Is contemporary art Eurocentric or a product of “Western civilization”? The answer to this provocative question is certainly negative – it’s not; contemporary art goes far beyond imaginary borders of the so-called “Western civilization”. The fact that the vast majority of contemporary art movements were born in Europe or the US does not implicate that contemporary art should be defined as a cultural product of the “West”. But, one might ask: what about Arabic art or African art – why don’t “we” (“Westerners”) see the works of Arabic or African artists on auction sales, in exhibitions, art fairs? To be honest, we do see them, and those who regularly follow the developments in the world of contemporary art know that there is a big number of Arabic, African, Latin American artists who are among the most popular artists in the world. In this article, we will focus on Arabic art and its artists, and we can pose a question: Where are these artists on contemporary art scene?
As we already mentioned, there is a perception that Arabic art is marginalized on contemporary art scene, together with the one from Africa, and some others non-Western art scenes. And, yes, that’s true – there are many Arabic artists who are well-known to a wider audience, it is true that there is a certain level of misrepresentation of artists coming from Arabic countries. There are several reasons for that: first, the majority of Arabic countries were colonized by the European colonial powers – after the decolonization processes, many of these counties maintained close ties with their former colonizers, while wealthy intellectuals and artists emigrated to the “West”. As a consequence, production resources moved to the “West”, while it’d become quite difficult for emerging artists (especially if they aren’t from wealthy families) to make a breakthrough on international stage. Secondly, we cannot ignore political and social context – we all know that the Arab spring, unfortunately, led to a number of deadly conflicts. This certainly affected the contemporary Arabic art. On the other hand, there are examples, such as United Arab Emirates, Morocco, or even Saudi Arabia (we recently wrote an article about Saudi Arabia contemporary art scene) who managed to maintain a high level of stability of their local art markets.
Finally, all art lovers know about famous Arabic calligraphy and other characteristic of Arab art. Of course, this does not mean that all representatives of Arabic art use exclusively Islamic motifs or Arabic traditional art or motifs from Quran and Islam religion; but, it certainly influences the practice of many of the famous Arabic artists. It is also important to mention that it wouldn’t be fair to make direct parallel between Arabic art and Islamic art. Iranian art is not Arabic, but it is Islamic, just like many Lebanese artists are Arabic, but they are not Islamic. In this article, we want to present ten Arabic artist whose practice you should follow. It’s always difficult to make lists like this, but this is only the beginning – this list presents only some of the artists whose work should be followed, as it’s impossible to present all remarkable Arabic artists in one short article.
Editors’ Tip: Introduction to the Contemporary Art in Arab Land: Part 1
Arabic culture is truly rich and magnificent, while the history of Arabic art influences the practice of many contemporary Arabic artists. The book “Introduction to the Contemporary Art in Arab Land: Part 1” brings together, for the first time, the history of contemporary art in the 22 Arab countries, and presents the work of distinguished artists and of the pioneers and young people, professional and amateur . The book aims to focus on unique Arab culture, civilization and history, and its connections with the other regions and civilizations. From Iraq and Syria, via Saudi Arabia and Oman, to Egypt and Morocco, this book presents the practices of some of the most significant figures of Modern Arabic Art.
Khaled Hafez is Cairo-based artist who studied medicine and fine art. He uses a variety of different media – painting, photography, video and installation. His practice is focused on investigating different identities Egypt has had throughout its rich history – ancient Egypt, African, Arab and on Middle Eastern Egyptian identities, as well as the Mediterranean one. In 2015, Hafez participated at Venice Biennale.
Featured Images: Khaled Hafez (courtesy of artofthemideastdotcom.files.wordpress.com); Khaled Hafez - Sekhmet, 2013, detail (courtesy of ab-gallery.com).
Ayman Baalbaki is one of the most prominent Lebanese artists today. He studied Fine Arts in Beirut and at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and today he lives and works in Beirut. He is probably best-known for his large-scale expressionist portraits of fighters that made him one of the most popular figures of Arabic art today. He was born during the Lebanese civil war, and the main subject of his work is war-related themes. After the 2006 Lebanon War, he drew series of scattered structures related to the demolitions consecutive to the bombings of Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Featured Images: Ayman Baalbaki - Switzerland it ain't, detail (courtesy of oneart.org); Ayman Baalbaki (courtesy of alchetron.com)
Lalla A. Essaydi is a Moroccan artist who lives and works in the United States. In the world of Arabic art, she is best-known for her staged photographs of Arab women. In her work, Essaydi explores the position of women in Arabic countries, while her artworks are often autobiographical. She has lived in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United States – three countries in which the position of women differ a lot. Several pieces of her work combine henna, which is traditionally used to decorate the hands and feet of brides, with Arabic calligraphy, which is an exclusively male practice.
Featured Images: Lalla Essaydi (courtesy of morethanthreeartists.com); Lalla Essaydi - Nomadic Songlines, detail
Armen Agop was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1969. By the time he was 13 he would apprentice in the studio of the painter Simon Shahrigian before attending the Faculty of the Fine Arts at Helwan University in Cairo. After graduating, he received an assistant researcher scholarship at the faculty of the fine arts form 1997-2000. Today, Agop lives and works in Italy, while he has been exhibiting all over the world. He is certainly best-known for his sculptures; he uses black granite and basalt in his sculptures which are his main mediums.
Featured Images: Armen Agop (courtesy of florbigai.it); Armen Agop - Untitled (courtesy of selmaferiani.com)
Ghada Amer is an Egyptian artist, born in Cairo; however, one she was 11, she immigrated to the United States. She is a multimedia artist and she works with painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, and she is also a performance artist. She is focused on gender issues, while her most notable works involves highly layered embroidered paintings of women's bodies referencing pornographic imagery. As she once said: I liked the idea of representing women through the medium of thread because it is so identified with femininity.
Featured Images: Ghada Amer; Ghada Amer (courtesy of goodman-gallery.com)
Mona Hatoum is Lebanese-born Palestinian artist. Hatoum started her career making visceral video and performance work in the 1980s that focused with great intensity on the body. Since the beginning of the 1990s, her work moved increasingly towards large-scale installations that aim to engage the viewer in conflicting emotions of desire and revulsion, fear and fascination. She is also known for her video art work, while gender, politics and identity play an important role in Hatoum’s oeuvre.
Featured Images: Mona Hatoum - Artwork (courtesy of alexanderandbonin.com); Mona Hatoum, Photo by Mark Blower
Walid Raad is one of the most prominent figures in contemporary Arabic art. Born in Lebanon in 1967, he lives and works in New York City, where he also teaches at the Cooper Union School of Art. In 1989, he founded the famous Atlas Group, which is actually an imaginary foundation whose objective is to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon. He is a media artist, and his art explores the consequences of traumatic experiences (i.e. war), collective memory, and collective trauma. Raad has exhibited in some of the most famous world’s contemporary art institutions and events.
Featured Images: Walid Raad; Walid Raad (courtesy of contemporaryartdaily.com)
One of the most prominent artists from Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Mater uses a variety of different media in his art - photography, calligraphy, painting, installation, performance and video. He became quite famous with the work titled Prognosis – in this series of works, Mater combined explicit notes from his medical education with images of the Kaaba and a mosque, distributing them as a collage around blue and black x-ray images. Ahmed Mater cofounded the organization Edge of Arabia, art initiative that promotes contemporary Arab art and culture, with a focus on Saudi Arabia.
Featured Images: Ahmed Mater; Ahmed Mater - Magnetism (Photograuve) II, detail (courtesy of hyperallergic.com)
Abdulnasser Gharem is one of the most prominent contemporary artists coming from Saudi Arabia. He is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Saudi Arabian army. Gharem is the highest selling living artist from some Gulf country. In 2011, his work Messenger/Message was sold for $842,500 in Dubai. As Ahmed Mater, Gharem is also a member of the Edge of Arabia group.
Featured Images: Abdulnasser Gharem - Men at Work (courtesy of squa.re); Abdulnasser Gharem - The Concrete Block, detail
Hanaa Malallah is widely known as one of the most famous living Iraqi artists. She currently lives and works in London. She is known for her multilayered compositions focusing and exploring three decades of war and destruction in Iraq, while her latest body of work is focused on the consequences of the US intervention in Iraq. Her surname also appears in English as Mal-Allah.
Featured Images: Hanaa Malallah (courtesy of betoulphotography.com); Hanna Malallah - Stalemate (courtesy of ore.exeter.ac.uk). All Images used for illustrative purposes only.