The Middle-Eastern canvas
Few terms evoke as much cartographic ambiguity as “Middle East”. Usually used as shorthand for an entire transcontinental region, today this geopolitical term that traces its origins to the British India Office in the 1850s includes western Asia and Egypt in north Africa. The immense diversity of the people who inhabit this 3,596,959 sq. miles area is responsible in large part for the complexity of modern and contemporary art from the region, but the questioning of issues of identity, migration, religion, aesthetics and ethics also makes it problematic to oversimplify what constitutes Middle-Eastern art.
Undoubtedly, the region’s art market has grown exponentially in the last decade. Significant modernist artists such as Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli, Fahrelnissa Zeid, Saliba Douaihy, Monir Farmanfarmaian, Etel Adnan, Mahmoud Said and Paul Guiragossian occupy pride of place in auctions of late 20th century Middle-Eastern art. And now, motivated by a surge in interest from Asian collectors, auction houses like Sotheby’s have decided to bring more art from the Middle East to the rest of Asia. A case in point is the very first exhibition of two iconic Middle-Eastern modernists, Reza Derakshani and Alfred Basbous, in Sotheby’s Hong Kong gallery.
Curated by Arianne Levene Piper and Eglantine de Ganay-d’Espous, in association with the Sophia Contemporary Gallery and Alfred Basbous Foundation, the show, slated for 3-17 November, will feature 15 new oil-on-canvas works by Derakshani, one of Iran’s most celebrated artists, and 12 bronzes and marble sculptures by Basbous, the Lebanese-born modern sculptor who died in 2006. “We want to bring quality blue-chip paintings and sculptures, which we believe will appeal to the sophisticated taste of collectors in Asia,” say the curators in a joint email. “Derakshani and Basbous are both very important artists in their respective regions, with a strong collector base in Lebanon, Iran and the Middle East, as well as having works in established international collections.”
Both artists’ works embody the zeitgeist of Middle-Eastern art, the curators believe. “In modern and contemporary art from the Middle East, the most common focus is on the adaptation of traditional motifs and ideas. Both Reza and Basbous combine in their work Western influences and local traditions, creating outstanding unique works. In the output of both artists, ideas around the notion of self-identity are also present,” they say.
“The interplay between Western canons and traditional culture of their respective geographies is key in both Basbous’ and Reza’s artistic practice. While the influence of European modernist sculptors Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore is evident in Basbous’ work, he also included in his work elements drawn from Greek mythology, Phoenician culture and Lebanese folk arts. Similarly, Reza’s paintings skilfully draw upon the Persian miniature tradition, often incorporating traditional calligraphy, while making full use of the modern and postmodern achievements of Western abstract painting,” they add.
What distinguishes more contemporary Middle-Eastern artists from the modernists, though, is the range of provocative subject matter, a reflection of present-day realities specific to the region. The artists’ practices engage very directly with the convoluted nature of daily life, whether in civil-war-torn Syria or the authoritarian Turkish state, or in the contested Palestinian country. For example, in August 2012, when the Aleppo-based curator and gallerist Issa Touma spotted Free Syrian Army rebels combating Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Army through the window of his East Aleppo home, he chose not to flee, but to use his compact Nikon camera to film the rebels on the streets. In 2016, with help from Amsterdam-based film-makers Floor van der Meulen and Thomas Vroege, he converted the footage into a short award-winning documentary titled 9 Days—From My Window In Aleppo. “When (the rebels) decided to cut the city in half and make war, they didn’t ask us. They didn’t care about us. They made a checkpoint and started shooting. They came to kill—they didn’t come to (liberate) us. This is the message for civilians,” Touma said in an interview.
At the recently concluded two-city edition of documenta 14, a quinquennial exhibition of modern and contemporary art headquartered in Kassel, Germany, Lebanese-Dutch artist Mounira Al Solh appropriated portraiture as a humanizing force to give a face to the Middle-Eastern and north African migrants she encountered in Kassel and Athens, among other cities, “who have made, or are making, the transition from the status of refugees into citizens”, as curator Hendrik Folkerts writes in the documenta 14: Daybook, simultaneously recording their narratives. “The oral history of displaced individuals that Al Solh bears witness to is as much a legal account as a personal one. Many of the portraits are drawn on yellow legal paper, which serve as material indexes of the painstaking bureaucratic processes through which immigrants must go in order to obtain citizenship,” writes Folkerts.
The series I Strongly Believe In Our Right To Be Frivolous, consisting of nearly 150 portraits made over five years, maps the geographies of arrival through storytelling, but also through the experience of immigration policies that deeply affect Europe’s political landscape. Adjoining the display of portraits was her performative monument, Nassib’s Bakery, where she periodically served a Levantine specialty, za’atar man’ouche, a kind of Lebanese pizza made with thyme and olive oil, and commonly topped with cucumbers, olives, mint, and tomatoes, or with white cheese.
“Za’atar mixes are very rich and diverse within the region: the Lebanese mix, the Aleppo mix, the Jordanian, and the Palestinian mix are among the most famous and delicious recipes in the Middle East,” wrote Solh in her wall text, before identifying the ideal sources of various ingredients from the region that comprise what she refers to as “Mounira’s mix”, ranging from Greek extra virgin olive oil to freshly ground sumac and sesame seeds from Izmir, and dried pistachios from Aleppo—reminding us, in fact, that in Arabic, pistachios are called fistok halabi, which translates to Aleppo nuts, thus referencing a whole history of trade and culinary tradition.
Nassib’s bakery was a “secular” bakery that her father, a man “from the other side”, had set up in 1984 in Beirut in the hope of creating jobs for people with disabilities. He found no takers, so he distributed his bread to orphanages and jails. When the war escalated in 1989, the whole region was under siege, with no water, electricity or flour. But Nassib had access to slightly stale flour, then a luxury, because he was branded a non-profit institution. So people had two options: die of starvation or buy bread from the bakery. The bakery became famous, and an easy target. A few weeks after its success, it was bombed and burnt.
Like Al Solh, 30-year-old Berlin-based Jordanian artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s practice engages with marginalized testimonies and uses technology to expose the political effects of listening. His commissioned piece, Saydnaya (The Missing 19db) for the 2017 Sharjah Biennial, for instance, tells the story of a prison for political detainees 25km from Damascus, where speaking aloud is punishable by death. Abu Hamdan, who was announced winner of 2018’s Abraaj Group Art Prize, conducts forensic audio investigations as part of his research for Forensic Architecture, an independent agency based at London’s Goldsmiths College, where he is also a PhD candidate. For his piece, he used an echo-profiling technique to determine the size of the prison cells and corridors, playing sounds at different decibels to ex-detainees to arrive at an approximation of the level that corresponded to their memories.
It’s perhaps wise for the rest of the world to pay more attention to the potent art being produced by Middle-Eastern artists. Over 11 editions, Art Dubai, the annual art fair, has sustained its pivotal role in championing Middle-Eastern modern and contemporary art.
Art Dubai’s efficiently curated Modern section, a permanent feature, allows galleries to introduce audiences to lesser-known masters, like Pakistani artist Zahoor ul Akhlaq (represented by India’s Jhaveri Contemporary) or Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour (Gallery One, Ramallah). Sotheby’s showcase in Hong Kong could perhaps signal the beginning of a similar long-term dialogue, this time between two sides of the same continent.