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OUR COLUMNIST MIKE DISCUSSES THE ART OF THE MIDDLE EAST:

‘There are a number of issues in play here.

1. What is a Middle Eastern artist? Can you have a South American artist or are artists in Peru dealing with a different history, culture and present than artist in Brazil or Chile? An Egyptian artist is dealing with a vastly different situation than an Iraqi artist, not to mention Iranians, who are not Middle Easterners (i.e. Arabs) but who possess an ancient and rich cultural heritage (both an inspiration and a burden). When I lived in Egypt, I met some artists (sculptors especially), who were struggling with the position of being an Egyptian artist under the shadow of Egypt’s magnificent artistic past. First, there is the art of ancient Egypt, then there is the art of the 1920′s and 1930′s of which much is derivative of European modernism but there are some who went beyond that to produce works that are specifically Egyptian that addressed the situation of their times, such as Mahmoud Mokhtar, the most underrated sculptor of his time. He should be known as well as Rodin or Picasso for his efforts to address the effects of modernity on his culture.

2. Historically, the 20′s and 30′s in the Arab world were a time of great hope and openness, but this was lost due to foreign interventions such as the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh in Iran by the CIA, and the corruption in Egypt, fostered by the British, which led to the revolution of Nasser, which foundered as it opposed the desires of the West, which led to the Suez Crisis. The Gulf was growing in importance to the West due to oil, and North Africa was going through a time of trying to gain independence from the colonial powers. Overall, there is a sense in the Arab world of the 20s and 30s being a golden age. This was reignited after WWII, which led to the creation of the Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq and the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran by the CIA. During the Cold War, Arab states aligned themselves with the USSR or the USA, but often just became dicatorships who oppressed their own peoples with the nod and wink of their great power sponsors. So, yes, there is a sense of nostalgia in the Arab world of a better time, be it the 20s and 30s or the 50s and 60s. There is a lingering sense of loss and injustice.

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When I lived, taught and worked as an artist in Lebanon, the generation I taught were filled with stories of their parents, who always looked back at the 50′s and 60′s as a time of prosperity, openness, and cultural sophistication that was lost. Students of mine would not know how to deal with this nostalgia that seemed to be inhibiting any progress in the present. This would take an honest assessment of the situation now, which not many had the courage to take on. A shame as the current generation is attempting to find a way forward instead of bemoaning a lost past.

3. It’s easier for a dictatorship to use the past to create excuses as to why the nation is not what it should be rather than embrace the changes needed to make it what it should be. One should not underestimate the level of intimidation and punishment meted to those who spoke out against the powers that be. It extends through the teaching of art, which is under state control and allows no deviation or independent voice, so to try and speak out against an unjust state would often lead to prison or at least exclusion from the art worlds of their respective nations.

4. After decades of cultural repression, art is not seen as a tool of cultural challenge. It is a propaganda tool for the ruling regimes. Anyone who tried to do otherwise was not rewarded. It is only after the fall of the USSR that there was a space, small and limited, for artists in the region to create art that reflected truly their situations. Also, as there was strict control over cultural influences (lack of internet in Syria for example), artists had little awareness of what was happening outside of their environments. I had an exhibition in Damascus (pre-Revolution), and taught in Dubai, where I encountered the same attitudes of “art is great but I don’t want my child to be an artist”. This is a reflection of the history when culture was rich, but now it’s too risky to make work that is critical of you current environment, as well as financially risky. Most of the people I encountered were intensely curious about western art and ideas but had little exposure or little sense of the values behind the art. Then the Art Market enters the scene…

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5. Now that Middle Eastern Art is a market, artist who had limited exposure are now catapulted into the global spotlight as “representatives” of their nation’s culture, history and current predicaments. They are influenced by curators who spout the same ideas you mentioned originally of “memory, identity, and nostalgia”.

I wonder if the Art Market is creating more products by selecting individuals and exhibiting them out of context at places like the Serpentine in order to sell rather than to expose the issues of the region and gain an understanding of what is happening there. I have met many, many artists in the Middle East who are not recognized globally (yet) but are desperately attempting to address the issues in their societies for their societies, and not for recognition at Art Basel or elsewhere. Look at the graffiti art of Tunisia and Egypt that is happening now. Events like Art Dubai etc….don’t promote Arab culture or issues in the region; they offer up more product to Art Market investors who can’t buy Old Masters as they are limited.

The tragedy of it all is that global capitalism is attempting to turn regional art that is trying to serve it’s purpose in its own place into objects of collectable curiosity for those who have wealth but little awareness or attachment of the region in which the art was made.

Don’t be too hard on the artists mentioned above, as most of them are trying to expose the issues of oppression, corruption, and propaganda manipulation they are experiencing in an environment where it is dangerous to do so. Be critical, but also be aware of the situation in which the work was made, as well as be aware of who is curating and what their agenda is.

I don’t feel I have even begun to address these issues, and I hope you ask any questions that I may raise. I have spent nearly 15 years in the Middle East, which is enough to know that Middle East is an grossly inaccurate term, as well as to know that the life of an artist in Egypt, Syria, Iran or Saudi is vastly different from the life of an artist in Germany, the UK or the US.

Just a reflection.’