Contemporary art in the Middle East
“Orientalism” is not the issue—we have art all of our own
By Ali Khadra. Comment, Issue 206, October 2009
Published online: 27 September 2009
While reading Anna Somers Cocks’s article “Are we colonialising Middle Eastern art?” (The Art Newspaper, July-August, p26), I was piqued by her observation that “no one needs western-style ‘fine art’ with some orientalist flourishes” parading as contemporary art in the Middle East.
There is no denying that western tastes have lent towards “orientalism” and that there is a plethora of artists in the Middle East willing to satisfy these tastes, but there is more to the story than that. Scanning some of the modern and contemporary Middle Eastern artists, where are the “orientalist flourishes” in the work of, say, Mona Hatoum, Dia al-Azzawi, Adel Abdessemed, Walid Raad or Emily Jacir? Those “flourishes” are not in the up-and-coming works of Rokni Haerizadeh, Youssef Nabil, Ahmed Alsoudani or Ghada Amer either.
The thing about “flourishes” is that they are, as this innuendo suggests, just a little touch here or there. In contemporary Middle Eastern art, I am hard-pressed to find a solid example of western-style influences or colonialisation. Besides, what is wrong with “orientalist flourishes”? If one considers art’s most basic, indispensable message—that of self-expression—perhaps we ought to stop and consider that “orientalist flourishes” are just another form of self-articulation.
This brings me to my next point, which I feel was not addressed by Somers Cocks. Let us look at how Middle Eastern contemporary art “got hot”.
What was the Middle Eastern art scene before the western institutions such as the Tate and the British Museum got interested in it? Long before the Tate formed a Middle Eastern art acquisitions committee; before New York’s New Museum opened the exhibition, “The Generational: Younger than Jesus”, that featured works by Middle Eastern artists, among others; before Saatchi’s “Unveiled: New Art From the Middle East”; before the Chelsea Art Museum’s “Iran Inside Out: Influences of Homeland and Diaspora on the Artistic Language of 56 Contemporary Iranian Artists”; before six Middle Eastern Pavilions and five platforms showing works by Middle Eastern artists at this year’s Venice Biennale; before Christie’s set up shop in Dubai and witnessed over 70 world records for Middle Eastern art—there was a staunch tradition of patronage and it was by those who belonged to the huge Middle Eastern diaspora.
It was these patrons, and the artists whom they supported, who were responsible for Middle Eastern art’s arrival in the west. Needless to say, the artists are the Hirsts, Warhols and Pollocks of the Middle East, but one hopes that, with the advent of institutions in the region, we will be able to bring our key artists to the fore. The Middle East seeks to stand up there, side by side with institutions of the west. Of course, there were also the curators who raised the flag for what were to become some of today’s hottest Middle Eastern artists. In fact, these artists’ works—aside from being in renowned private collections the world over—are also on the walls of some of the west’s most prominent institutions.
Unfortunately, the tragedies of the past and present continue to disfigure the region. The Middle East has struggled and managed to survive, but where was the time, money and energy to create proper infrastructures for art, when we have had non-stop political conflicts, from Intifadas, occupations and civil wars to dictatorships, nuclear threats and other mortal issues?
Let us also not forget that the countries of the region were colonies and that independence is a relatively recent experience for many, if not most. “Colonisation” means, among many things, that in former colonies, the European schools of art have had and still have enormous influence. Nevertheless, we have come up with our own unique style that has only fairly recently found its own voice. But our own voice it is.
While the west has helped to increase awareness of Middle Eastern art, one has to acknowledge that what caught its attention in the first place was a unique style born of an intricate mixture of rich history, deep-rooted culture and ongoing conflict. There is no danger of Middle Eastern artists making the mistakes that Somers Cocks cited as a downfall of Chinese contemporary art—producing works simply to satisfy western taste. We have all the necessary ingredients for an art all of our own: patronage, talent, exposure and variety. Tate or no Tate, with or without “orientalist flourishes”, the lure of the East prevails.
The writer is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canvas, a magazine for art and culture from the Middle East and Arab world, and the founder of Canvas TV, a global arts channel. Canvas will be holding a panel discussion on art from the Middle East at 7pm on 12 October at the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, London. “Gender, Wars and Chadors” will feature the curators Rose Issa, Saleh Barakat and Mona Khazindar. http://www.canvasonline.com
Response: I so much agree with Ali Khadra that Middle Eastern art should have its own identity that my editorial was a warning of the power of major western institutions to deform that identity, however unintentionally, to suit their own preconceptions of what art should be. When I referred to “orientalist flourishes”, I was not so much speaking of decorative scrollwork as of clichéd subjects, such as the umpteenth, however unoriginal, treatment of the veil issue, certain to elicit a respectful reaction in the west. A.S.C.
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