraiture. This can be confusing for a reader that is unfamiliar with those that are featured and does a disservice to the chronicling of Middle Eastern art in general, as it limits our understanding of significant careers, trends and schools.

Brief analysis of artists and their work is given through paragraphs that highlight how they fit particular themes and is presented alongside reproductions, an aspect that is fitting for an auction catalog, not a publication that seeks to be authoritative. Although Eigner provides an important insight into the development of art since the modern period, it comes in the form of a short introduction. In the end his examination is bogged down by images that are in dire need of an art historical framework.

In order for the international community to begin to understand the vibrant creative landscape that has shaped Arab and Iranian art, these types of publications must place more attention on the chronicling of movements, artistic developments and the progression of local art scenes. It is then that art from the region will be properly recognized.

Unveiled: New Art From the Middle East

by Saatchi Gallery

Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2009


Art of the Middle East: Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran

by Saeb Einger

Merrell Publishers Limited, 2010


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