Not long ago, up until the Arab Spring revolutions and the surrounding wars, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria were often considered the patron countries of Middle Eastern art. Most of the region’s prominent museums of modern art existed in those nations. Masters from all over the world picked up their brushes and tools, enjoying year round sunshine and cheap living costs. People came to apprentice and spread their own styles.
Learning the craft of a talented painter or sculptor is a process that takes years and requires economic and social stability, and an environment that fosters art and develops it. Without the many traveling artists from all over the Middle East and beyond, who in their wake inspire and direct artistic movements and subcultures, the aforementioned countries have failed to keep the torch ablaze.
This is the last defence for us. Without arts and culture we will fall completely, society will degrade – private institutions must continue.
With the many wars, economic instability, governmental struggles, and new rules and regulations, it is not surprising to see somewhat of a shift when it comes to the art scene, from North Africa and the Levant, to the Arabian Peninsula. It's been a magnificent few years for Middle Eastern art - in the Gulf. With the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi close to the end of 2017, the processions of the Sharjah Biennial - not to mention the completion of another successful Dubai Art Week and the numerous events and grants offered by Saudi Arabia’s Misk Foundation, to name but a few - it can be said that the Middle Eastern arts scene is steadily migrating to the Gulf.
The years prior to the Arab Spring never predicted this. A highly conservative Saudi until then had maintained its censorship on creative expression and the rest of the Gulf, although adamant to spark their very own renaissance, had at the time, very little influence. Countries like Kuwait only began to have permanent galleries circa 1969. In fact, most western artists would never have seriously considered some of the Arab countries in the lead now. The map is changing and as we look at the foundations that had launched the movement previously, we begin to see why.
Money talks all over the world, never more so than in the Gulf
Early on during the last century, several organisations stood to help striving artists and foster creative output in Egypt. Especially in the mid twentieth century, the Art and Freedom Group, Hussein Youssef Amin’s Contemporary Art Group and his students’ The Rejectionists, all formed a sort of backbone structure, offering aid and assistance to each other and anyone who wanted to tap into the world of both modern and traditional Middle Eastern art. Years later circa 1980 in Egypt, the Youth Salon was formed, offering aid to emerging artists in installation, photography, and video who otherwise would not have been able to find the support needed. All these movements have now disappeared or have little to no use.
Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life, 1962, by Turkish-Jordanian artist Princess Fahr El-Nissa Zeid. It is the most expensive painting ever sold by an Arab.
Beirut remains a beacon for art and although Syria was at the brink of unleashing a flurry of European museums and galleries prior to the uprising, its role now has been in large part muted due to the current conflict. We still see efforts by Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, but the cake it seems is now being baked mostly in Emirati and Saudi ovens.
Yet the international scene is more interested now in Arab and Middle Eastern art as a whole than ever before. Global giants like Christie’s are now celebrating twelve years running full operations in Dubai, auctioning the works of modern and contemporary Arab artists at record breaking prices – we’re talking millions of dollars. Turkish-Jordanian Princess Fahr El-Nissa Zeid, who passed away in 1991, broke the record for the most expensive painting by an Arab with her piece Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life which sold for $2.74 million in 2013. Coming close in second and third are deceased Egyptian painter - and judge - Mahmoud Said’s The Whirling Dervishes and Les Chadoufs sold for $2.54 million and $2.43 million respectively.
Les Chadoufs 1934, by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said
Some of our most celebrated artists have been able to gain massive international exposure. Whether it’s through academics or making art and participating internationally, several names were able to break through. A few succeeded as both academicians and participating artists; one such person would be Egyptian Dr. Hazem Taha Hussein.
Talking to Dr. Hussein, he tells me, “This is a very important issue, and it’s great that someone is finally talking about how it,” referring to the Arab world’s art scene migrating from North Africa and the Levant, to the Gulf. “However,” he continues, “what I’ve tried to do lately is separate between the arts market and cultural initiatives in Egypt.” According to him, the former is still flourishing; galleries still function, and upper class society still buys art; whereas the latter has been on the decline since the revolution. “We see the private galleries [in Egypt] depending on individual artists and this causes distractions from the general picture,” he explains. “By comparison, what’s happening in Dubai is that it’s attracting artists; they are creating new non-profit, and free workshops. They are imitating the same models we had – and to some extent still have – here such as Townhouse and Darb1718.”
Moving, 2013 by Egyptian artist Dr. Hazem Taha Hussein
Darb 1718 is a contemporary art and cultural center in Egypt, while Townhouse was an independent non-profit art space in Cairo – government cracked down on foreign funds in the latter in 2016. “Townhouse was funded, and the funds were looking for more conceptual art, so they were directing artists towards political and religious subjects and that is now taboo,” explains Dr. Hussein. “Despite what happened to Townhouse, these types of spaces played a big role in furthering the art scene in Egypt.”
In Cairo, the once prominent Biennale has ceased its proceedings since 2010, and since then the only glimmers of artistic hope after Townhouse have been a few projects, like Darb1718’s Something Else OFF Biennale Cairo (OBC) that started last November and ran for 45 days, and Art D’Egypte’s annual exhibition that displays contemporary Egyptian art inside a historic space, among a few other independent attempts.
When you're aware of the politics, human right violations, gender inequality, and injustices that still exist, it makes you wonder if they're trying to use these initiatives to conceal actual urban realities by portraying themselves as ‘progressive’ and ‘cultural’.
One thing worth noticing however, is that throughout the many cities where formal art once flourished, urban art is now one of the main alternatives. In Cairo for example graffiti started to surface during the 2011 uprising with the disappearance of formal venues, continuing after the revolution until the government reached stability.
In 2012 Egyptian street artist El Zeft – who remains anonymous – stenciled an image of a defiant and battle-ready Nefertiti clad in a gas mask, an image which has now become downright iconic in relation to the revolution. In fact, it was used as the cover art for the 2016 book The Egyptians: A Radical Story, which follows the 18 days that changed the course of Egypt’s future in 2011.
Nefertiti in a gas mask, street art in Cairo by Egyptian graffiti artist El Zeft
Enigmatic graffiti artist Keizer – who also keeps his identity under wraps – also made an impact with his revolutionary (in both senses of the word) and anti-establishment stencils scattered throughout Cairo’s streets, though most of them have since been covered up. Now, with the vanishing of revolutionary graffiti, artists are finding some space in private events scattered sparsely throughout the year. Digital art and film through online publishing seem to be getting the biggest share of outpour. Yet new media laws mean that online posts are also punishable by heavy jail sentences, effectively covering up Cairo’s online walls alongside its physical ones.
Over in Lebanon, artists seem to be actively participating and furthering their local scene, covering many disciplines, with some of them reaching critical acclaim in patron countries all over the world. The Lebanese have always had their own touch and Beirut, when it comes to art, is considered the Paris of the Middle East in many ways. I called up Dina Yunis, a Lebanese PhD student at London’s King’s College, researching young urbanite narratives and dynamics in graffiti & street art in fragmented cities like Beirut.
“Well I can't speak for the Middle East art scene in general; I think it’s contextual as each country and each city has its own vibe and influences," she says, "In the case of Beirut and Lebanon though, the art scene has evolved significantly. Where things were done conspicuously, underground, and away from the public eye, nowadays artists are increasingly pushing the boundaries."
Lebanon has long been considered one of the more ‘liberal’ countries in the Middle East, and despite the constant state of turmoil the country finds itself in, it is relatively freer in self-expression than many of its neighbours. For instance, local artist Eli Rezkallah, the founder of Plastik Magazine and Plastik Studios often features nudity and drag queens in his work, which would not be tolerated in many other Arab countries.
My Heart Belongs to Daddy, 2016, by Lebanese visual artist Eli Rezkallah
I asked Dina about her opinion regarding the current migration of the art scene to Gulf nations that we are currently seeing. “They’re able to showcase local and Arab artists which I think is very important. The way in which culture is perceived and how the public interacts with cultural practices is very indicative of where we are in a society,” she starts. “The issue though that I have with such events is that they cater to a certain clientele and socioeconomic class, especially when you're talking about urban sites such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi where the entirety of each of those cities is manmade. It sometimes feels as if they're trying to compensate for the lack of authenticity, history, heritage, and culture that they don't organically have like other Arab cities such as Cairo and Beirut.”
Yunis continues, “When it comes to Saudi Arabia and sometimes other Gulf cities I'm a bit hesitant as to what the end game is of having these initiatives. When you're aware of the politics, human right violations, gender inequality, and injustices that still exist, it makes you wonder if they're trying to use these initiatives to conceal actual urban realities by portraying themselves as ‘progressive’ and ‘cultural’.”
I catch up with Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr while he is traveling to participate in an exhibition in France. “In general art is a huge industry and if it is provided with the right kind of support it can become a massive industry,” he states. “Those with the infrastructure will be able to continue the journey.”
When it comes to Egypt, Nasr insists that the nation used to have the infrastructure, but after creative expression became heavily controlled and regulated, we “lost a lot” and the scene is no longer on the level it deserves to be on. ”Art is not only the existence of an artist; art is community, exhibition space, active journalism with dedicated platforms, critics, symposiums, discussions, talks and most importantly active collectors - all of this vanished from Egypt since the start of the Arab Spring,” Nasr argues.
The Towers of Love, 2011 by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr.
His views are that the Egyptian government is trying to control creative content for fear of malignant use. He insists that the most important thing is the collector - be it private collectors or museums - without which the artist cannot make ends meet. “This is the last defence for us. Without arts and culture we will fall completely, society will degrade – private institutions must continue.”
A number of private institutions and individuals have taken it upon themselves to show an active interest in art – both in Egypt and beyond. The family behind what is considered to be one of the biggest patrons of arts in Egypt, The Sawiris Foundation, recently offered an academic grant for Egyptian artists accepted to study in prominent art schools abroad. Meanwhile, Lebanese-Palestinian businessman and art patron Ramzi Dalloul, who has amassed arguably the largest collection of contemporary Arab art in private hands – nearly 4,000 pieces – currently has plans in the works to open a museum in Lebanon featuring his impressive collection of pan-Arab art. The museum is set to be free of charge - and he settled on Lebanon because of the freer rein art is given in the country.
Art is not only the existence of an artist; art is community, exhibition space, active journalism with dedicated platforms, critics, symposiums, discussions, talks and most importantly active collectors - all of this vanished from Egypt since the start of the Arab Spring
In Egypt though, the overall number of collectors has dropped. Dr. Hossam Rashwan, is one of the few who are still active inside the country. A disciplinary scholar, his work cataloging and preserving modern Egyptian art culminated in Catalogue Raisonné: Mahmoud Said’ followed by Catalogue Raisonné: Abdel Hady El Gazzar’, two projects I was told ended up costing over 250,000 Euros just to print. Dr. Rashwan makes the argument that collecting is fading fast in Egypt. “Collecting is not lucrative anymore; you’ll buy a painting by Mahmoud Said for a million dollars you won’t make a buck on it if you wait ten years.” By contrast, he suggests that Gulf countries – and their collectors – have picked where North African countries seem to have left off. “The market in Dubai opened up with museums and auction houses buying a lot of pieces from Egypt and the rest of the Middle East,” says Dr Rashwan.
Moataz Nasr however appears to be indifferent towards the source of money in the Gulf, and doesn’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. “Money talks all over the world, never more so than in the Gulf, and at the end of the day, they have been able to use that money to develop the museums, exhibition spaces, the curators (regional and international), press, magazines, and so on.”
Nadine Abdel Ghaffar, the founder of Art D’Egypte gives a different account. She argues that Qatar is using their money to essentially buy interest in their country’s art. Abdel Ghaffar says the government is spending millions paying for flights and hotels to invite the international art world’s top VIPs to attend their museums and shows. “In Egypt by comparison, we never had to pay anyone to visit and people come from all over the world to attend our events.”
With regards to the situation in Egypt, in terms of the government’s radical attempt to stifle art, she suggests it is not nearly as severe as some of her colleagues have indicated. “So far I don’t see the government as trying to control artistic output – if that was the case my exhibition would of been stopped,” she argues. In fact both years that Art D’Egypte ran its annual pop-up exhibition, it required massive government support in order to land its iconic venue, the Egyptian Museum, in the first year, which was a truly first of its kind exhibit, and the historic Manial Palace for the second year, where Egypt’s royal family once lived. This year’s incarnation actually saw a slew of ministers and government representatives present on the opening night, and the exhibition was allowed by the ministry to run for almost a full month.
“What worked for us, and what I’m a huge advocate of, is PPP (private, public partnerships),” she explains, “Involving the government is the way forward, and in Egypt they’ve been more than willing to take on projects with us.”
It’s not that what Abdel Ghaffar says is absolute, but to those who refute her claims, it’s clear that the picture in Egypt and similarly the rest of the Middle East is not constant to one person or organisation’s experiences. I call up one of the region’s most well-known art critics, Suzan Shoukry Yacoub, who is also the editor of the Arts and Culture section in one of Egypt’s longest standing magazines, Rose al-Yūsuf.
Yacoub points to Egyptian surrealist art – its rise and demise – as a prime example of wasted potential. The country, in fact, played a role in the global surrealist movement, and had its own surrealist era in the 1930s and 40s, with artists like Ramses Younan, Fouad Kamel, Kamel El Telmesany and many more. Yacoub recalls how Salvador Dali met with Ramses Younan in Europe and exchanged ideas, fully integrating Egypt into the very early global surrealist movement.
Untitled, c. 1943, by Egyptian artist Ramses Younan
The work of Egyptian surrealists however, was deemed foul and heretic by the government. “The Art and Freedom Group [a surrealist art collective in Egypt in the 30s and 40s] were prosecuted for their creativity,” Yacoub says. “They were either jailed, banished, or worse, and all of their works locked up in our museum’s cellars after the 1946 anti-communist crackdown.” Their surrealist art was stowed away – only to appear years later in auctions at London’s Sotheby’s, fetching millions of dollars.
They were either jailed, banished, or worse, and all of their works locked up in our museum’s cellars after the 1946 anti-communist crackdown.
What happened in between was that they were handed out to foreign countries to be exhibited, part of a cultural exchange protocol with Paris, as well as a similar protocol with Sharjah. “If it wasn’t for the protocols with Sharjah and Paris most of these works would of never seen the light of day,” she says. “What the GCC countries did was expose to us how irresponsible we were towards our history.”
Yacoub’s hope is that history does not, in fact, repeat itself, and that Egypt is aware of what is has while it still has it. “It is our responsibility to show the world what we are made of – since we haven’t been doing that it is no wonder that we see Egyptian pieces exhibited abroad, garnering much more attention than they would here.”
While art is still very much alive across the Middle East, it appears that some nations have retreated from the limelight, while others are starting to take center stage. Countries which historically cradled the art scene in the Arab world such as Egypt and Syria, have retreated and given rise to the Gulf, in particular the Emirates, where an art scene is flourishing.
The Arab Spring inarguably had an impact on art in countries such as Egypt and Syria, but for some nations, the former in specific, it seems that it is not only the turmoil suffered post 2011 that has impacted the art scene, but rather it appears that there is a history of silencing freedom of expression that runs in the country's blood, and this history is currently repeating itself - the surrealist struggle of the 40s is now back and bullying independent artists and art spaces. But while some scholars and artists argue that Egypt is being stifled, others suggest that the government is more on board that they might seem - that one need only engage them in order to acquire their support. Meanwhile, countries in the Gulf have poured money into funding artists, and building a culture of artistic appreciation in their nations - which rings hollow to some.
But while the tide of art in the Arab world ebbs and flows between its different nations, art in the region as a whole has undeniably moved forward. Whether it is work by Arab artists selling for unprecedented amounts; impressive institutions such as the Louvre opening their stunning doors in sandy Emirati cities; a flurry of graffiti giving rise when traditional venues become unavailable; massive initiatives like Art D'Egypte shedding new light on contemporary local work; collectors such as Lebanese Ramzi Dalloul working tirelessly to propel the scene forward by creating independent museums; or artists like Eli Rezkallah pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. Whereas the struggle to create - and to be allowed to create - may not be alleviated anytime soon, as long people continue to fight for art, in whichever nation they exist in, with however much funding they can muster, it has to continue, even if that means only finding cracks in which it can thrive.