Updated: Sep 20, 2020
Arab art. Islamic art. What do they mean and what is the difference? It seems to me that the entire field of Middle Eastern visual culture is woefully underappreciated and mis-understood by the global community. In this article I hope to provide a tiny glimpse of the excellence of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art, such that you will feel inspired to go and discover more about it in your own time.
Ettinghausen, the esteemed art historian, proposed that Islamic art is, simply, all art produced in the Islamic World irrespective of its religiosity or secularity. For the average layperson, however, we tend to categorize Islamic art as that of the Islamic past, encompassingcarpets, ceramics, manuscripts, textiles, works on paper and metalwork from the Islamic world from the mid-7th century to the 20th century. Yet, as with Europe in the 1860’s, the 1940’s saw the lexicon used to discuss art produced in the region commonly referred to as the ‘Middle East’ change. What was once Islamic was now Arab or Middle Eastern, while the traditional motifs of geometrical floral and vegetal designs began to be complemented by secular, western-inspired figurativism. In the post-war era, artists imbued with a sense of independence-inspired optimism sought to create art that advocated an Arab modernism predicated on ideological grounds rather than stylistic choices. In the first half of the 20thcentury, therefore, numerous movements arose across the region.
Egypt’s 1938 Art and Liberty Movement is perhaps the most well-known in the Western artistic community, thanks largely to the Tate Liverpool’s 2017-18 exhibition. Founded by writer and thinker Georges Henein, the movement consisted of artists (and writers and thinkers) rejecting nationalism and fascism in favour of individualism and independence of thought. More importantly, it marked the introduction of surrealism to the region and served as an indicator of the future of Middle Eastern modern (and contemporary) art, in which Western styles were incorporated into the canon of Islamic/Arab imagery. Subsequent movements of note include Sudan’s The Khartoum School of the 1960’s, Iraq’s The Pioneers and The Baghdad Modern Art Group (1950s), and the regional Hurufiyyas Movement, which incorporated traditional calligraphy with the precepts of modern art.
The Guard: oil on canvas by Mohamed Riyad Saeed. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation
As the region has experienced increasing wealth, regional collectors have emerged who are keen to support the cultural richesses of their collective pasts. Such renewed interest has led to an increasing demand for, and appreciation of, established artists such as Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Huguette Calande, Farhad Moshiri and Paul Guiragossian to name but four. Auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s now have dedicated Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Auctions held twice a year while galleries such as The Park Gallery in London cater solely to collectors of modern Middle Eastern masterpieces. However, the art-collecting culture is still in its infancy in the Middle East, with relatively few art-lovers having the disposable income or knowledge available to support emerging artists. Those who do collect remain focussed on the renowned modern artists of the 20thcentury and appear unwilling to invest in the artists of today.
La Lutte de l'Existence: oil on canvas by Paul Guiragossian. Courtesy of Christie's Auction House
It is here that social media plays its role. As globalisation continues, an emerging, increasingly young middle-class is coming to the fore. In the Middle East, where educated millennials are struggling with high local unemployment rates, increasing numbers of Middle Eastern labour migrants are moving to the UAE, Europe and the rest of the world for work. Now with a disposable income at hand, these young professionals are creating a market for young Middle Eastern artists. With mobile phones constantly stuck to our hands, apps such as Instagram and Facebook have provided outlets for young artists without representation to share their works with a wider audience. While such apps are awash with accounts promoting Western art and artists, it is shocking how few are focussed on the promotion of artists from the Middle East. I have worked with EMERGEAST, the world’s first online gallery dedicated entirely to promoting emerging Arab artists, for around a year and have witnessed first-hand the growth that it has undergone, expanding from 14 thousand to 21 thousand followers on Instagram in the last 12 months, proving that demand exists. On a more personal level, my own account @emerging_arab_art (feel free to give it a follow!) has also experienced growth over the same period, with Covid-19 pushing more art-enthusiasts online in order to experience the viewing sensation previously provided by brick-and-mortar museums and galleries. I shamelessly admit to spending hours trawling through Instagram, sourcing Arab artists who I believe have works that deserve to be seen by the wider artistic community. As time has gone on, I have witnessed my role as a passive enthusiast for contemporary Middle Eastern art slowly morph into an active member of the art community. Now, as well as posting regularly about artists that I engage with, I have begun brokering sales between collectors and artists, finding artists representation with galleries and collecting art myself.
As momentum for contemporary Middle Eastern Art starts building, therefore, I’d like to share with you three female, MENA artists who have captured my attention recently.
Arghavan Khosravi: Khosravi is an Iranian artist whose works are unlike anything I’ve seen before. Combining cotton canvas with found textile, she paints acrylic directly onto the textile material, resulting in unique works such as ‘The Anatomy of A Woman’.
The Anatomy of a Woman: Acrylic on cotton canvas and found textile mounted on two shaped wood panels, thread, mirror by Arghavan Khosravi. Courtesy of the artist.
Sara Shamma: Syrian artist Sarah Shamma’s practice focuses on death and humanity, expressed mainly through self-portraits and children painted in a life-like, visceral way. I particularly enjoy her ‘unfinished’ face sketches, which you can see below.
Eye 12: Oil and ink on canvas by Sara Shamma. Courtesy of the artist.
Alymameh Rashed: Kuwaiti artist Rashed says that she “investigates the discourse of her own body as a Muslima Cyborg, fluctuating between the east and the west. The Muslima Cyborg rests in a liminal spectacle that compartmentalizes the collective tangibility of the mind, the body, and the ornament.” Honestly, I’m not quite sure what this means, if you have any idea please let me know. From my perspective, her works are packed with details and action which you can spend hours trying to unravel. She also favours monumental canvasses, which I love!
I Repeat Myself to Catch My Missed Delight: Oil on wax fabric by Alymameh Rashed. Courtesy of the artist.
These three contemporary artists, and in fact all the works displayed in this article, serve to show the incredible diversity of art produced by Middle Eastern artists. While it is useful to be able to categorize art by region and era, it is important to do so under the acknowledgment that such labels do not satisfactorily reflect the variety of artistic endeavours taking place. The Middle East is a region whose modern and contemporary cultural wealth is painfully underappreciated, and I hope that in time we shall see it receive the global recognition it undoubtedly deserves.
Has this article piqued your interest? Here are some accounts to follow to see more MENA artists!