10 Trailblazing Female Artists From the Middle East

Artist(s) in Focus, Top Lists

December 29, 2020

Although true, the common belief that the art scenes in the Middle East are historically patriarchal does not mean there aren’t renowned female artists who gained international acclaim. The region is indeed marked by constant political and religious contestation, war, and oppression; however, the women tend to critically articulate these circumstances and produce personal, yet engaged art regardless of the chosen media or individual poetics.

An overtly patriarchal culture seems to be changing and in some environments, women are apparently becoming more present in public life, and their voices are being heard.

To track down these increasing emancipatory impulses, we decided to feature briefly ten most established Middle Eastern female artists (who are not Shirin Neshat) who helped change the social sphere in both local and international contexts.

Featured image: Mona Hatoum - Remains to be Seen, 2019. Concrete and steel reinforcement bars, 17' 3 7/8“ x 17' 4 11/16” x 17' 4 11/16". “Remains to be Seen” Installation view, White Cube London, September 11 - November 3, 2019. Image via ArtForum.

Mona Hatoum

The first influential Middle Eastern artist on our list is the Palestinian-born artist Mona Hatoum, known for her multidisciplinary practice rooted in different theoretical frameworks. The central theme of her work is the body as a signifier of social and political contestations. Hatoum also investigates the notion of space, as well as the psychological and emotional implications her works evoke.

The artist emerged in the 1980s and her early work was focused on performances based on a direct physical confrontation with an audience often aiming to underline the background of the political turmoil in Palestine.

Although Hatoum eventually shifted to working with installation and sculpture, this particular aspect of thematizing the conflicts occurring throughout the decades in the Middle East prevails in her body of work as an indication of the vulnerability of the individual in regards to the systemized violence.

Featured image: Mona Hatoum - Hot Spot, 2006 Stainless steel and neon glass tube Installation view. Rennie Collection, Vancouver, Canada. Image creative commons.

Monir Farmanfarmaian

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1922 – 2019) was an Iranian artist and a collector of traditional folk art. Her artistic practice is characterized by the use of geometric patterns and traditional Iranian mosaic techniques. She expressed herself through painting, drawing, textile designs, and fashion illustration.

During the late 1960s Farmanfarmaian was active in New York and has worked with magazines such as Glamour, and retailers such as the Bonwit Teller; there, she befriended a young Andy Warhol, as well as Louise Nevelson, Jackson Pollock, and Joan Mitchell. In 2017, the Monir Museum was opened in Tehran in her honor.

Featured image: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings 1974 – 2014; March 13 – June 3, 2015, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Image creative commons.

Etel Adnan

Etel Adnan is a Syrian-American poet and visual artist, and the figure acknowledged to such an extent that she was proclaimed the most celebrated and accomplished Arab American author writing today. She was raised in Lebanon, studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, and obtained post-graduate studies in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, and Harvard in the United States.

As an artist, Adnan is celebrated for her unique abstract paintings, but also films and tapestries. In the 1960s, the artist/writer started appropriating Arabic calligraphy into her artworks and her books.

Featured image: Etel Adnan - Mount Tamalpais, 1985. Oil on canvas, 148 x 125 cm. Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon. Image creative commons.

Emily Jacir

Emily Jacir is highly ranked for her multimedia practice. She spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia, but she attended the University of Dallas, Memphis College of Art and graduated with an art degree. Jacir mostly produces conceptual artworks filled with social commentary with a specific take on themes of exile, displacement, and resistance in terms of the context of Palestinian occupation.

Throughout the years, Jacir has made a compelling body of work that has employed different media and methodologies such as performative gestures, unraveling forgotten histories, and in-depth research.

Featured image: Emily Jacir - Belongings, 2001. Image via art.northwestern.edu.

Manal Al Dowayan

Manal Al Dowayan is a Saudi artist whose interests envelope around themes of archives, collective memory, and the status of Saudi women and their representation. Through her projects, she has documented different social groups such as the oil men and women of Saudi Arabia and has questioned the responsibility of mass media on promoting intentional erasing of identities.

Al Dowayan uses diverse media such as sculpture, black and white photography, sound and video, and large-scale participatory installations. Manal obtained a Master's Degree in Systems Analysis and Design as well as an MA in Contemporary Art Practice in Public Spheres at the Royal College of Art.

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Huguette Caland

Huguette Caland (1931 – 2019) was a Lebanese painter, sculptress, and fashion designer recognized for her sensual abstractions and body landscapes. Provocative as she was, Caland came to prominence during the 1970s with her suggestive large scale paintings that tackled erotic desire. She has used the features of the female physique as elements for her sublime landscapes saturated with voids and mountain-like forms.

mThe only daughter of Bechara El Khoury, the first president of Lebanon after the declaration of independence, and the wife of his greatest rival, Paul Caland, this extraordinary figure came late to prominence after moving to Paris from Beirut.

Featured image: Huguette Caland - Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue), 2012. Mixed media on canvas, 163.8 x 408.9 cm. Private Collection. Courtesy Mathaf

Fahrelnissa Zeid

Fahrelnissa Zeid was a Turkish artist adorned for her large-scale abstractions based on kaleidoscopic patterns. She combined the Western influences with the heritage of Islamic and Byzantine art and has expressed herself with drawings, lithographs, and sculptures. Zeid came from a privileged background and was one of the first women to attend art school in Istanbul.

Due to a nomadic lifestyle, Zeid was equally present in the avant-garde scenes in Istanbul, pre-war Berlin, and post-war Paris. She married a member of the Hashemite royal family of Iraq, in the 1930s, and was the mother of Prince Ra'ad bin Zeid and the grandmother of Prince Zeid bin Ra'ad. By the mid1950s her works were exhibited widely, and by the 1970s, Zeid moved to Jordan, where she established an art school.

Featured image: Princess Zeid with her children Princess Shirin and Prince Raad in Berlin, 1937. Archive Prince Raad Zeid Al-Hussein. Image creative commons.

Ghada Amer

Ghada Amer is a contemporary artist who investigates different societal issues of gender and sexuality. At the age of 11, she emigrated from Egypt to France where her career emerges in the late 1980s.

Although a multimedia artist, Amer is best known for producing layered paintings woven with needlework. As matter of fact, she inserts embroidered images of women in autoerotic poses into abstracted monochromatic environments to speak about freed sexuality, femininity, postcolonialism, and Islamic culture.

Featured image: Ghada Amer - The Blue Bra Girls, 2012. Casted, polished, stainless steel, 72 × 62 × 54 in. (182.9 × 157.5 × 137.2 cm) at the National Museum of African Art in Washington DC. Creator: Ghada Amer. Image creative commons.

Boushra Almutawakel

One of the best-known female photographers from Yemen, Boushra Almutawakel produces work that, in general, focuses on the Western stereotypes to which Arabs and Muslims are exposed, especially in the context of representations of Muslim/Arab women and their clothing.

In 1996, Almutawakel founded the organization Al-Halaqa for the purpose of displaying and debating contemporary art. In 1999 Boushra Almutawakel was honored as the first Yemeni female photographer by the Empirical Research and Women's Studies Centre at Sana'a University.

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Shirazeh Houshiary

Last, but not least Middle Eastern female artist on our list is Shirazeh Houshiary, an Iranian installation artist and sculptress, a former Turner Prize nominee. She fled from her native country in 1973 and arrived in London where she attended Chelsea School of Art (1976–9) and was a Cardiff College of Art junior fellow at (1979–80).

Houshiary’s practice was perceived in the same context as the one by other young sculptors of her generation such as Anish Kapoor and Richard Deacon despite the fact her work differed from theirs due to an overall Persian influence. Her highly pigmented and contemplative abstractions, and other works are very much influenced by the Sufi mystical doctrine and Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet.

Featured image: The new East window of St. Martin's in the Fields church by Shirazeh Houshiary. Image creative commons.

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