Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Fri, Jun 26th, 2020

Let’s get Modern, shall we?

The art market from the Middle East, has been growing steadily since 2003 with prices for paintings hitting the £2.7 million mark.  But the art has existed, and the artists have been working for years. It’s very exciting that the work is beginning to get the recognition and chatter that it deserves.

Farhad MOSHIRI. Run like hell, 2008. Oil, acrylic, glitter on canvas and knives.

How modern is modern?

Arabic Modernism began in the optimistic post-war era.  It was during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, that Syria and Egypt made moves towards independence. Furthermore, the British, French, and the Soviet Union departed from many parts of the Middle East during and after the Second World War (1939–1945).

Then in 1947 the Arab-Israeli conflict culminated in the UN’s plan to partition Palestine. Later, during Cold War tensions, the Arabic-speaking countries of Western Asia and Northern Africa saw the rise of pan-Arabism. In the Middle East and North Africa, artists began to search for a unifying ‘Pan-Arabic’ cultural identity that would span new national divisions.

Movements like the New Vision Group in Iraq championed the idea of an Arab Modernism, united on ideological grounds rather than style.

What’s trendy and what’s not?

Currently female artists are the big trend in the Middle East.

One overriding theme that continues to dominate the market is Arabic calligraphy. The art has a calligraphic element, and a lot of works explore abstraction. This is called Lettrism, a form of art that uses letters but is not supposed to mean anything. It is simply about the beauty of the work.

Middle Eastern artists often work in contexts fraught with conflict, finding themselves in war zones or at the crossroads of tradition and rapid development.  In many cases, due to censorship and other constraints, artists originally from the region now work in exile.  Issues of isolation and dislocation from home can be a theme while others go full out documenting regions and people in conflict. Two very different directions for themes and subject matter.

It’s not what you know but who you know.

So, who are the important artists to know in Middle Eastern Modern art?

Farhad Moshiri (b. 1963) has been described as ‘the Warhol of the Middle East’. His works play on the kitsch, the material and the banal to highlight the gulf that exists between Islamic history and tradition on one side, and contemporary attitudes within Iran and the Western world on the other. While he usually draws his motifs from American consumer culture (comics, advertising, pop music), he reinterprets them through equally clichéd traditional Persian craftsmanship.

Monir Farmanfarmaian in her studio

Monir Farmanfarmaian (b.1922), after living in New York between 1945 and 1957, who in her nineties, returned to live in her Iranian homeland before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 forced her back to the United States, where she spent a further 26 years in exile. It was in New York that she variously befriended artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. Her re-appropriation of the traditional Iranian technique of mirror-mosaic has produced mirror balls that exude the glitz of the pop culture the artist encountered in 1970s America. In 2015, the Guggenheim in New York staged a major retrospective of Farmanfarmaian’s work.  In 2017, the Monir Museum in Tehran, Iran was opened in her honor. On 20 April 2019 Farmanfarmaian died at her home at the age of 96.

Where to find Modern Middle Eastern Art?

 The Third Line, Dubai

This warehouse space is proud to represent contemporary local and international MENA artists. They also have a mission to get the world talking about art from the region through its alternative non-profit programmes.

Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar
A centrepiece of modern and contemporary Arab art in Qatar, the Arab Museum of Modern Art (MATHAF) celebrates the achievements of Arab artists through exhibitions in painting, sculpture, and photography.

Boom Art Gallery, Iran
This non-profit gallery in Tehran is best known for displaying exhibitions by world-renowned Iranian talents such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mahmood Sabzi.

And soon to open…

The Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi

This will be a preeminent platform for contemporary art and culture.  The museum’s collection will encompass art in all mediums produced around the world from the 1960s to the present day, and will be a catalyst for scholarship in a variety of fields, chief among them the history of art in the Middle East in the 20th and 21st centuries.

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