PRESERVING MODERN ARAB ART

Portrait of Hala Khayat

By Hala Khayat

In the Arab world’s artistic history, modernism is a term that can be applied to diverse currents. While differing in scope and character, these currents all share as their impetus the various independence movements across the Levant and North Africa from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Understandably, these modernist movements have somewhat different origins: each was led by artists of varying educational, religious and political backgrounds, who in turn had distinct aspirations for their work and Arab art as a whole. As such, these movements didn’t always share the same trajectories, frameworks or values. In most countries, the often unfavourable political conditions made modernism appear sporadically throughout the late twentieth century, instead of having a sustained stay. And yet, modernism has left a lasting legacy surviving to this day, from which music, literature, theatre, architecture and of course art can be traced.

“IN THE ARAB WORLD’S ARTISTIC  HISTORY, MODERNISM IS A TERM THAT CAN BE APPLIED TO DIVERSE CURRENTS.”

In particular, the past two decades have seen a renewed interest in modern and contemporary Arab and Middle Eastern art, which now rightfully stands as a noteworthy topic of cultural importance, gaining attention both regionally and internationally. Many Arab artists who formerly languished in obscurity have been reintroduced through major international exhibitions, and their profile has further been enhanced by numerous publications and scholarly talks.

On top of the growing number of private collectors, top international institutions such as the MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Centre Pompidou, and the Tate have established dedicated teams to look at the Middle Eastern art scene. These departments vary from having acquisition committees, liaising with both Arab and international curators, carrying out research in Middle Eastern studies and even putting forward funds to build a truer understanding of modern art from the Middle East by opening regional branches, as the Louvre has notably done in Abu Dhabi. Furthermore, Modern artists from the region are increasingly being represented in major art fairs such as the Venice and Lyon Biennales.

However, despite the exciting progress being made, these developments divert the attention from the many challenges present in the Arab art scene, especially concerning the search, documentation and protection of art works. Although each country in the region has separate public policies for culture and the arts, ongoing political upheavals and economic instability have exposed a serious lack of awareness about the importance of art and highlighted the ignorance present apropos to its conservation and safekeeping.

“IN PARTICULAR, THE PAST TWO DECADES HAVE SEEN A RENEWED INTEREST IN MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ARAB AND MIDDLE EASTERN ART, WHICH NOW RIGHTFULLY STANDS AS A NOTEWORTHY TOPIC OF CULTURAL IMPORTANCE, GAINING ATTENTION BOTH REGIONALLY AND INTERNATIONALLY.”

This is why I was extremely proud that Art Dubai decided this year to relaunch its Modern Art talks, which had begun in 2017—when the fair introduced its modern section for the first time—before being interrupted by the pandemic. Under the umbrella of the newly-established Dubai Collection, these talks and think tanks were curated with the express purpose of spreading the fair’s vision with regards to its modern section. The two-day talks offered a rich programme, which went beyond the traditionally commercial perspective of the galleries to tackle important issues such as archiving artworks, studying how artists translated their diverse identities within, and analyzing the role played by public and private institutions in this respect.

These talks provided a platform for a multitude of participants representing a wide spectrum of the art industry—from independent researchers to invited speakers from museums and foundations—to take part in meaningful dialogue about conservation concerns in existing art infrastructure, tracing one’s works of art, and the manifold efforts in education, legislation and research to address these issues. The audience, as always, was a willing contributor to the discussion. The talks quickly became hubs for networking, and conversation around the panels became essential for updating professional knowledge and practices. Many projects sprouted from the talks, from curating exhibitions and writing academic essays to this very issue of Selections, which is fully devoted to modern Arab art.

So here we are. While there is still a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome, the myriad endeavours mentioned above have led to much progress, and new developments are happening every day. The ultimate goal would be the formation of a regional network of art professionals, galleries and evidently art historians that would become a rich resource for PhD research projects, bibliographies, archival material and the conservation process altogether. This network would distribute information—for example by giving free access to works, physically and digitally—and provide visibility for the work done throughout the region, with the intended consequence of fostering partnerships across all platforms simultaneously, from large experienced institutions to private individuals just starting out. Further advancements would include specific undergraduate art programmes, exhibitions and seminars, public information repositories, translations of existing works . . . all of which is the eventual goal of the Dubai Collection.

In the meantime, let us celebrate in this issue what has already been achieved in the world of modern Arab art. I remind you that it is precisely because we have achieved so much that we now have the forethought to know what remains to be done.

Happy reading.


Bio: Hala Khayat joined Art Dubai as regional director in 2020, she has been working with the team to develop strategies for the local and regional collectors’ engagement. As Art Dubai aims to continue fostering regional relationships, Khayat’s extensive expertise in the Middle East and UAE will drive the growth and development of sustainable long-term engagement.
Khayat is a scholar on Arab and Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary art and has been integral in developing Christie’s Dubai since its inception in 2007, playing a key role in the expansion and globalisation of the Middle East’s art market both within the UAE and the greater region.
During her time at Christie’s, Khayat was known as a specialist on Arab, Iranian and Turkish art, and she worked closely with collectors on an international scale to oversee the production of catalogues. She also established research criteria for the Middle East’s top modern artists, establishing key relationships with artist estates.
Khayat is also an advocate for Syria’s art community, having founded an NGO titled SAFIR in 2014 that aims to support and bolster the work of young Syrian artists. She also played an integral role in documenting the collections of key Syrian collectors, including the Jalanbo Art collection and the Khair collection of Fateh Moudarres. Furthermore, Khayat has lectured on Arab art history and the market throughout the region since 2010 and developed curriculum on Modern and Contemporary Arab art that were later adopted into short courses under Christie’s education in Dubai and Doha.

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SELECTIONS is a platform for the arts, focusing on the Arab World.

Selections editorial presents a quarterly print magazine and weekly online publication with high quality content on all subjects related to Art and Culture. Full of world-leading artworks, exquisite brand imagery, original creative illustrations and insightful written articles.
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