Making an Impact

The work of artists from Arab and North African countries is thriving, complex, and increasingly visible on the international scene.

French-Algerian artist Kader Attia's aluminum-foil Ghost, 2007.


Contemporary art from the Islamic Middle East is being positioned as the art market’s newest and hottest trend. Fueled in large part by art developments in the Emirates–the Louvre and Guggenheim projects in Abu Dhabi, art fairs there and in Dubai, the Sharjah Biennial, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar–millions of dollars are being spent on work by artists from the region, living both in and outside of the Middle East. In the past few years, Sotheby’s and Christie’s have initiated sales of art by Arab and Iranian artists, in London and Dubai. Major Western museums, such as the Tate and the Guggenheim, have hired specialists in the field, and in cities as diverse as Cairo, Beirut, Istanbul, and Tehran, galleries are now promoting these artists. While publicists and government officials are calling this a cultural renaissance, other people are more skeptical. One thing is certain: many artists born in the Middle East are making an impact on the international scene, creating artworks that offer new and more complex views of the region.

“There are two caricatures of the situation,” says Lebanese-born conceptual artist Walid Raad, 43. “One says this is purely cynical, that these sheiks are just using culture as a cloak to diversify their economy away from hydrocarbon to tourism. The second says, no, this is a sign of Arab renaissance, with young leaders, tired of the old ways, trying to democratize taste through culture–and then they will democratize other aspects of the society.”

Last year was a big one for new art from the Middle East. The Venice Biennale featured pavilions and collateral exhibitions, with art from Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and–for the first time–Iran, the Emirates, and Palestine. In January, the Saatchi Gallery in London opened “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East,” a show of 21 artists, including Kader Attia, Tala Madani, and Sara Rahbar. A few months later, the Chelsea Art Museum presented “Iran Inside Out,” underscoring the extent to which Iranian artists, living in and outside of the country, are receiving the bulk of attention that is being devoted to Middle Eastern artists. High-profile auctions confirm the trend. (Although Israeli artists are often included in exhibitions of Middle Eastern art, their work is generally considered a separate market category.)

In October 2009, Sotheby’s London introduced into its evening contemporary sale a section devoted to Arab and Iranian art that brought in a total of $1.88 million for 45 lots. And since 2006 Christie’s has been holding auctions in Dubai of international modern and contemporary art, primarily from Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, reaching $6.7 million in sales in October 2009.

Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri, who shows with Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris, Thaddaeus Ropac in Salzburg, Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller in New York, and the Third Line in Dubai, is the market leader in contemporary Middle Eastern art, with one work, Eshgh (Love, 2007), bringing in slightly more than $1 million at Bonhams Dubai in March 2008. His vibrant diptych Cowboy and Indian (2007) sold for $646,644 at Sotheby’s London in 2009. At auction, Moshiri outperforms even the best-known artists from the Middle East, including Iranian-born Shirin Neshat, who achieved a record $265,000, for a 1997 photograph; Egyptian-born Ghada Amer, whose record is $120,000; and Lebanese-born Mona Hatoum, whose record is $217,000.

At least one artist whose work was offered at the Sotheby’s London sale last October voiced an objection. In a column on, the Iranian-born Kamrooz Aram called the label “Arab and Iranian Art” a “misleading and irresponsible category,” stating that “these efforts at categorization all exhibit signs of what we might call Neo-Orientalism.” He wrote, “The intentions are at once benevolent, generous and apparently progressive, and yet their benevolence and generosity are underwritten by a continued need/desire to control and create a mythology of the East as other.” Aram, who shows at Perry Rubenstein Gallery in New York, was, like many artists from the region, educated in the West; he earned an M.F.A. from Columbia University in 2003 and lives in the United States. When asked about Aram’s comments, Sotheby’s specialist Dalya Islam replied, “Artists don’t necessarily like to be ghettoized, but that’s not what we are doing at all. These sales are very much a springboard for lots of artists.” Aram, whose works sell for between $6,000 and $35,000 at his gallery exhibitions, found no takers for his work at the sale, where estimates ranged from £12,000 to £18,000 (about $18,000 to $27,000).

Attia, 40, a French artist of Algerian descent, fully embraces his Middle Eastern identity. “As I grew up between France and Algeria, I definitely feel I am part of the diaspora, which actually allows me to speak about both,” he says. “For me, the category of Middle Eastern artist isn’t a limitation. It is something that belongs to your history and the way that history is going to represent your work.” Attia’s installation Ghost (2007) was the star of the Saatchi show. In it, chador-cloaked women, fashioned from aluminum foil and lined up in rows, appear to be kneeling in prayer when viewed from behind; seen from the other side, it is clear that the cloaks are empty. “Attia spoke to me about his mother, how she was important in his development, and he realized he had never done anything about her,” says Elizabeth Brown, chief curator at Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, which exhibited the piece in March 2008. “He is engaging with the subjectivity of female subjects, which is a complicated issue in the Middle East, where, at least in many stereotypes and many manifestations of the culture, women do not have a voice.”

But Attia, one of whose works sold for $90,000, a record for him, at Christie’s New York in 2007, is sensitive to the fact that Algeria’s history has set the country apart culturally from the Middle East. “This is a very important question, because in the beginning, until the seventh century, North Africa was not Arab; it was a country of Berbers,” says Attia, who often makes works exploring a mixture of religious traditions–Christianity, Judaism, and Islam–that coexisted in his ancestral homeland for many centuries. “In the Western world, we have a monolithic vision of the Arab world, as if it is the same thing from Rabat to Baghdad, but it is not,” he says. His concern about stereotyping the Middle East is shared by curators in the field. The Tate held a one-day conference on the topic in January 2009, addressing such issues as: How do we define the Middle East? What role does the diaspora play in defining contemporary Middle Eastern culture? Can the Middle East be understood as a fixed physical entity, or does it have a dynamic and shifting identity, molded by changing historical, social, and political realities?

“Half of our conference was about what terminology we should use, and I completely agree that ‘Middle East’ is not always the best term to use,” says Frances Morris, head of international art collections at Tate Modern. How do curators deal with outlining the parameters of a field that covers such a vast geographic territory and diversity of cultures? “We are very inclusive, and we love fuzzy borders,” says Morris. The British Museum and Tate Modern have formed the Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee (Menaac), co-chaired by Maryam Homayoun-Eisler, a Tehran-born, London-based collector, and Maya Rasamny, a collector and judge of the Dubai-based Abraaj Capital Art Prize. Among Menaac’s first acquisitions are Beirut Caoutchouc (2004) by Lebanese artist Marwan Rechmaoui, and three works by Attia. Noting that certain speakers at the conference questioned whether this well-intentioned initiative might be seen as a kind of British neo-colonialism in the region, Morris replies, “I am very sensitive to that, but from my perspective, London is the most multicultural city in the world, and if we only think about our own home audience, we have to do this.”

“Why now? Why not ten years ago?” asks Ghada Amer, who has been showing her work since the mid-’90s. “I was so happy when I arrived in the United States, because no one knew what was an Arab and what was a Muslim,” says Amer, 47, who left Egypt when she was eleven, living in Paris before moving to New York. But, Amer points out, that all changed with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. She believes that the curatorial interest in artists with Islamic backgrounds was piqued by those events.

Madani, 29, finds that, similarly, interest in artists from Iran has increased since the protests after the 2009 election and the Green Movement made front-page news. Madani, who shows with Lombard-Freid Projects in New York, grew up during the Iran-Iraq war and now lives in Oregon, where she moved with her mother in 1994. She returns to Iran every year to visit her father. “If I had not gone to Oregon, I probably would have not become a painter, because it’s the clash of cultures that has inspired my art making,” she says. She is best known for her satirical, cartoonlike paintings of Middle Eastern men in positions that could be viewed as sexual or as forms of torture. Featured in the Saatchi show, she will participate in September’s “The Future of Tradition–The Tradition of Future” at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, a centennial celebration of the landmark exhibition “Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art,” held in Germany in 1910. “I romanticize Iran,” Madani says. “It is very common for young emigrants to do that. You have been dislocated, so you keep looking back.”

Madani was initially surprised when she was given opportunities to show in Iran in recent years. She now describes the situation as complex. Tehran has a thriving art scene, with a contemporary-art museum and almost 200 galleries supported by local collectors, according to New York gallerist Leila Heller. At the same time, the current regime is arresting and imprisoning artists. Concern is so widespread that even those living in the United States were reluctant to be interviewed for this article. Arario Gallery in New York weighed in with “The Promise of Loss: A Contemporary Index of Iran,” which included several artists still living in Iran, such as Abbas Kowsari, Amin Nourani, and Mandana Moghaddam, none of whom shied away from engaging with topical issues, such as women’s rights and the impact of globalization.

Architect and artist Siah Armajani does not hold back. Armajani, who was born in 1939 and has lived in the United States since 1960, created the installation Murder in Tehran (2009), exhibited at Max Protetch Gallery last November. It was inspired by the death of a protestor who had been chopped up, her body parts scattered in shallow graves. The work is a frightening black structure that sits atop a pile of ground glass with castings of dismembered hands. At the opening of the show, many younger Iranian artists declined to be interviewed by Voice of America, which broadcasts underground in Tehran. “The people who are running the country are a bunch of thugs, murderers, and criminals, and nothing stops them from killing any form of opposition in Iran,” said Armajani in a recent interview. “It is a very, very crystal-clear case of a barbaric regime taking over a country of 70 million people,” he told ARTnews.

Museum projects, biennials, art fairs, and auction houses are, for the first time, providing an art infrastructure, enabling curators and collectors to access information and acquire artworks. “Abu Dhabi would be at the top of the list of the reasons why the Middle East sparked great interest,” says Jack Persekian, artistic director of the Sharjah Biennial. He is referring not only to the $400 million Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, opening in 2013, and to its companion, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, part of the $27 billion cultural district on Saadiyat Island, but also to the emirates’ many government-supported initiatives, including the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Tourism Development and Investment Company, both of which are pouring millions into art acquisitions. Dubai runs a close second to Abu Dhabi in terms of money being spent on contemporary art, even with its current real-estate crisis. Dubai International Capital, a government-owned investment fund, has been spending lavishly. It supports Art Dubai, an art fair that organizes an extensive network of education programs and residencies, and that distributes the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, a $1 million annual award.

The effect of this influx of money has become a subject for the conceptual artist Raad, best known for projects that question the ability of art to record and capture the violence of society. Recently the artist has been delivering lectures on Abu Dhabi as performances, including giving gallery walk-throughs at his fall 2009 show at Paula Cooper in New York. “I am not really interested in determining whether these sheikhs are cynical or enlightened; I am just trying to figure out what new esthetic facts are going to be made possible by the advent of this infrastructure,” says Raad. When offered an opportunity to show in Beirut at Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Raad initially refused, all too aware that the gallery was in a neighborhood where the 1982 Beirut massacres had occurred. In response, he presented a miniature, scale model of an exhibition, arguing that history overshadows his artworks to such an extent that they are rendered practically invisible.

Nuanced and complex art has emerged from even the most war-torn countries in recent years. The show “The Thousand and One Nights: Contemporary Artists from Palestine” at Postmasters Gallery in New York in July 2009 included a self-portrait by photographer Hanna Farah-Kufer Bir’im depicting the artist standing under the one remaining arch of his grandfather’s home, a subtle indictment of his relatives’ expulsion from their native village of Kufer Bir’im during the 1948 war. Sharif Waked’s “Jericho First” (2002), a series of 30 small canvases featuring a lion and an antelope struggling and progressively losing their forms until they turn into a big, red, bloody ellipse, is a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Artists from Iraq are also moving to the foreground. Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery, a leader in introducing artists from the Middle East to New York, presented “Beyond the War: Seven Expatriate Iraqi Artists” last month. “It is different from country to country, but definitely politics somehow overshadows the whole region and is prominently featured in the art,” says Persekian. “The instability, the growing conflicts, the rise and prominence of certain radical fronts–these are concerns for intellectuals in these countries and certainly the artists.”

Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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