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What's driving the vibrant contemporary art ecosystem in the Middle East

Most major cities in the Middle East are buzzing with art-related activity, be it the opening of museums or setting up of grants to foster innovation both in the West and the Global South

An installation at Art Jameel, which was established in 2003 to nurture artistic communities. Courtesy: Art Jameel
An installation at Art Jameel, which was established in 2003 to nurture artistic communities. Courtesy: Art Jameel

For the past five years, the Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai has been hosting talks and exhibitions of leading contemporary Indian artists such as Navjot Altaf, Amar Kanwar and Jitish Kallat. These days, it is hosting a new show, Sheher, Prakriti And Devi, which marks photographer Gauri Gill’s first extensive curation. Featuring works of artists that she shares an affinity with—such as Chiara Camoni, Ladhki Devi, Rashmi Kaleka and Mrinalini Mukherjee—she continues to offer a unique lens to cityscapes as spaces shared by multiple life-worlds. The exhibition is on display till 1 June at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city—the Madinat Jumeirah—preparations are on for Art Dubai, which has been an integral part of the international cultural calendar since 2007 and has regularly featured Indian artists. It is now the first major international art fair to create a section focused purely on digital art. At the third iteration of this digital segment, curated by Alfredo Cramerotti and Auronda Scalera, the focus will be on female artists, who are pushing the boundaries of art and technology, among other things. The fair will be held from 1-3 March, with previews on 28-29 February.

It is not just Dubai, but most major cities in the Middle East, such as Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Sharjah—and even the ancient region of AlUla in north-west Saudi Arabia—are buzzing with art-related activity. Work is afoot to get the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi ready in the Saadiyat Island cultural district—which is a complex of art and cultural institutions—by 2025. When it opens, it will be the largest of all the Guggenheim museums across the world and will focus on modern and contemporary art from West and South Asia and North Africa. Saadiyat Island is already home to another major museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2017.

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Benedetta Ghione, executive director, Art Dubai, draws attention to the range of programming happening in the Middle East in February alone. It ranges from a new design biennial in Doha, the annual March Meeting—Sharjah Art Foundation’s annual convening of artists, curators and art practitioners to explore critical issues in contemporary art—in Sharjah, to Art Dubai and its flagship Global Art Forum (a Dubai-based annual, transdisciplinary summit), and significant cultural activations and festivals taking place in Abu Dhabi. “The result is a moment of focus on the region, and a real sense of excitement,” she says.

What’s more, a new biennale related to contemporary art is all set to be organised between 20 February and May, at the JAX District in Diriyah, a town adjacent to the capital city of Riyadh and home to the Unesco World Heritage Site of At-Turaif.

Rahul Gudipudi, an India-born researcher and storyteller, is one of the co-curators of the 2024 Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, which hopes to foster dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the world through exhibitions that span formats such as performance, sound, research-based practices, and digital forms.

According to Roshini Vadehra, director, Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery, the location of the Middle East—and its rich diaspora community hailing from different parts of the world, including India—makes it a unique intersection of the West and the Global South. The art that is showcased here offers a window to best practices from both spheres of the globe. And with artists often practising in countries facing growing geopolitical conflict and uncertainty, some parts of the Middle East become a neutral canvas for them to express their views without fear of ostracisation. All of this makes the arts ecosystem in the region unique.

A conduit for ideas

Historically too the region, with port cities such as Sharjah and Jeddah, has been an important hub in the exchange of ideas and goods. According to Nawar Al Qassimi, vice-president, Sharjah Art Foundation, it is only natural that a place that is so “central” and connected to the rest of the world has emerged as a strategic arts platform with major biennales and fairs. “There was always a flourishing arts ecosystem in the Middle East, perhaps one that didn’t necessarily get international attention earlier. Artist-run initiatives and biennales have been taking place in Baghdad from the 1970s and Sharjah from the 1990s,” says Al Qassimi, who was in India recently for the Mumbai Gallery Weekend. It is these events and moments that laid the groundwork for the spate of art-related development in the region today.

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Shirin Abedinirad’s ‘Reflective Journey’ (2023), installation, land art, to be shown at the digital segment of Art Dubai 2024
Shirin Abedinirad’s ‘Reflective Journey’ (2023), installation, land art, to be shown at the digital segment of Art Dubai 2024

From the early 2000s, specifically in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the setting of government-supported institutions such as the Sharjah Art Foundation, and the increasing global presence of events such as the Sharjah Biennial, have further driven this change. In the past two decades, the Sharjah Biennial, for one, has become a place for commissioning works by some of the most important artists of our times.

There has been significant investment in high-quality cultural infrastructure across the Middle East in the last 20 years, with the expansion of the art district of Saadiyat Island. Art spaces are coming up in newer neighbourhoods. According to Ghione, while the first commercial galleries and auction houses in Dubai located themselves close to the financial district, today several new clusters have come up around the city, including in Alserkal Avenue, and Al Quoz.

A window to south Asia

The Global South has emerged as a major focal point for fairs and institutions in cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. “The Global South is part of our unique DNA and this year’s programme at Art Dubai will reflect that more than ever, with over 65% of our exhibitors hailing from there,” says Ghione. “We began with a regional focus, before expanding to a natural area of influence that reflects both the cosmopolitan nature of Dubai and, importantly, our increasingly diverse communities.”

Priyanka Raja of Experimenter, Kolkata and Mumbai, has been part of the Art Dubai committee for some years now and, in the course of time, has noted the many factors that make the Middle East such an attractive space for artists, exhibitors, collectors and art enthusiasts from India. The ease of travel—with simpler paperwork required—is one of these.

While the region is seeing the opening up of new institutions, some older organisations such as the Sharjah Art Foundation—a contemporary art and culture foundation in the United Arab Emirates—have been consistently working in this space for over 15 years. This mix of the new and the consistent is creating an important tapestry for art in the region.

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“Several curators and scholars of South Asian origin such as Sabih Ahmed (Ishara Foundation), Nada Raza (Alserkal Avenue) also Sandhini Poddar, who is part of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi team, bring a certain nuance and experience that has created an understanding of wider regions—ones they are working in and also those they may be rooted within,” says Raja. Over the years, she considers herself lucky to have witnessed some seminal showcases of artists from southeast Asia such as Bani Abidi, Ayesha Sultana and CAMP in several galleries and institutions in the Middle East.

At AlUla, where work is underway to transform this heritage area, once connected to the ancient Incense Road, into a destination for culture and heritage, several programmes have been conceptualised to showcase global creative voices, including those from India. For instance, Arts AlUla and the French Agency for AlUla Development (Afalula) launched a new season of six artist residency programmes last year. These ongoing residencies span the fields of visual arts, design, botanical landscaping, heritage, and innovation. This diverse gathering of artists includes Dushyant Bansal and Priyanka Sharma, who set up Studio Material in 2016 and work between London and Jaipur. Specialists in spatial and product design, their work focuses on the geologies of the desert plains of western India.

Dushyant Bansal and Priyanka Sharma of Studio Material. Courtesy: Afalula
Dushyant Bansal and Priyanka Sharma of Studio Material. Courtesy: Afalula

While bringing in global voices to the Middle East, there is focus on nurturing homegrown talent too. According to Ghione, the region has always been an important centre for artistic production. “Previously artists may have left to study in the Western art capitals. But now more and more are staying, and this is down to the range of opportunities available to artists. It’s important to note that these opportunities are both local and international,” she says. The representation of artists from the Middle East in major biennials and the major institutions is growing, and many more have significant commercial gallery representation. “It will be important that we take care to nurture, guide and support these artists as their careers blossom,” she adds.

Drivers of change

A mix of public-private patronage has resulted in the transformation of the art ecosystem in the Middle East. One of the most prominent leaders of this change has been the Jameel family (Saudi Arabia and UAE), which has had a legacy of supporting communities. Art Jameel, which was established in 2003, carries this ethos of nurturing artists and communities forward. It comprises two institutions—Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, UAE, and Hayy Jameel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and both embrace a collaborative model.

“Prioritising arts and education across both institutions, the programming includes thoughtfully-curated exhibitions focused on pertinent themes in the region, festivals and symposiums, and educational programming that nurtures upcoming UAE and KSA creative talent,” says Dawn Ross, head of collections, Art Jameel. Along with Al Qassimi, Ross was part of the talk, Curatorial Futures: Art Foundations In The UAE, at the Mumbai Gallery Weekend.

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The organisation has been trying to find niche and pertinent fields to collaborate on. Through its Anhar: Culture and Climate Platform (in collaboration with British Council), Art Jameel offers grants for artists, collectives and organisations based in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region to create, engage and raise awareness for climate change. It is also part of The World Weather Network, a community of artists reporting on weather and climate. “Art Jameel is one of 28 arts organisations from around the world, forming a global ‘weather reporting’ project, starting June 2022,” says Ross.Art Jameel has released a series of podcasts that explore atmospheric humidity featuring voices of Noush Anand, Nadim Choufi, Nadine Khalil and Isaac Sullivan, Nidhi Mahajan, and Deepak Unnikrishnan.

For the past 10 years, in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, the institution has awarded the Jameel Art Prize to artists and designers, whose work reflects a fusion of traditional Islamic influences with contemporary approaches. The most recent prize,Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics (2023), was the first to focus on a single discipline—contemporary design, including diverse practices spanning graphic design, fashion, typography and textiles. The next edition is dedicated to moving images and new media work.

Another private institution making a mark is Ishara Art Foundation founded by Smita Prabhakar in 2019 in Dubai. It goes to show that the Indian diaspora community in the Middle East is not just an avid consumer of art but also a driver of change. Prabhakar has been collecting modern and contemporary Indian art for over two decades, and in the course of time, she realised that there was no platform outside of the subcontinent that showcased contemporary art from the region. “There was also the awareness that in all these years, the Gulf has been a place of confluence for so many nationalities, especially those from South Asia, thereby full of potential for such a diverse demographic to engage with art. All these factors were the impetus behind setting up Ishara as a meeting point for different voices, experiences and histories,” says Sabih Ahmed, director, Ishara Art Foundation.

The Museum of the Future in Dubai
The Museum of the Future in Dubai (iSTOCKPHOTO)

All of these institutions are not working in silos, but constantly conversing and collaborating with one another. For instance, Art Dubai and Ishara have collaborated on artistic commissions, while the latter has worked on workshops and talks with Art Jameel and Gulf Photo Plus. “In 2024, we are excited to partner with Sharjah Art Foundation for the first time in co-presenting a performance for Perform Sharjah. We are also partnering with TAKE On Art magazine (by Delhi-based Bhavna Kakar) on a special issue that interrogates what is South Asia, and, with the Han Nefkens Foundation on a South Asian Video Art Production Grant along with Prameya Art Foundation,” says Ahmed.

The region has potential to weave many new threads of cross-cultural dialogue in the coming years, bringing together artistic perspectives on diasporic narratives, migration, impact of new economic models, and more. As the world goes through drastic changes—geological, political and climatic—the Middle East, perhaps, offers a platform for artists, curators and thinkers to make sense of these changing realities and offer their take on it.

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