I explained that the symposium, in part, responds to those who doubt the wealth, breadth and quality of modernism in this region. She laughed, knowing all too well the criticism that Middle East art practitioners face.
As an arts writer, I’ve heard the uninformed allegations countless times.
“There is no institutional interest or acquisition.”
And the worst: “It is art inspired by conflict” — a sweeping statement that seeks to equate one aspect of the region, i.e. politics, to its art.
For me, that last one had always been the zinger, laced with parochialism. As were headlines or exhibitions that used the terms “veil”, “unveiled”, “women artists from the Middle East”, and other sensationalist synonyms.
The Middle Eastern art scene has come a long way in recent years.
While cities such as Cairo and Beirut have a longer history of an art scene — be it cinema, theater or art — today it is modern metropolises in the Gulf i.e. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Doha and Jeddah, that are pushing the arts.
Political instability in traditional hubs together with economic growth in modern Middle Eastern cities has been the catalyst for this shift.
Catalysts for a movement
There were, of course, major milestones in the story of the rise of art from the Middle East.
They were momentous achievements, but they didn’t come from nowhere: preceding these events were pioneers who have paved the way for a lot of where we are today.
Meanwhile, sisters Mouna and Mayla Atassi established a library-cum-gallery in Homs in 1986 — Mayla then founded Green Art Gallery in Dubai in 1995, now run by her daughter Yasmin, and two years ago, Mouna fled her native Syria and formed the Atassi Foundation, to support Syrian modern and contemporary art.
Looking to the future
While it is, of course, important to remember the past, it’s also crucial to look to the future.
We have just opened Art Dubai’s 11th edition and the fair’s most globally diverse to date with 94 galleries coming from a record 43 countries, mirroring its host city’s multiculturalism.
I’m so proud to work with an institution that has been a major catalyst in the local, regional and international conversations on art from the Middle East and beyond.
An international fair with roots in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, it has very much contributed to putting art from these regions onto the world map.
With us this year are many of those pioneers I’ve just mentioned, speaking at the Modern Symposium, representing galleries and institutions and flying the flag for the Middle East.