In Conversation with Janet Rady – ‘Contemporary Art of the Middle East’

For our latest exhibition, we spoke with Janet Rady, an expert on the art of the Middle East and co-curator of the show, to discuss the emergence of contemporary art from the region and works in the exhibition.

How is the Middle East defined?

This can be a complicated question, it depends on whether you are considering the Middle East geographically, or culturally and socially. Geographically it includes Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE, but not Iran or Israel as they are not Arab countries. Culturally, it’s not a neat diagram. You can’t say All Muslims live in the Middle East and the Middle East is solely defined by Muslims. For the purposes of this exhibition, we are including Iranian artists who may consider themselves part of the Middle East as part of a broader cultural definition.

How do you define Modern and Contemporary Art?

In my world, Modern art means anything produced until the year 2000, whether the artist is dead or alive. Contemporary work is that produced after this period.

What are the movements, schools or trends that are emerging?

This is quite difficult because it’s fragmented, it’s impossible to categorise. Broadly speaking, Iran and Lebanon and Egypt are the countries that really focus on photography. Other countries in the Middle East have very painterly traditions because in the 1920s and 30s their artists to Russia and were inspired by the work there. Many Iraqi artists travelled to Rome and Paris, so they learnt very painterly techniques.

How does traditional art from the region influence the contemporary art?

Poetry is a particularly interesting influence throughout the region. In many places, the UAE for instance, they had a literary culture derived from storytelling. Poetry would be recited and then retold down the generations.

For Iranians, poetry is significant. If you get into a taxi, the driver may well recite the ‘Shahnameh’, which is an epic Persian poem written in the 13th century. This work is a bit like Chaucer or Beowulf is to us, but how many taxi drivers in the UK would recite Chaucer to you?!

Calligraphy is another important influence. ‘La Qalam’, the pen series, are more traditional calligraphic works and celebrates the fact that literature has such a strong tradition within the Middle East.

Other artists are using calligraphy, but not necessarily traditional forms of calligraphy. They want something original, innovative and different. Certainly Jason Noushin’s work ‘Batman’ is very different in that respect. The script on this work is actually English written in Persian, as the artist is half British half Iranian. The words say ‘wham!’, ‘bam!’ – like in the comics, so it’s an unusual use full of humour and wit.

Many female artists are emerging from the region, which might be a surprise to some, why is this?

Perhaps this is unexpected unless you understand the economics of these countries and the social climate. They’ve got such a strong female arts scene in the Middle East, much stronger than it is here for women.

A lot of women are becoming artists now. Historically, in more conservative countries, woman have been expected to stay at home. Now they find themselves with money, time and the skill to become an artist and it’s not frowned upon because it’s not seen as a real job.

In more progressive countries where women have been led into engineering, medicine or technology jobs by their families, then, after five or ten years they say, right now I’m going to be an artist, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. You’ll find a lot of female Bharani artists with this background.

A number of the works in the exhibition are figurative, is this allowed in these cultures?

Yes, this is a myth I am trying to dispel! To what degree depends on the country. Bahrain, for example, has a strong tradition of figurative art.

There is a no specific prohibition in the Koran against depicting figures, but it has been widely interpreted that there should not be idolatry in visual imagery within in a mosque or in a Koran.

In Egypt, the rules have chopped and changed over the years. Saudi Arabia is different. I think that’s probably the one country from which you won’t see much figurative art. In Iran, they’re quite happy to have pictures of women, women without their hair covered, but not naked – although there are exceptions…

…the artists are very smart and the work can be subversive, but not always in an obvious way. For instance, this work ‘Red Angel Dreaming’ 2002 by Bahman Jalali – is actually based on a street sign for hairdressers from the 19th century, it’s historic, and this is absolutely fine.

Which countries are producing modern and contemporary artists?

The countries that tend to produce the leading modern artists are those that have sent their artists overseas – Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. Historically they were able to travel, and they had good relations with Europe, or were colonised by European countries.

Contemporary art is reasonably well established in most countries in the region now. Iran has many artists, lots of smaller schools and contemporary art galleries – far more than anywhere else within the region. Iran is a reasonably stable country, but they’ve got a very polarised economy. The top tier is incredibly wealthy, if you go to the north of Tehran where the wealthy live you could think you’re in L.A. or Switzerland, except everything is written in Farsi! This prosperity puts Iran at the forefront of the arts scene in the Middle East

Perhaps surprisingly for a western audience, the arts scene in Syria is still strong. People are striving to keep normal life going and they support their artists. The whole country has not been affected, I can’t say it’s a perfectly normal situation, it’s not, but life finds a way and the art scene is still strong.

What has changed in the region to lead to the current renaissance in modern and contemporary art?

You must look at the commercial art market to determine why there is a renaissance and it can be traced back to the fact that the auction houses started to look at the region. They had been holding sales of Orientalist and Islamic art in London and bringing highlights of those sales to view in Dubai. As they realised Dubai was an important market, instead of bringing the highlights from the sales to the Middle East, they started having sales in Dubai themselves.

Christies held its first sale of modern and contemporary art in Dubai in 2006, and the Dubai Art Fair was founded by British gallery John Martin in March 2007. The combination of those two events meant that other people started to follow the commercial galleries in Dubai, they began to flourish and many more opened. There has been a biennale in Sharjah for a number of years before but it was only in 2004 that the daughter of the Ruler of Sharjah started to make it into an important international show and it’s grown and grown. In 2009 Abu Dhabi launched an art fair as well, so there are two significant fairs in the UAE as well.

In the beginning, the change was very much bottom up, not the top down. Although now with the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi this may well change. However it takes time to grow domestic art scenes, you can’t make an artist overnight.

Is art practice increasing in popularity in the Middle East, or are we discovering what has always been there?

In Egypt, Beirut, Baghdad and Iran they’ve had a very well established cultural scene for many years, but it’s regional. They have galleries, colleges, shows and biennials on and off, but the work and the artists haven’t really made it out into the international market. Now, with the fact that the auction houses are looking at these areas from a commercial point of view, it’s really strengthened the visibility of the Middle East art scene.

Technology and social media have played a considerable role in helping people discover art from the region. I think the statistics are that the largest numbers of users of Facebook as a percentage of the population in the entire world are in Saudi Arabia. It’s quite extraordinary.

Many in the Middle East are very technologically savvy. In Iran, although social media is banned, everyone still knows how to access it using virtual private networks, and they use Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. It can be it can be problematic, but they know how to deal with it within the confines.

This provides an opportunity for those within their own countries to see the work, and for us abroad it also provides us with a more nuanced context to understand the work.

Contemporary Art of the Middle East In Association with Janet Rady Fine Art, runs until Thursday  –  Saturday until 14th July 2018.