It is a good time to see art in the Arab world, and perhaps an even better time to be an Arab artist. The Sharjah Biennial is in full swing for the next two months (March 13–May 13), and Art Dubai opens on March 20 with the accompanying SIKKA 2013 and AiR Dubai programs providing showcases for local artists. At the same time, expectations are soaring over the work of Arab artists at May’s Venice Biennale, the combined Olympics and Oscars of the international art world. Why has art become such a big deal across the Arab world? Here are five good reasons:
#1 Collectors. In an age of mass culture, fine art is unusual in that it continues to depend upon an intimate connection between just two people: the artist and the collector. It is often a fraught relationship. Idealistic and rebellious artists do business with sharp speculators, multimillionaire industrialists, heiresses and princes. In the midst of a global recession, the Middle East is one of the few places where interest in art is growing and knowledgeable sympathetic collectors are on the increase. The big international art dealers have taken note and are opening galleries in the Middle East, as well as attending the region’s art events and fairs like those in Sharjah and Dubai.
# 2 Culture Tourism. This is the age of the ‘starchitects’—the star architects who provide eye-catching buildings that act as a billboard for cities and bring in tourists. But the buildings cannot simply be flashy or big, they also need content and meaning. Building museums brings in the kind of visitors who make a city a must-see destination. (It worked for grimy Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain, once associated with only fish, civil war and terrorism.) New museums are being planned and built from Palestine to the Gulf, including the ambitious Louvre Abu Dhabi.
#3 Internationalism: Since the dawn of modernism, art has been an international affair. Nineteenth century Paris attracted artists from across the world and ignited interest in global culture from Japanese prints to African masks, Russian composers to American Jazz. There was a time when Arabs seemed wary of a wider world but this is no longer true. With the rise of satellite broadcasting, digital media and political revolutions, the Arab experience embodies the great trends of the age. A diaspora of Arab artists, educated abroad and often the children of refugees, are well-placed to articulate this explosion onto the international stage. The huge success of the touring exhibition Edge Of Arabia shows that the Arab experience has a global resonance.
#4 Abstract-Conceptual: Many mainstream interpretations of Islam warn believers away from the depiction of human figures. In response, Arab artists traditionally embraced calligraphy and the decorative arts. But with the rise of conceptual art, Middle Eastern artists have engaged with fine art, finding ways to react to the world rather than to represent it, through digital and video art (such as that of the Saudi artist Ahmed Matar) but also through experiments in museum curation. The artists Walid Raad and Khalil Rabah, for instance, have mounted shows in order to launch historical analyses of Lebanon and Palestine, respectively.
#5 Wit: Modern art can seem cold and suspicious. Even celebratory pieces from pop artists like Warhol have a cool, sardonic edge. In comparison, the work of Arab artists is more reflexive and open, favoring the engaging wit of the diwan rather than the sarcastic put-down of the outsider. This can be seen in the video works of Kuwaiti Khalid Al-Gharaballi or Palestinian Larissa Sansour, or in conceptual works like Egyptian Raafat Ishak’s request to immigrate, sent to 194 governments. Maybe wit is the unifying theme beneath current Middle Eastern art—and the ultimate reason for its success.