In May 2006, Christie’s held its first-ever auction in the Middle East, a sale of international contemporary art with an emphasis on Arab and Iranian works. All expectations were shattered: more than $8.5 million worth of art was sold, and a second auction is now planned for January 2007. Despite the absence of a strong artistic tradition, the Gulf is increasingly emerging as a new artistic hub in the Middle East. The Sharjah Museum held its 7th biennial in 2005, an event now widely regarded as the Gulf’s premier modern art showcase; the 8th biennial will open in April 2007, and is expected to be even bigger. The first major art fair in the Middle East, the Gulf Art Fair, will take place in March 2007, and will see some of the world’s most exclusive galleries taking part, rubbing shoulders with their new local counterparts. The Guggenheim has announced its biggest-ever museum to be built in Abu Dhabi, expected to open in 2011.
If there was a lull in terms of artistic innovation, production or sales of Middle Eastern art during the later decades of the 20th century, it was because the Middle East itself was in a state of unrest: most local artists either had to go to the West to pursue their careers, or stay and make art under adverse, often repressive condistions. Only rarely was their art shown to local audiences.
The popular resurgence of Arab art began in earnest in the late 1990s. One catalyst was the the surprise triumph of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, which raised both awareness and interest in regional cinema. Iranian cinema may be the regional star, but Arab filmmakers caught the wave as well. For foreign audiences, Middle Eastern cinema was new and innovative; people were curious to see and, perhaps through these films, better understand the region. The fact that much of this emerged despite tight government regulations and censorship, and often under politically or physically dangerous conditions, only heightened Western interest and curiosity.
Around the same time, galleries throughout Europe began to recognize the level of emerging talent among Middle Eastern artists and a Western appetite for regional culture. In 2001, the Barbican in London organized an exhibition of contemporary Iranian art from 1970s to present day. Other prominent shows included Disorientation in Berlin in 2003, a multimedia group show for young Arab artists; Contemporary Arab Representations in Rotterdam in 2002; and Harem Fantasies and the New Sheherazades, showcasing the works of contemporary Middle Eastern female artists in Barcelona in 2003.
Meanwhile, there was a feeling within the nascent Gulf art community that things were changing. A discourse emerged, as artists reflected on their situations, the region and its nuances, identity and exile, politics and life. Among the younger artists being showcased, there were also many older, established artists showing new work or work that not been seen in years. There were also artists, such as Mona Hatoum and Shirin Neshat, who had already made their careers in the West but suddenly found themselves the subjects of much greater attention as more curiousity surrounded Middle Eastern art and artists.
At the beginning of the decade, Dubai had only a few art galleries, which mainly displayed European and other Western artists. The cinemas showed Hollywood films, few of the exciting new Iranian and Arab films and filmmakers were recognized, let alone screened in the Gulf. There were pockets of production and promotion in other parts of the the Middle East, especially in the cultural capitals of Beirut, Cairo and Tehran. But most of the action was in the West.
Five years ago, there were no contemporary art galleries that specialized in art from the Middle East in Dubai. There were no magazines that wrote specifically about local artists, and there was no secondary market for art in the emirate. In short, there were no real platforms for local artists to be promoted to their home audiences.
At the time, some naysayers speculated that people in the Gulf were simply not interested in Middle Eastern artists, and perhaps there was no real market for such work. Five years on, however, there are now two magazines solely devoted to Middle Eastern art and culture, Bidoun and Canvas. Art-based forums, nonprofit groups and new galleries are springing up. The Dubai film festival today, for example, has an entire section devoted to films by Arab filmmakers.
There is a market for Middle Eastern art in the Gulf: as shown in Dubai, the kind of work that people once dimissed as not having a “market” here is exactly what the collectors are buying. And the best news is that in this boom, some of the most exciting work to come from the artists of this region for a long time is emerging: Middle Easterners are making art that is thought-provoking and conceptually strong. The Gulf and its artists are waking up, and it’s about time.