The Other Middle East

Suhair Sibai, Open Would (2012)
[N]udity is so fucking passé,” she said nonchalantly, slapping the air with her hand. We were sitting around a large, empty dining table in one of the Mosaic Rooms; a renovated Victorian townhouse-turned-gallery in West London, the walls of which are covered with her digitally manipulated photos of Egyptian soldiers. “It is so tiring, so juvenile, so… What? You can have art flourish with¬out naked people. I think it’s only the uninspired that come up with these excuses,” she continues.

Nermine Hammam is a female, Middle Eastern artist. No, let’s try that again. Nermine Hammam is an artist. She insists that her work is not political, and is merely concerned with the “human condition.” She happens to be from the Middle East, and happens to have witnessed the revolution that shook the country last winter. In the two series of this solo show, Upekkha and Unfolding, she mixes paint with photos she found online and personally took of soldiers during the civil unrest. The images are delicately patched against romantic backdrops, in the style of Soviet propaganda posters, Western film stills, or Japanese prints. Hammam is troubled by the brutality of combat, and the blurred lines between reality and dream that construct the façade of power, and the faces attached to it.

But let’s go back to that line again: female, Middle Eastern artist. The statement is catchy, yet riddled with presumptions. Where is the Middle East exactly? Is Hammam a representative of Egyptian sociopolitical realities? Is she responsible for portraying and criticizing issues concerning Arab and Middle Eastern women? Certainly not. And yet, such titles are the banners leading these artists’ work, and the works are now leading many international auctions and exhibitions.

Intoxication with Middle Eastern art is anything but new. Western merchants, missionaries and explorers found their way to the “Orient” thousands of years ago, trading and fighting and learning from each other – always in awe and constantly bemused. And in the past few centuries these groups diligently recorded, painted, and wrote about their “new world” encounters. In 1978, Edward Said, having gone through these artistic and pedagogical reflections, coined the term ‘orientalism’ in describing a common thread running through all of them. The theory goes like this: the ‘West’ (us) meets the ‘East’ or the ‘Orient’ (other). The other is portrayed as exotic and mysterious, yet backward and uncivilized. A fairly simple observation, yet still relevant term as it unravels in different forms – media is a glaring example.

When the World Trade Center were hit in 2001, the Middle East re-emerged as a popular catch phrase, and not in the best of lights. As the West prepared for two of its most questionable wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries along the Persian Gulf were expanding their economic cache and attracting more investors, more companies, and more rich people with money to spend on things they didn’t need. Sleek, keen-to-modernise, thirsty for business, the United Arab Emirates and their passionate embrace of capitalism glistened like a mirage in the middle of terror and incivility— a golden holiday island complete with larger-than-life skyscrapers and larger-than-life malls. And despite the array of minority, women’s, and human rights issues, cities like Dubai become cool, because they were able to afford a ski resort inside a mall and build is¬lands in the shape of continents.

Soon, art institutions caught up with geo-politics. In April 2005, Christie’s Auction House opened its Dubai office, and its first local sale in May of the following year brought in $8.5 million. In October, Sotheby’s held a sale of modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian art in Lon¬don, and in 2008 opened an office in Doha, Qatar. Their successive huge sales brought the region’s leading names sharply into focus, and the distribution of their catalogues in thousands introduced the market to international buyers and dealers on a grand scale.

Like any other trend, the Middle East art buzz trickled down and spread horizontally. International galleries and museums joined the stream, and new art and culture institutions sprung in the region. “People said okay, if a foreign institution (like the British Museum) is interested in our art, why not us then,” says Rose Issa, an Iranian-Lebanese, London-based gallery owner, writer and producer, who’s showcased Arab and Iranian art for nearly 30 years. “Suddenly, young and old collectors, whether in Dubai or Abu Dhabi or Qatar, started investing in [the region’s] art,” she adds. One example is the $27 billion development project comprising not one, but three museums designed by world-famous architects: Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and the Zayed National Museum.

While oil-rich Gulf nations experienced this art and culture boom the most lavishly, in other countries like Iran, Lebanon and Turkey, artists experienced a more gradual, progressive appreciation of their work as they sold in high prices abroad. Some critics say that the happenings in the region were too much, too soon. But Anthony Downey, director of contemporary art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and editor of Ibraaz magazine (an online publication on Middle East and North African art and visual culture), turns such scepticism on its head. He says that if there’s criticism about Middle Easterners having lots of money and spending it, “then we’re back in the 19th century.” And as for art being fast tracked, “what’s the problem there? This is what the Guggenheim did in the 1920s and ‘30s in New York.”

For the Middle East, though, the sudden surge of demand for locally produced contemporary art is unprecedented, and there certainly is a supply. But in response to this market, and with a dose of curatorial opportunism, some overpriced and underwhelming pieces find their way into the stream. And there are notice-able trends; think of Middle East and think women in veil, calligraphy, conflict. Curators go looking for manifestly Middle Eastern-looking art, and they find it. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because young Arab artists who want to be part of international shows make work that answer to that curatorial demand,” Downey remarks.

Saatchi Gallery’s 2009 exhibition, “Unveiled: Contemporary Art from the Middle East,” is, case in point, though not necessarily a bad show in its own right. But some artists consciously avoid Orientalist tropes. And for others, their background and political traumas organically unravel in their art. When I spoke with Florida-based Syrian artist Suhair Sibai, her voice trembled as I mentioned the bloodshed in her country. Her work reflects that terror, as the more recent pieces frame somber-looking figures, the palate gets muddy, and streams of red bleed through.

It sounds demeaning talking about art in such economic terms – supply and demand. In the 1960s, German thinkers of the Frankfurt School predicted a commoditized, market-oriented approach to art. Theorists such as Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse, lamented the creation of what they called a ‘culture industry.’ They differentiated between high and low culture, one of them being genuine, critical and transcendental, the other simply accommodating the society. Adorno in particular, emphasized the need for art to be autonomous, and to intervene in people’s consciousness, challenging the artist’s surroundings. For them, products of the ‘culture industry’ were for the masses, baring the illusion of uniqueness by only slight variations. A great example is pop music, as outlined the New Yorker article, “The Song Machine”, which shows the terrifyingly small structure behind almost every hit song on the radio.

In the past 20 years there has been a steady increase of interest and sales in contemporary art as a whole – think of the many art fairs that mushroomed over the past years (Frieze, a noteworthy addition), or the ones that became go-to places for anyone remotely interested in any¬thing contemporary (Art Basel). So the vexed interest in contemporary Middle Eastern art is just one aspect of this vitality.

After seeing more than 63,000 exhibitions, Issa agrees that certain Middle Eastern artists contribute to the specific demands of the art market, but she’s not very concerned about it. “There is a hype and there is bad taste…but there isn’t an issue. If people want to pay for a bad work then good for them. Why not?”

The issue, perhaps, is sustainability. As Issa emphasizes, for a reliable evolution of this market there needs to be a committed, educated collector base—and for that they need references. “A collector of British art has the choice of minimum 20,000 books on British art. What do we have as a solid reference? And I don’t mean the coffee table book that came out three or four years ago.”

New print and online publications are trying to fill this gap. Besides niche magazines and catalogues, there are also more nuanced renditions, such as online representatives (Art clvb) and international coordinators and curators (Apexart). “We want to let people know there’s a lot more in the region other than politics and fanatics,” says Joobin Bekhrad, co-founder of Art clvb and editor of ReOrient magazine. Alternative auction houses are also emerging—Ayyam Gallery had its thirteenth Young Collector’s auction in the spring ($550,000), and in June Tehran Auction had its first sales ($1,750,000). Also emerging is more risk-taking and confidence in buying and representing non-traditional forms of art, such as films, new media, and installations.

What’s more, some artists directly address, parody, and reverse the East vs. West discourse. Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi’s installation, The Lost Spring, made up of 22 flags of Arab countries and two broom posts, was a subversive reaction to the recent geopolitical upheavals of the region.

Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s Terrorist series is another example. In his manner of bright and primary palate, unfinished strokes and iconographical allusions, he portrays himself, his mother and sisters. The women are veiled, in traditionally light and floral fabric loosely rested on their bodies. “I wanted to ask, who is a terrorist?” he said, as we chatted in his kitchen in East London “I wanted to show the veil differently. Not as a means of oppression, but as something that I grew up around. Everyone in my family back home wears it.”

Hassanzadeh says art is not re¬ally made for an international audience. In fact, some of the themes he employs, particular cultural and religious references for instance, are lost to foreign eyes. Yet as an Iranian artist, some of his series were banned from shows within the country. In 2010 British Museum displayed his Takhti collection, but Iran’s Museum of Contemporary Art refused his re¬quest to carry them. Hassanzadeh has also faced censorship in other nations. In his recent exhibition at Sharjah’s Isabelle van den Eynde Gallery, a few “problematic” pieces were taken down. The problem: depicting the name of Imam Ali, the most important of Shiite religious figures and a point of schism between Shias and Sunnis.

Censorship and restrictions are not just an Eastern or religious phenomenon. Corporate and political ties in the West can have insidious ways of filtering works before they ever get to an auction or gallery wall; the Frankfurt School criticism, after all, was written primarily with the West in mind. But the fact is that Middle Eastern art, like Middle Eastern any¬thing, implies within it a complicated political lexicon. After all, this is the era of global economic recession and Occupy Wall Street, as well as the era of the Green Movement, Arab uprising, and Syrian unrest.

“Artists make art. Everything else comes afterward,” Downey says. If only.

Tara Aghdashloo (Journalism ’10) is a contributing writer to Ryerson Folio Magazine’s fall 2012 issue. Aghdashloo is currently finishing her dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, while also planning a trip to Afghanistan. She is struggling to find a balance between writing poetry and articles and broadcasting. She is also a freelance broadcast reporter for BBC Persian Television. You can find Tara’s work at