In the beating heart of the art scene, the art districts of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with a spectacular view of trees and blue sky, lined with some of the best art galleries, you see artists, famous and emerging, setting out brushes and paint. Finished canvases lean against walls – from calligraphy and Khaleeji to modern and contemporary. The Middle East art, full of persuasive, urgent visual imagery, is having its moment.
And it is refreshing to sense that the pull of much of the work derives from the culture itself rather than being necessarily part of the self-conscious east-west discourse. Case in point: Parviz Tanavoli, famous for his bronze statuettes depicting the word “heech” (nothing in Persian), had achieved million-dollar sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
In the past few years, sought-after artists like Sohrab Sepehri, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Farhad Moshiri, and Wael Shawky have exhibited works at the Guggenheim, Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and at the Serpentine Galleries in London, with works selling for hundred thousand dollars.
This hints at the range, quality, and latent power of so much of the work that has recently been produced from many different countries and political situations across the region.
NEW WAVE OF ARTISTS
As such, it represents an advance in understanding art, but determinedly through the artist’s eye.
Sumayyah Al Suwaidi, Majd Alloush, Mohamed Khalid, and Sarah Al Mehairi are among a new wave of young artists attracting attention, as art from across the region is seeing a surge of international interest. Their works are displayed in art shows sought after by major institutions.
“Emerging artists have so many opportunities, there are always open calls and initiatives that cater to them, but they need to be smart about where and how they showcase their work so they don’t undersell themselves and they are not taken advantage of,” says award-winning Emirati artist and art curator Sumayyah Al Suwaidi.
Christie’s is now showcasing more than 150 works of Arab art in various mediums, such as paintings, sculptures, drawings, and installations, in partnership with the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth and the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah in London. There’s also a private sale of works by Emirati pioneer artist Hassan Sharif.
These initiatives reveal a thirst in global cities for a broader understanding of the Middle Eastern art scene and an evident wish for artists and curators from the region to take their work abroad.
The recent Abu Dhabi Art’s Beyond Emerging Artists exhibition at Cromwell Place in London was a well-timed response to those aspirations, providing a platform to emerging artists like Alloush, Khalid, and Al Mehairi, who were commissioned to create new works.
Khalid exhibited Agua Viva, a short film about encountering a jellyfish on an artificial island. He explains his work: “It’s the politics between me, the creature, and the coast we inhabit.”
INCREASING APPETITE FOR MIDDLE EASTERN ART
Acknowledging that the Middle East art world has entered a new era, Dyala Nusseibeh, Director of Abu Dhabi Art, says, “There is an increasing appetite for Middle Eastern art in recent years. Modern Arab art is relatively undervalued compared to auction prices for modern European or American artists.”
However, she adds, the work of important institutions, foundations, curators, and collectors in researching, collecting, and exhibiting works by modern artists from “our part of the world has meant a slowly evolving market and increasing recognition for pioneers from the region.”
A lot of the vital research and work around this is happening in the Gulf, particularly in the UAE, through collections such as Sharjah Art Foundation, Barjeel Foundation, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Mathaf – Arab Museum of Modern Art, and Guggenheim – Abu Dhabi. At the same time, international museums are also taking more interest in artists from the region.
“The shows in recent years, such as Fahrelnissa Zeid at the Tate Modern, Mohamed Melehi at Tate St Ives, or Etel Adnan at the Serpentine, to name a few such exhibitions, help build awareness and appetite for Middle Eastern art,” says Nusseibeh.
Syrian artist Alloush, whose work spans multiple disciplines, including printmaking, sculpture, photography, moving images, installation, and performance, says the ecosystem in the UAE has been “very supportive, especially when it comes to young artists.”
Alloush and Abu Dhabi-based artist Sarah Al Mehairi agree that the transformation broadening the art market geographically and creating a new path for artists is possible because of governmental entities and institutions, like Abu Dhabi Art, whose Beyond Emerging Artists initiative provides artists with a budget and curatorial support to create ambitious new works.
This builds on the UAE’s recent commitment to invest almost $5.3 billion in arts and culture, including new and unique event spaces to showcase talent locally and worldwide.
In March, after earlier editions in New York, Hong Kong, and London, Christie’s, which has built a strong presence in the region, organized the Art+Tech Summit in Dubai in partnership with Art Dubai 2023.
The event saw international creators and collectors from a spectrum of disciplines across art and technology and experts from the Middle East come together.
INTEREST IN YOUNG AND DIVERSE ARTISTS
Undoubtedly, there is an increasing appetite for Middle Eastern art. While artists like Huguette Caland, a provocative Lebanese artist who celebrated freedom of expression in her color-drenched paintings, and Syrian artist Marwan Kassab-Bachi draw some of the highest prices, collectors are now interested in works by younger and more diverse artists.
“Yes, there is an increase in interest, especially when we look at the number of international auctions that are taking place in Dubai, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s selling Middle Eastern art of younger and diverse artists, introducing us to new players in the art scene,” says Al Suwaidi.
“Collectors are becoming increasingly aware of the work we are producing; it is no longer hiding in our bedrooms collecting dust,” says Khalid, an UAE-based artist who examines everyday objects and coaxes out their metaphorical potential. “We are encouraged and given room to show works to a larger audience, which opens a larger conversation for our nurturing arts community.”
Nusseibeh says, “Younger artists, with works at more accessible price points, are often the starting point for new collectors.”
The visual arts are also booming online. There’s a growing number of virtual art galleries in the region. Experienced art collectors and newcomers increasingly use websites to find original contemporary works and order them for delivery, like furniture. Artists say online galleries are also an easier way to spot emerging talent.
“The global visibility of contemporary Middle Eastern art, its rich cultural heritage, and unique perspectives have led to growing recognition and demand for regional artworks. Collectors here value the fresh perspectives, challenging narratives, and exploration of contemporary issues that younger and more diverse artists bring to their practice,” says Alloush.
“Many collectors choose to support artists early on and grow with their career, which I believe goes beyond just the collecting and forms a relationship as well,” adds Al Mehairi.
Art from the Middle East matters right now, and just because so much of it is so good.
SUSTAINABLE ARTS ECONOMY
Meanwhile, artists say there’s a perceptible shift in mindset to create a more sustainable arts economy, as artists and art institutions recognize the importance of addressing environmental concerns and social responsibility.
“Some museum curators are opting only to exhibit artworks that are transportable by road at their shows, even if it means missing out on certain works, while art fairs such as ourselves recycle exhibition walls each year to reduce event waste,” says Nusseibeh.
In parallel, artists have for some time now been reflecting on issues relating to sustainability and the environment through their works, such as Hashel Al Lamki, Nujoom Al Ghanem, and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim. “Artists clearly influence the wider art community by making visible what is at stake and shifting mindsets through their works.”
Al Mehairi, who is also the creator of the Artist Talks series and co-founder of the JARA Collective, says post-pandemic saw a gradual shift towards a more sustainable arts ecosystem.
“This shift is driven by an increased environmental consciousness, a focus on social issues, the demand for ethical art practices, collaborative efforts, and institutional initiatives. While challenges remain, the art community is actively working towards creating a sustainable and responsible art ecosystem,” adds Alloush.
GROWING ART MARKET
In recent years, several auction houses have entered the art market in the region, especially in the UAE, and this development, artists say, is helpful. To Nusseibeh, this is a “vital part” of the growing art market.
These auction houses provide a platform for artists to showcase their works to a wider audience, including collectors, galleries, and institutions. The increased visibility and exposure gained through auctions contribute to emerging artists’ recognition and career advancement.
Yet, according to Alloush, although the limited, privileged cocoon of the art market has been cracked open, “the impact varies on individual circumstances, market dynamics, and the specific strategies and support offered by auction houses.”
To Nusseibeh, auction houses can help propel the value of artworks through their networks and influence. “That said, care has to be given not to overinflate prices for emerging artists without building deeper markets for the works. If the prices don’t hold, the artist’s career or long-term value of works can be ruined.”
It’s critical, she adds, that the auction houses show many works by emerging artists as they need time to develop their practice before being forced into the limelight and a more speculative arena. “Auction houses have to balance hype-driven sales prices with the development of real, sustainable markets for the works.”
Christie’s summer exhibition of modern and contemporary artworks, says Nusseibeh, shows a real engagement with increasing knowledge internationally about important artists from the region while also helping to attract serious collectors to view the works by Hassan Sharif on private sale nearby. “I think this is a great model.”
“Collectively, as auction houses, art fairs, galleries or institutions and foundations, we all work toward increasing knowledge about and interest in regional artists. We are part of one ecosystem, and collectively, we thrive,” she adds.
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