Contemporary arts in the Arab World: A Virtual Majlis
Dubai copywriter and journalist Hisham Wyne puts together a rather long form article on contemporary arts in the Middle East. It runs the entire gamut of characters- from Antonia of Art Dubai to Jack of Sharjah Bienalle, Wissan of Qatar's Mathaf, William of Lawrie Shabibi and Isabelle of Christie's. For Shawati Magazine.
Contemporary Art in the Arab world: A virtual majlis
A simple investigation of the contemporary art movement in the Arab world is enough to ensure the discerning stenographer of a cacophony of medleys. Contemporary expression is not a simple construct but rather a composite of self-expression, ideas, stimuli and reactions, communicated through a variety of media.
There is an articulation of various influences, and the flow of ideas and creation is influenced by factors so broad and nuanced that the nature of Arab art is constantly changing; its flux making it hard if not downright irresponsible to pigeonhole it.
In fact, according to Antonia Carver, curator of Art Dubai, any attempt to define the genre of Arab contemporary arts is merely borne out of the need to package it as a discrete, marketable item. “In a way, there was no such thing (and arguably there isn’t now) as “Middle Eastern art.” It’s a just convenient umbrella term. The description’s widespread use is relatively recent; its prevalence rising in the past 15 years as international interest in the region increased dramatically.” She says that it became desirable and convenient to think of the region as producing a single artistic phenomenon. However, contemporary artists in the region, as well as the diaspora, work in a variety of media and styles. They are influenced by history, politics and their personal lives, much like artists anywhere else in the world. “What they share is a connection to a continent with an intertwined history and a common language, ” she says.
William Lawrie, Director of Lawrie Shabibi, seems to concur with the assessment that the idea of a unified regional art scene is a stretch. He notes that contemporary Middle Eastern artists work with painting and sculpture but are increasingly also experimenting with new media such as video. There is no one discernable influence: ideas range from those recognizably part of the region’s calligraphy traditions to more international expressiveness through abstract painting and photography.
Isabelle de la Bruyère, Director, Middle East, Christie’s, seems to hold a similar viewpoint. She says that while some artists work with calligraphy, offering historical references and iconography familiar to the region, others offer figurative interpretations. The more daring push at the very boundaries of stereotype using cutting-edge video or installation art. “The contemporary Middle-Eastern art scene is rich in innovation but as is often the case in art, it often also draws on the past, and herewith the rich history of Islamic culture,” she says.
Jack Persekian, Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, believes there’s little to choose from between Middle Eastern art and the rest of the world. With influences coming in from the West and an intermingling of ideas and narratives, there is little that is stereotypically Arab or Middle Eastern.
Wissan Al-Khuweiri, Director of Mathaf’s Arab Museum of Modern Art, is particularly testy when asked what contemporary art in the Middle
East means. “It means what it means everywhere else in the world.” The process of international exchange has meant that contemporary art from the Arab world is in a process of constant engagement with art from elsewhere, leading to a broad convergence. It is rather the market, says Al Khuweiri, that tries to impose certain preconceived notions on what Middle Eastern contemporary arts might include. “People looking for certain cues in a piece of work will usually find them if they try hard enough,” she says. Every artist in the Middle East has their own approach, and tries to bring who they are to their work. They can identify themselves as Arab if they choose to, but only if they choose to. Al-Khuweiri believes that audiences should allow artists to define themselves as opposed to fitting pre-conceived cognitive frameworks onto them.
Carver of Art Dubai and Lawrie of Lawrie Shabibi concur with this assessment. Regional art carries the influence of key artists from the West because many Arab artists have attended art schools in Europe and Russia. There is a synthesis of local and international sensibilities, creating a hybrid where it’s difficult to pin down individual artists. This can be an issue for Western art critics, says Carver, who might be able to see the various influences and discern a linear history but find it difficult to place works in a specific time or place.
There is a perception that Arab artists work in the mien of their Western counterparts, using international ideas and tailoring them to regional sensibilities and happenings. That is not the case. Carver believes artists in the contemporary genre are subject to a barrage of ideas and the process of influence is likely to be one of exchange, because Arab artists also influenced European ones when they attended schools there. De la Bruyère concurs, saying that artists in the region are in no way passive recipients of outside influences. Persekian demurs. He believes that Western ideas have import for the Arab world, because successful artists want to be showcased internationally, in cities known for their art, and attract collectors. It’s not so much individuals that influence art here, but the market. This is a crucial point, according to him.
While contemporary artists are determined to explore a rich synthesis of ideas and influences, the vagaries of the market can often impose a controlling influence. Carver says, “The visibility in the Gulf has tended to be the most commercial artists, because we lack public, not-for-profit contemporary art spaces that take risks and show artists that are complex, but that is changing – often with individual patrons taking action themselves – for instance, the likes of Sultan Al Qassemi, Dr Farhad Farjam, Rami Farook and others.”
Persekian of the Sharjah Art Foundation believes that artists hoping to make a living tend to follow the market. He believes still painting remains the most dominant and commercially viable form of contemporary art, due to its ease of acquisition and display in collectors’ homes. The market favours that art form, which means many artists will gravitate to it. Art, after all, is often produced to commercial demand, he says, which means market forces play a hefty role in negotiating the final product.
Yet galleries are increasingly interspersing commercial shows with others that don’t necessary bow to market whims. Lawrie notes that calligraphic works might have been the first off the mark in terms of market value, being readily identifiable as from the region, but tastes are changing. Collectors are increasingly looking for more challenging art. Works influenced by pop art and conceptual minimalism are entering the commercial fray.
De la Bruyère of Christie’s points to an interesting discourse occurring in local markets. Buyers throughout the region are becoming infatuated with art from neighbouring countries, crossing borders both physical and conceptual to include a diversity of art in the
ir collections. “Over the last three years we have seen Arab buyers of Iranian art, Indian buyers of Arab art, and now Iranians and Arab art collectors looking towards Turkey. The market is not reliant on a single group of buyers or particular region or country in the world anymore, which gives it dynamism and breadth.”
Middle Eastern contemporary art is being negotiated through a dichotomy that pits artists’ creativity and self-expression against the demands of critics anxious to find a peg for their opinions, and buyers wanting commercially viable art. Yet the two strands aren’t necessarily divergent. Markets are becoming more nuanced, informed, open and interconnected. As the idea of stereotyping contemporary Arab art dilutes itself, artists will have more commercial freedom to express themselves while exploring new ideas and art forms.
So when left to their own devices, hopefully with a market that appreciates diversity, what ideas and influences might contemporary Arab artists explore? The general consensus is that contemporary art continues to explore historical elements of identity while being a window into the new tensions that form the social tapestry of the region. On the historical front, Lawrie notes that art in the region long been influenced by social and political factors, such as anti-colonialism in the mid-20th century. In the contemporary milieu, economic factors undoubtedly play a role.
Persekian is in broad agreement, saying art in general is informed by unfolding events. Wars, uprisings, liberation movements, nationalism, women’s rights have all helped shape Arab art. At present juncture, the trend seems to be towards a conservative tilt in social attitudes. Contemporary art either reflects them, or rebels. Carver, while acknowledging some truth behind a convergence of discourse, warns against generalizing overtly. “It’s a cliché that Lebanese artists are only obsessed with war, but there’s an element of truth in that many of these artists have been able to articulate the civil wars and the aftermath of the wars in a way that no other sector of society has, and they continue to do so. At the same time, it’s wrong to pigeonhole them as being one-dimensional in some way, as many of them relate their practice to the history of art, medium, texture, and so on. It’s almost impossible to generalize the whole region.”
Al-Khuweiri too warns against searching too deeply for general meta-narratives. She believes influences are individual, and interchangeable. Arab artists are no different from their international counterparts in that they interpret a wide range of stimuli through their work.
Roxane Zand, Sothebys’ Director for the Middle East and Gulf acknowledges that nations will have their own identity, preoccupations and concerns. So too has the Arab world seen broad unities and commonalities. Yet, Arab artists have mostly strived for diverse self-expression: the works of interesting artists such as Ahmed Mater explore highly personal and intimate themes while others like Youssef Nabil and Essaoudi remain committed to examining the place of women in society. Lara Baladi has excelled at using patterns and complexities, just as Hefuna has unravelled the visual potentials of the mashraba. While personal and political themes abound, unified movements and schools of art are still hard to identify in a diverse region with individualistic growth. “Where twentieth century movements in Western art were often launched through manifestos and as post-effects of the Industrial Revolution or the Second World War, contemporary Middle Eastern art may well find itself indebted to the technological, digital and cyber-revolutions we are currently witnessing. We are only just now seeing a more structured critical and artistic discourse emerging from this period of rapid change.” The macrocosm is being supported by published work in magazines and newspapers, panels, debates and conferences that further discourse around contemporary arts.
It’s not just published work and debate that is sprouting around the nascent contemporary art environment. There is also a slow mushrooming of curatorial organizations both independent and government financed. The UAE has Bidoun, Ashkal Alwan, Sharjah Biennial and the ACAF while independent art houses are sprouting in cities like Cairo and Beirut. New cultural institutions are slowly putting down roots in the Middle East, like Doha’s Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf), and the forthcoming Guggenheim and Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Concurrently, major art exhibitions such as Abu Dhabi Art and Art Dubai are cultivating a mix of the commercial and experimentation. These gatherings tend to become a focal point for expertise from the world over, resulting in a further melding of the local, regional and international.
Government authorities are also playing a role in patronizing the arts - TDIC and the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, for instance, are playing active roles in catalyzing and supporting broader artistic outreach. Thanks to a congruence of independent and governmental support, contemporary arts in the region is making global inroads. For instance, 2009 saw the UAE participate at the La Biennale di Venizia (the Venice Biennial). The transient sands of contemporary arts are being gathered in the hourglass of institutional support.
At the same time, private collectors are playing an increasingly active role in the public eye. They have always been involved in shaping the socio-cultural and contemporary art discourse by exercising purchasing power and shaping market sentiment. They are now opening their collections to public viewing and contributing to the public appreciation of diversity. In the UAE, Sultan Saood Al Qassmi, Rami Farook and Dr. Farjam are well known figures in the art world, and their collections are displayed through a number of public exhibitions. They act as an essential bridge between esoteric art and public consciousness. This is not a new phenomenon: Zand of Sotheby’s notes that the sudden rise of art patrons in medieval times, such as Emperor Jahangir in India or the Medicis in Italy attracted flocks of artists to their courts. Today’s artists are no different, and naturally gravitate towards opportunities to explore their creative impulses, as well as earn a livelihood from it. Economic power and wealth has invariably been at the root of artistic growth, and collectors remain highly influential in this regard.
Contemporary arts in the Middle East are on the rise, but there remain hurdles. Zand believes that an important concern Middle Eastern artists is to generate and push forward their own idiom, their own voice that is neither solely confined to ethnic roots nor purely imitative of the West. “For instance, it will be interesting to see the evolution of the treatment of calligraphy,” she says. Art is always pushing new frontiers, begging fresh perspectives, and Middle Eastern artists now face the challenge of innovating. Carver of Art Dubai believes that organic, paced growth is the next challenge. Space to grow and experiment needs to be available without experimentation being fetishized. There is also the difficulty posed by the ambiguous role of organizations commissioning public work, and how far they might be willing to go in pursuing funding ideas and not mere products. For Persekian, the challenge regional artists face is to not become a parody of themselves. The best contem
porary art in the region is fresh and surprising, he says, but the formulas of more successful artists are sometimes imitated without the underlying concepts. Aesthetics without the necessary metaphysics behind them lead to hollow constructs.
Last, there is the issue of engaging the wider public, and exciting the imagination of the youth that will form the next generation of artists. Contemporary arts in the Middle East is rather like caviar – perhaps a delicacy, but one appreciated only by a few. For contemporary arts to engage with public consciousness, the cliquish qualities of art connoisseurship must end.
This is where engaging with educational institutions is paramount. Not only will these places of learning foster a new generation of artists, but also introduce art to a wider, more youthful, audience. Persekian says the Sharjah Art Foundation considers educational institutions its main constituencies. “They’re our collaborators, partners and first reference points.” At the heart of it, art foundations, museums and educational institutions are all engaged in education and the generation of knowledge. Al-Khuweiri is firmly convinced that educational institutions are the key to regional artistic development through scholarship, visual literacy and a broader negotiation of ideas. Zand believes that educational spaces are essential, but that the definition of ‘educational space’ can also be widely interpreted: spaces that offer opportunities for new artists to display their work can be educational in their own right. Bierut’s Taskheil, Doha’s Education City, H.H. Sheikha Moza’s Qatar Education Foundation, Abu Dhabi’s TDIC and ADACH and Dubai’s Culture & Arts Authority are all playing roles in catalyzing engagement and education.
Carver of Art Dubai believes that education institutions remain the missing link in the evolution of regional arts, for all that international universities such as the NYU have made their way to Dubai. “In an ideal world, we would reinvent the institution in the Gulf, reinvent the western model of an art school, into something that was tailor-made for the Gulf and the Arab world, rather than import models that already exist elsewhere,” she says. Lawrie also believes that art education is essential. He notes that many artists study abroad, and then choose to stay there and hence become part of the diaspora. Increased access to contemporary art, through museums, galleries, fairs and auctions will hopefully increase the number of aspiring artists closer to home, and encourage a more serious approach to art education.
Assuming that educational spaces continue to form, both through governmental endeavour and organic growth, and art keeps evolving, what might the regional artscape resemble in a decade? There is little consensus, for, as Zand aptly puts it, art mirrors life and is mostly a reflection of current preoccupations and trends. The trends shaping Arab art in the future remain anyone’s guess. But Persekian believes that one thing is certain. Art a decade hereon will be far more inspired by local preferences and influences as opposed to the international, as local markets and educational institutions hit critical mass and artists aspire to live, create and exhibit within the region. Carver agrees, believing artists will change as the region does. They will gain the confidence to lead rather than ape the market, while cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi will emerge as market centres and hubs of ideas, entrepreneurship and debate that will shape their art. Finally, de la Bruyère says collectors will play an increasing role in the future. They will become more focused on contemporary art as they gain confidence in the field and along with government, private and institutional initiatives, will carry contemporary Arab from strength to strength in the next decade.