Is the market interested in art from the Middle East only in times of conflict?
On January 28, 2011, Egyptian multimedia artist Ahmed Bassiouni, 33, returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest. Just like millions of other Egyptians, he demanded the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and an end to 30 years of authoritarian rule. Bassiouni, known for his work in new media technology, screamed until he was beaten by riot police and killed by snipers from the Egyptian police forces. He left behind a wife and two children, an artistic legacy and a desire for change that still resonates in the Egyptian art scene.
Bassiouni’s life and work were exhibited that year in the Egyptian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The installation showed footage of the protests that Bassiouni filmed days before his death, along with a video installation of his last performance at the Egyptian Opera House entitled. 30 days running in place.
“I have a lot of hope if we stay like this,” he wrote on his Facebook page two days before his death. “Riot police beat me a lot. However, I will come again tomorrow. If they want war, we want peace. I am just trying to restore some of my nation’s dignity.”
During the summer of 2011, the Egyptian pavilion was seen as a sign of the growing acceptance of political art in the Arab world. But 11 years later, the same voices who rose up against authoritarian rule continue to be silenced. State-imposed censorship and self-censorship are widespread throughout the region, affecting artistic creativity.
Furthermore, support for Arab art by the wider art world has also waned, along with interest in the region’s complex geopolitics, auction outcomes and prices. This has led many artists from the region to ask: Is there a need for a struggle for the art world to pay attention to us? Or are we just part of another geographic trend that has come and gone?
When revolution erupted across the Arab world in 2011, against tyrants and their repressive policies, the art scene followed. Donors, curators, collectors and foreign critics flocked to the area.
All eyes were on Arab artists at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. Dear new art world, The title of the piece was in The New York Times That year stars from the Middle East appeared, such as Ahmed Al-Sudani, an Iraqi-born painter in Baghdad who fled to Syria during the first Gulf War before seeking asylum in the United States.
Victim of auctions, speculation and noise of the moment 2011 Sudanese Baghdad I (2008) sold for a record $1,127,472 at Christie’s London – but after just a few years, its prices had dropped dramatically. At Christie’s London at 2015, a painting by the artist brought in only $87,232. Recently, in a Sotheby’s Sale May 2020One of his works on paper You no longer have a hand (2007), sold for $2,772, less than its high estimate. It seems that the artist has since disappeared, and his work was only shown with difficulty after 2013.
In many ways, Soudani was part of the “boom” of Arab art that began around 2009. The region’s artists flourished, garnering international attention through an increase in museum shows, auctions, and representation in exhibitions. At the 2011 Venice Biennale, The Future of Promise was the largest ever Arab exhibition of contemporary art, with the participation of artists from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia.
In the same year in London, Boris Johnson launched the first annual festival of contemporary Arab art and culture, the Shubbak Festival.
An Egyptian art expert who spoke on condition of anonymity said, on condition of anonymity, “All eyes have turned to this area and what was being produced here and the money is on us.” Other cities thrived on foreign money in the absence of government funding. “There was this temptation to our art – to art being produced during the revolution.”
However, there was a catch. The Egyptian artistic professional added that the donors will support artists who create works that revolve around human rights, freedom of expression or women’s rights. There is always a political advantage under financial support. Not just for art and artistic practices.”
Freedom was only briefly tasted in Egypt. After Mubarak stepped down, Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, ruled Egypt for a brief period (2012-2013). “Many have been keeping a low profile and being self-censored, hoping foreign donors will continue to fund them,” our source said.
When General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s current president, took office in 2014, the country’s fragile arts ecosystem, which for years had been hanging by a thread thanks to private donors, began to shut down.
Our source said: “The government imposed restrictions on what foreign donors could do in the country because they feared that the funds received were directed towards social activism that incited the country’s revolution – and that was the government’s paranoia.” “When money from the outside dwindled, most art spaces had to close down or find other ways to operate to survive.”
The story of Egypt parallels the story of Syria, Palestine, Yemen and Tunisia. While Tunisia was once considered the only success story of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, many now fear that autocratic President Kais Saied is ready to secure more power under a new constitution that would push the country toward one-man rule.
Since 2018, the region has been swept by a second wave of protests known as the Arab Spring 2.0. This time, however, the demonstrations did not attract the international attention they had initially received. They have become familiar, periodic and almost predictable – part of the background of the media hype.
Amid a climate of constant fear and repression, artists and art professionals struggle to be seen as detached from the struggles that engulf them.
“After the second intifada in 2007, the light was on Palestine. Then came the Arab Spring and all the funding and lights went to Tunisia, then to Egypt, then to Syria. Then the Gaza massacre happened in 2014, the lights came back, then back to Syria and the refugee crisis. , etc.
But what can get lost in this whirlwind of media attention is the legacy of such conflict, and its ongoing psychological and emotional trauma. In August, three Iraqi artists are Sajjad Abbas, Raed Matar and Laith KarimWithdrawn from the Berlin Biennale To protest a work that included photos of prisoners being tortured at the notorious US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
“There is a devastating cynicism in focusing on areas that are experiencing conflict or social and political change – regions that are intermediate at certain moments,” Egyptian artist, musician and writer Hassan Khan told Artnet News: “This is how the scene works. “
It’s not just about the artists portraying the conflict, Boyadjian said, but the way we approach the image and the conflict. Ask the question: “Does the work reflect the object of criticism only by reproducing it?”
Israeli artists ask similar questions in the context of allegations of anti-Semitism in Documenta 15. Culture Radio Deutschlandfunk That, for Israelis, “there is this implicit expectation that you have to deal with the situation here, with the conflict, and have a political point of view. There is certainly a lot of interesting political art here. But that is not the only kind of art that has to be displayed.”
For curator and freelance writer Alexandra Stock, based in Cairo since 2007, conflict is just one of the lenses through which art is seen and understood.
“Why is this? Is it because it is being filtered through a Western lens and has to be placed in a context that needs justification?” she asked. “Art here has never had a chance to exist for its own sake. It always needs a reason for its existence.”
Geographical trend or obsessed with conflict?
So why is contemporary Arab art not sold as it was before?
Traders across the region say it comes down to market speculation and the art world’s obsession with geographies. Others attribute it to a lack of quality art in the market and a dearth of collectors.
“Most collectors today are not concerned with the aesthetic value of artworks – only their commercial value,” Saleh Barakat, a Beirut-based Lebanese dealer, told Artnet News. “Arab antiques aficionados now distrust their art. They have switched to buying American artists.”
Barakat added that “Middle Eastern art had its time. Now it is Africa’s turn.”
Charles Pocock, co-founder of Meem Gallery in Dubai and advisor to Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, sees less correlation in buying trends. “High conflict always draws international attention to an art movement in an area, and this is a fact, but I don’t think the tastes of collectors from the area are affected by conflict,” he said.
“The artists are not doing enough because there are not enough art collectors to buy the work,” one collector told Artnet News, on condition of anonymity.
Sales results at auction houses paint a mixed picture. For the entire year of 2010, sales of Christie’s in Dubai brought in $29 million, up from $13 million in 2009. During that time, two leading shows propelled art from the region onto the global stage: British collector Charles Saatchi’s exhibition Unveiled: New Art from The Middle East and the Opening of Mathaf: The Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar.
In April 2011, Christie’s Dubai revenue totaled $7.3 million, with 43 new auction records for the region’s artists. The works of the smaller artists made up $2.3 million of this total.
However, the ongoing political turmoil in the Middle East, including rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Dubai’s pre-Covid stagnation, and the financial and political meltdown in Lebanon, all threaten the regional art market.
Under former President Donald Trump, the United States reimposed economic sanctions on Iran, making it difficult for Iranian collectors – long some of the biggest buyers of the auction – to participate in international sales. And the Lebanese, another group of traditionally big buyers, remain cash-strapped.
In January 2020, Christie’s has canceled its art auction in the Middle East in Dubai, citing a lack of high-quality work. The auction house held one sale in London for Middle Eastern art each October, but the total results of the sale have fallen, now hovering around $2.5 million.
Sotheby’s, which has maintained twice-yearly sales of contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art, has seen a decline in revenue for this work. Although the auction house confirms that “main business” from the region has entered into sales organized by other departments, Sotheby’s April 2019 sale of the category came in at just under $4 million. And in March 2022 it brought in $2.3 million.
Today, as despair shrouds the region, Bassiouni’s former cry for dignity and freedom, like the cry of so many others, rings weaker and weaker.
“It is a pervert, but that is what it is. Orientalism is not over yet.” Boyadjian He said. “This is the development of Orientalism – the exoticism of the conflict.”
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