What does ‘Arabic art’ mean?

Kadhim Haidar, Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing (1965)

One of the functions of art, and particularly of art exhibitions, and most especially of not-for-profit exhibitions that carry an explicit theme, is to encourage reflection. Yes, there should be a visceral, personal reaction: at its best, the art will speak to you – one or more pieces will make you feel, or think, or both. But it’s a sign of a notable exhibition that you start looking for a bigger (as it were) picture. Just what is it that links or divides the artworks? How did this art get here from there? Where are those places anyway? Where’s it going next?

That’s by way of introduction to some personal thoughts about what ‘Arabic’ or ‘Middle Eastern art’ actually means. The catalyst was the recently-ended Khaleej Modern show, another of the NYUAD Art Gallery’s significant contributions to the regional history of modern art.

The thesis of the show was the development in the 1960s and 70s of local groups of artists who shared views about the function and value of contemporary art. But it probably wasn’t a show of Arabic art, not at least in the conventional Western idea of a range of artistic traditions and styles that have developed within the cultural and geographical context of the Arabic world (which for current purposes includes Farsi as well as Arabic speakers). That’s the traditional art-market view: intricate geometric patterns, floral motifs, calligraphy, religious or cultural symbolism, an emphasis on abstract forms and decorative motifs.

There’s a certain Western smugness in this catch-all description, the same kind of attitude that produced Orientalism; Arabic art could be seen as exotic, exclusive, unrelated to Western styles.

That changed in the 20th century. Artists started to learn skills and use materials that hadn’t hitherto been part of their traditions, like easel painting and readymade oil paints. This may have been the product of modern educational systems introduced in the 1950s (meaning students were exposed to a broader range of inputs) plus government scholarships for students to study art abroad (especially in France). But following Western tradition, even Western styles, doesn’t mean that those artists were practising Western art.

In part that’s because the idea of ‘modern’ art in the West implies a break from ‘traditional’ forms. But in the Gulf there is a different history of artistic practice, understood outside the world of art museums and galleries, with none of the Western high-low distinction of fine art versus craft.

As Maya Allison, Executive Director of The NYUAD Art Gallery and Chief Curator at the university, put it to us, “the emergence of modern art [in the Arab world] is not modernism in the sense of rebelling against representational painting; it’s a totally different moment. You could call painting on canvas a ‘new media’ practice in the mid-century Gulf”.

Khaleej Modern at The NYUAD Art Gallery. Photo John Varghese

More important is the role of political and social realities in the region. There’s so much to say about conflict, colonialism, migration; the Middle East has so often been a kind of laboratory for societal change. Art has always been a way of reflecting socio-political change, and that’s especially true here; “the emergence of modern art in the gulf is also the history of the emergence of nations that we know today”.

Sultan Sooud al Qasimi is particularly good on politics and art in the Middle East; indeed, that’s frequently the subject of the courses he delivers. He’s noted the role of fine art societies in the 1950s and 60s. This was a time when much of the region was replacing foreign occupation, as protectorates or colonies, with independent or populist governments that sometimes meant little change to individual freedoms. In this environment, a flush of fine art societies provided the space for social activism.

Art was regarded by the hard-men rulers as a safe, soft option; in practice they provided a space for artists but also poets, singers, journalists, professors, lawyers, to exchange ideas. Such societies emerged in Khartoum, Kuwait, Cairo, Alexandria, Rabat, Beirut, Amman, Tehran, Sharjah.

A new identity emerged from this exchange of ideas, and in presentations and talks al Qasimi has pointed to the “seismic shift” between art in Arabia in the first half of the 20th century when compared to the second half: “the work no longer looks like European art. By the ’50s and ’60s, you see the emergence of an identity that is very different, that is unique to the region …”

Political commentary and allegory provided much of the change. For instance, Kadhim Haidar’s seminal 1965 work Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing (top) is notionally about the eighth century battle of Karbala, which resulted in the death of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali; but it also references the 1963 Ba’athist coup in Iraq, in which many suspected dissidents and political opponents were killed.

A lot of contemporary art from the region similarly reflects social and political turmoil, especially the occupation of Palestine but also (for instance) gender issues, the environment, hypercommercialisation, the emphasis on oil wealth and its consequences. These themes are reflected in work from artists right across the region in a way that is not seen elsewhere.

On the other hand, Maya Allison cautions against succumbing to stereotypes in this kind of conversation. “I think that curating by region always has to be in dialogue with preconceptions of what it means to be Arab or from an Arab country. In some exhibitions of art from the Arab world that I have seen, you’d think the only thing that ever happens there is displacement, terrorism and war. A lot of nuance can get lost in popular representations of the Arab world.”

The Khaleej Modern artists were bound together by regional experience. It’s not about Arab art, but maybe it is about a contribution to nation-making in the Arab world. “What does it mean to become an artist at a time when there’s no obvious path to becoming an artist? This is what [the artists in Khaleej Modern] share – the Gulf countries were staring to form the infrastructures for art production and art display and art study. I am a fan of question-based exhibition making, and here the question is: what does it look like to develop an art scene, to become an artist in a country that is itself being established? And that was the case for all the artists in Khaleej Modern.”

Maybe there’s a pointer in the name. ‘Modern’ art has a specific meaning in the art market, associated with a particular set of stylistic and aesthetic attributes but normally being defined by period – art created more or less in the 20th century, sometimes from post WWI but at its broadest covering art from the 1880s up to the 1970s. (‘Contemporary’ art describes current works of art, usually meaning art by living artists.)

But ‘modern’ in a historical sense means something different, the point when society encounters the forces of global change – industrialisation, infrastructure, education, ideas from elsewhere.

The modernity in Khaleej Modern‘s title signifies that change: in artistic terms, it’s the sudden leap from a local culture of poetry, weaving, architectural ornamentation, all those other attributes perceived by the West as exotic, to paintings on canvas. That’s part of what Arabic art means today.

Ibrahim Ismail, Building of Ships (1966)

To get the right perspective we need access to the art, of course, and her initiatives like The Dubai Collection will help; essentially this is a catalogue of short-term loans from private collectors to a central pool of works that will sometimes be shown publicly.

On a very different scale, and destined for permanent public display, is the Barjeel Art Foundation collection – more than a thousand works, modern and contemporary, from all over the Middle East. It’s rare in the Arab world that such an extensive private collection is being gifted to the public free of charge, but it will surely become key to explaining the significance of these artists and their place in a global conversation. (In the meantime, more than a hundred works from the Barjeel collection have spent five years on long-term loan at Sharjah Art Museum under the apposite title A Century in Flux.)

The other key regional centre is Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, with a permanent collection of around 9,000 works from the Arab World and a curatorial approach that looks at art histories and major art movements in dialogue with pan-Arab cultural groups and international avant-gardes.

We’re lucky in the UAE – for many reasons, of course, but art-wise a couple of points stand out. There’s the geography of a place rooted in Arabia that happens to be on an intersection of trade routes and sociopolitical ties. There’s the social structure, and especially the disposable wealth, that underpins a busy commercial art scene; we have a lot of galleries, and they’re busy. We have collectors, patrons and retailers with money to spend/invest. We have not one but two commercial art fairs, many interior-decor retailers for affordable art plus a couple of major events (Sikka and World Art Dubai), and a government that recognises the value of the creative economy.

We could probably do with more non-commercial places to see permanent collections of art, but the Jameel, the Louvre, the Sharjah Art Museum and the NYUAD Art Gallery isn’t a bad selection – and maybe the Barjeel Museum for Modern Arab Art and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will join them sometime soon.

There’s more to these institutional venues than hanging space, of course, and one of the impressive aspects of the country’s art scene is the development and/or arrival of some impressive (mostly young) curators. “Curation is the art of creating something new, coherent and meaningful out of an abundance of related information and ideas” as one commentator put it. The art is in the selection, but also the edit, the arrangement, the making of lists … We have seen some very good curators here, the likes of Karim Sultan, Laura Metzler, Muneera Al Sayegh, Reem Fadda, Noor Al Suwaidi, and of course Maya Allison herself.

So it’s an interesting time to be here, and to be thinking about art here. The modern art history of the region is still being written, and the contemporary art scene is bustling. Is ‘Arabic art’ a useful term? No, if you’re looking for a definition in terms of style or membership of a specific movement. Yes, insofar as it signifies an artist who identifies as Arab.

And that in itself may be useful; it spotlights a group that has been largely unrepresented historically and internationally. In the international art world, it has been hard for Arab artists to have a presence. The weight of expectation, the sheer number of exhibition outlets and art magazines, the plethora of art schools, all serve to produce large numbers of ‘Western’ artists – others can get swamped.

Here’s Maya Allison again: “I think many artists that are asked to represent an ethnicity, a nationality, a culture, an identity will push back against that. Or at most they’ll harness it insofar as it’s useful to them or meaningful to them. And it is meaningful to have a voice when there hasn’t been a voice before.

“But what you do with that voice is going to vary depending on what art means to you. The minute you ask art to be for something, if we’re not careful, it becomes propaganda.

“I’m very sensitive to the fact that art is the way that an individual chooses to engage with their cultural context, with who they are and with what’s meaningful to them.

“So I might not say there’s Arab art, but I would say there are Arab contexts for art.”

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