Are we colonialising Middle Eastern art?

As the Middle East increasingly becomes a producer and consumer of contemporary art, the role of the West as 'tastemaker' grows progressively more troubling


Middle Eastern art is on the rise. There are more countries represented at the Venice Biennale this year than ever before; Middle Eastern art is now visible in New York and London; most important of all, in the Middle East itself, visual art is beginning to be hot, at least with the cosmopolitan elite, instead of lagging far behind poetry and music.

Now there is the jostling for position. Who is going to define what this art should be? Who gets in to the fast track? Curators and critics, auction houses and dealers, foundations and museums are all in the game. There is a lot at stake, because Middle Eastern art is still a fragile plant; it can easily be trained in one direction or another by outsiders. Why outsiders? Because it is still the western art institutions and western money, both pro bono and commercial, that give validation to contemporary art anywhere in the world. A grant from the Ford Foundation, or a showing in the New Museum in New York make all the difference to an artist’s career.

The west largely defined the Chinese avant-garde of the last few years, choosing for its museums and market the art that fitted its concept of what an avant-garde should be. It blew up the bubble of the past two or three years, with a corrupting effect on some of the artists, who started churning out formulaic work for the market. Something similar happened in the 18th century when one sort of porcelain was made for export to the west, while a completely different and much more refined aesthetic governed what the Chinese made for themselves. In the visual arts today, the parallel might be with brush painting, which is still what the Chinese themselves like best, but which we in the west tend to dismiss as retrograde, repetitive and lacking in ideas—all qualities that disqualify it from being “Contemporary”, although, of course, it is contemporary, just not our contemporary.

The way the London museums have dealt with these two artistic visions is that the Tate collects western-style Chinese contemporary while Chinese-style contemporary is collected by the British Museum. Now something similar is going to happen with Middle Eastern art. The conceptual work, film and photography are being sought by the Tate, while calligraphic work, the art that has the most deep-rooted following in the Middle East, will go into the British Museum. This sounds very reasonable, except that the market follows the lead of the Tate, not the British Museum, because of the key role the Tate has in the international art system. The decisive power of money will come down behind the Tate’s choices, inevitably affecting what artists choose to produce. If this happens we will be artistically the poorer, which is why it is good to hear of a museum initiative that seems to be sensitive to the need to nurture an art that does not just mimic our own.

To stimulate new Islamic design, the Victoria & Albert Museum has launched a biennial prize of £25,000 “for contemporary artists and designers inspired by Islamic traditions of craft and design”. The sponsor is the Saudi businessman, Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel. The aim here is for designers (and artists, because there is a lot of cross-over between the two nowadays) to draw on this different aesthetic and sensibility, but to make it evolve. It is not about repeating old motifs or, worse still, producing orientalist pastiche, of which there is far too much in the Middle East, especially the Gulf. To prove that it is bang up-to-date, the Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid is patron of the prize (see p4). The finalists go on display on 8 July, after the winner has been announced.

But what do the finalists reveal? Only three of them actually live in the Middle East and only four were trained there. Why? Does this reflect the quality of the works submitted, or bias on the part of the judges? Without seeing the rejects, who can tell? What is definitely disappointing is that the finalists are almost all in the “fine art” category, when this prize explicitly invokes the Islamic traditions of craft and design. Is western prejudice about what counts as art making itself felt here too?

There is already the Abraaj Capital Prize for fine art from Islamic countries. For the Jameel Prize to have its own identity it needs to hunt out the designers who come out of different habits of life, just as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture seeks out architecture that answers the specific needs of Islamic countries. Then maybe it will give us in the west something new to look at, while inspiring architects and industrial manufacturers in Islamic countries, and breathing new life into the traditional crafts. What no one needs is western-style “fine art” with some orientalist flourishes. That would be a sad colonialisation of the art of the region.

The writer is the general editorial director of The Art Newspaper.