Mohammed Kanoo, Bahrain
Bahraini contemporary artist Mohammed Kanoo's playful images of President Barack Obama and Hollywood actors like Will Smith and John Travolta garbed in traditional Arab menswear was a viral sensation. This piece, called “A Question of Identity,” was part of his recent solo exhibition in May at the Meem Gallery in Dubai, dubbed “Fun w/Fen” (Fun with Art). Reviewers have likened his pop-art style with Andy Warhol's. In addition to his digital prints, Kanoo also works in paint, calligraphy and other media.
Khadija Al-Salami, Yemen
Khadija Al-Salami is considered the first female producer in Yemen. She was married at age 11, but later divorced and pursued her education, eventually becoming the press and cultural official at the Yemeni Embassy in Paris. Women's lives figure prominently in her 20-some documentaries, including one about a female prisoner. After filming during Yemen's unrest last year, she told The New York Times that she wanted to compare Yemeni and Tunisian women and “the roles they played in the revolutions.”
Aghiles Issiakhem, Algeria
There aren't too many galleries in Algeria, but artist Aghiles Issikhem has found plenty to inspire his creative expression. Working in charcoal, pencil, acrylic and oil paints, Issiakhem has captured the faces of disenchanted Algerian youth in his portraiture. His great uncle was a seminal modern art figure in Algeria, but he's making his own mark. One reputed Algerian painter, Dokman, has called him “a very promising talent” and said, "He's not in it for the money. It comes from his gut."
Youssra El Hawary, Egypt
With more than 170,000 hits on her April YouTube hit, “El Soor” (The Wall), singer Youssra El Hawary has been hailed as more than a passing Internet sensation. In the video, the skinny-jean-clad El Hawary, in her 20s, sings sweetly with accordion in tow, against the backdrop of a graffitied wall, ubiquitous in post-revolutionary Cairo. An actress and singer with local troupes, El Hawary is seen as an up-and-coming star of Egypt's alternative music field.
Ahmed Mater, Saudi Arabia
Ahmed Mater is considered one of the most significant artists in the Saudi contemporary art world. His range spans painting, photography, installations, video and calligraphy and have been displayed extensively. Motifs from traditional and globalized culture often live throughout his work. He is also a founder of Edge of Arabia, an independent arts initiative that nurtures a network of artists in Saudi Arabia through exhibitions and educational programs.
Naif Al-Mutawa, Kuwait
Look out, it's Widad the Loving and Jaleel the Majestic! These new superheroes on the block are the brainchild of Naif Al-Mutawa, the Kuwaiti founder and CEO of Tashkeel Media Group. Billed as THE 99, they are do-gooders inspired by Middle Eastern tradition and Islamic archetypes. Al-Mutawa's vision of kids having new role models has burgeoned from a comic book series to a theme park and a TV series.
Bahram Nouraei is among a group of young Iranians who have turned to rap to express themselves. He's been spitting weighty lyrics for the past decade, even addressing President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in his track “Namei be Raees Jomhoor” (A letter to the president). The rapper's outspokenness landed him a stint in jail, but won him a large following. Last year, he released his latest album, “Sokoot” (Silence).
Ali Ferzat, Syria
Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat, influential across the Arab-speaking belt, took the government and elite to task in his drawings. Previously, Ferzat didn't directly chide Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, only addressing him symbolically. But following the popular uprising and the bloody crackdown, his depictions have changed. The veteran cartoonist was kidnapped and badly beaten in 2011. His hands have since healed and he's back at the drawing board, partaking in what he's called Syria's new revolutionary art. One of the many works featured on his Facebook site is pictured here.
Deena Amr, Jordan
Jordan isn't famous for its cinema, but young director and screenwriter Deena Amr is helping change that perception. Her first feature film, A 7 Hour Difference made a splash at the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival. The film portrays the struggles of Dalia, who is back home in Amman from her studies in the United States for her sister's wedding. When her American boyfriend shows up, the relationship thrusts questions around women, culture and religion. Amr's film screened in June at the Manhattan International Film Festival in New York.
Shadia and Raja Alem, Saudi Arabia
Saudi sisters Shadia and Raja Alem combine visual arts and words. Shadia is a visual artist who has exhibited in several countries and Raja is a well-known author, who has worked on novels, plays and other pieces. Raja creates narratives off the artwork Shadia creates and, through various projects, the sisters aim to promote creativity for Saudi youth and women.
Aynur Doğan, Turkey
Aynur Doğan's soaring voice raised the Kurdish folk tradition's profile on the world music platform. Born in Turkey, Doğan has spent the past decade performing Kurdish and Turkish classics while unveiling her own creations as well. A court issued an order to ban her 2004 album, Kece Kurdan (Kurdish Girl) because it allegedy encouraged separatism. Last year, at the Istanbul Jazz Festival, audience members booed her so severely for performing Kurdish songs that she left the stage. Even so, her tour schedule remains busy as she travels around Europe.
Adel Al Mshiti, Libya
As Libyans rebelled against Muammar Gadhafi's decades-long rule last year, Adel Al Mshiti's song, “Sofa Nabqa Huna” (We Will Stay Here), became their soundtrack. The song repeatedly implores staying put, which served as a much-needed morale-booster as Libyans fought for their revolution. It's a strong message from Al Mshiti, who was imprisoned for six years under Gadhafi. A doctor by profession, Al Mshiti told USA Today: "My music is my weapon."
Joseph Cedar, Israel
In Israeli director Joseph Cedar's film, Footnote, a father and son are pitted against each other as competitive Talmudic Studies professors. Cedar's fourth feature, it received both popular and critical praise and has been described as satire, comedy and even tragedy, defying a single form, and exhibiting Cedar's versatility. The film was nominated for an Oscar in 2012.
Emel Mathlouthi, Tunisia
Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's government threatened to ban Emel Mathlouthi's music. She was a student activist who sang about freedom at the time and the intimidation forced her to leave for France in 2007. A few years later, Mathlouthi triumphantly sang “Kelmti Horra” (My Word is Free) in downtown Tunis, inspiring the revolution crowds. Earlier this year, Mathlouthi released her album, named after that very song. Singing mostly in Arabic, her voice has been compared to Joan Baez and her music has hints of electro and trip-hop that combine to create a uniquely Tunisian sound.
Qusai, Saudi Arabia
Rapper Qusai (Kheder) grew up in Jeddah and is proof that Saudi Arabia and hip hop aren't mutually exclusive. Qusai went from being a DJ to a successful MC and even co-host of the MBC show, Arabs Got Talent. His new album is titled,“The Inevitable Change.” Hot Arab Music called the album's verses “uplifting” and said as Arab rappers have emerged over the past 15 years, “no one has worked as hard as Qusai.”
Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh, Iran
Brotherly duo Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh paint bold, fantastical pieces — at times pulling imagery from traditional Persian art and customs — that carry commentary on their society and culture. They have used partially nude figures in some work and a few years ago, they fled Iran for the United Arab Emirates after being targeted by authorities. A profile in W magazine said they were “creating some of the most complex and provocative art in the Middle East.”
Ahmed Asery, Yemen
The dreadlocked Ahmed Asery heads the reggae and blues band, 3 Meters Away, in Yemen. Their songs became protest anthems as students revolted against the regime last year. With song titles like “Inhale Freedom” and “I'm Staying 'til the Regime Leaves,” Asery and his bandmates write socially-conscious lyrics and are among the first to sing reggae in Yemen.
El General, Tunisia
Rapper El General's song, “Rais Le Bled” (Leader of the Country), released in December 2010, is noted for pumping up Tunisian masses as they rose up against former President Zine El Abidine Ali, and was later adopted by Egyptians. He took the risk during Ali's repressive rule to speak out against corruption and was arrested. He popularized hip hop as a genre within Tunisia, and elevated Tunisian hip hop on a global scale. Beyond his revolutionary anthem, El General performs live and is working on an album called "The Voice of the People."
Khalid Al Zadjali, Oman
Khalid Al Zadjali is working to put Oman on the cinematic map. He directed what are considered the country's first two feature films, including the recently released Aseel about an eponymous Bedouin boy. As he works to transfer the Gulf state's narratives onto the big screen, he also oversees the annual Muscat International Film Festival.
Idan Raichel, Israel
Combining seemingly disparate sounds has never been an issue for Idan Raichel. For the past decade, the Israeli musician has blended Ethiopian, Latin, Middle Eastern and Caribbean beats, with his group, The Idan Raichel Project. Raichel, who is credited with redefining Israeli popular music, continues to tour and collaborate with diverse artists, including India Arie.
Oday Rasheed, Iraq
As Iraq emerges from nearly a decade of war, filmmaker Oday Rasheed is committed to jump starting the local cinema scene. Rasheed's first feature film in 2005, Underexposure, was the first one made in the country after Saddam Hussein fell from power. In 2010, the director and screenwriter released his next feature, Qarantina, about a troubled family in gritty Baghdad. In addition to making his own films, he co-founded the Baghdad Film Production Center with Mohamed al-Daradji in 2010.
Hoba Hoba Spirit, Morroco
Ten years ago, the band Hoba Hoba Spirit was an underground act — rock outfits were not so welcome in the Morrocan music landscape. Today though, the band attracts huge audiences as they fuse rock, reggae and traditional Gnawa music of North Africa. They credit the Internet with connecting them with fans, both at home and overseas.
Hazim Faris, United Arab Emirates
Violinist and composer Hazim Faris' first album, "1001 Violin Nights," topped regional music charts upon its release last fall. With contributions from Turkish musicians, the album is dubbed a “musical journey from Baghdad to Istanbul.” Though based in the United Arab Emirates in recent years, the Iraqi musician continues to produce lyrics and music for famous Iraqi singers. He's going international, with performances scheduled in coming months at music festivals in Europe.
Merzak Allouache, Algeria
Merzak Allouache's film career stretches back more than three decades, and his work is said to have reshaped Algerian cinema. He has undergone bouts of censorship and tight budgets, but is still at it. Last year, his film, Normal, about Algerian youth disillusionment (a still from the film is pictured), won the best Arab narrative film award at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. At this year's Cannes Film Festival, Allouache's latest creation, El Taaib (The Repentant) depicts a young Algerian terrorist's efforts to change.
Lalla Essaydi, Morroco
Lalla Essaydi, who was raised in Morocco and has lived in Saudi Arabia, illuminates large photographs of women, sitting in Moorish settings or draped in flowing cloth, with endless hennaed writing in Arabic. Her mixed media pieces often incorporate questions of gender roles. Essaydi has exhibited her work (including Silence of Thought # 2, pictured) the world over and is currently on display at the Smithsonian's African Art Museum in Washington until February.
Raeda Saadeh, Palestine/West Bank
Jerusalem-based artist Raeda Saadeh has been likened to renowned conceptual artist Cindy Sherman for her installations, performances and photography. Saadeh says her work examines ideas of gender, identity and displacement, as in this work, titled "Hospital." The Palestinian artist, who had her first solo exhibit in London earlier this year, often puts herself as the subject of her pieces — be it in an absurd position or clad as Vermeer's “The Milkmaid.”
Nadine Labaki, Lebanon
Director Nadine Labaki's Where Do We Go Now? premiered at Cannes this year and was a smash hit in her native Lebanon. She picked up the people's choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival and eventually got wide release in the United States as well. It follows her earlier success, Caramel. Though heavy on humor, both films — which star Labaki — wrestle with questions like the coexistence of different religions.
Mohamed Mouftakir, Morocco
Moroccan filmmaker Mohamed Mouftakir has been described as one of the “main voices of the New Moroccan cinema wave.” For his first feature film, Pegasus, Mouftakir won the top prize at the Pan African Film Festival in Burkina Faso last year. What's been called a psychological thriller, yet beautifully shot, the film confronts the taboo subjects of rape and incest.
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Lebanon
Long-time collaborators Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige are at once visual artists and filmmakers. Their innovative, multimedia installations are displayed at top venues, and their films span fact and fiction. In recent exhibits and an upcoming documentary, they explore the Lebanese Rocket Society and the country's one-time (hopeful) space program.
Ayman Baalbaki, Lebanon
Ayman Baalbaki was among the renowned artists chosen for “The Future of a Promise,” the first pan-Arab exhibition of contemporary art at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Born in 1975, the year that Lebanon's civil war broke out, Baalbaki's oil paintings and installations often echo those troubled times and Beirut's changing urban landscape.
The five-member Egyptian rock band Cairokee says they were singing songs of revolt much before the series of their incredibly popular revolutionary-themed songs propelled them into the spotlight last year. (The song “Sout El Horeya” set in Tahrir Square has more than two million views on YouTube.) They're among a contingent of local bands who sing in Arabic, with rock and Egyptian musical rhythms running through their numbers. Their album, “Wa Ana Ma'a Nafsi Qa'ed” (While I'm Sitting By Myself), came out this summer.
Asghar Farhadi, Iran
Already known in critics circles for his film, About Elly, director Asghar Farhadi blazed onto the world cinema stage this year with his drama A Separation, nabbing Iran's first Oscar win. Political tensions between Iran and the United States and other nations melted away as the intense film, which grapples with class, choices and consequences, gripped viewers far from Farhadi's homeland.
Akram Zaatari, Lebanon
In post-war Lebanon, Akram Zaatari delves into themes of violence and trauma as well as memory and masculinity in the images and objects he creates through photos and videos — calling his artistic labor “field work.” He's also the co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, which collects and studies photographs from the Arab world. Here, "Bodybuilders," printed from a damaged negative, is pictured.
Shadi Ghadirian, Iran
Photo artist Shadi Ghadirian sets the stage and then snaps, to create a work of art. She's internationally known for her “Like Every Day” series, where figures in chador-like coverings have their faces obscured by household appliances. In a recent black-and-white series (one image in the series is pictured), “Miss Butterfly,” women weave spider webs. Curators say the Tehran-based artist taps into her own experiences as she delightfully critiques the traditional confines within which women find themselves.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey
Celebrated Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's films date back to 1993. At the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, he received the grand prix prize for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Set in the austere countryside, similar to where Ceylan grew up, some reviewers say the feature may have outdone even his earlier critically lauded work.
Bassem Youssef, Egypt
Since Egypt's revolution, Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon, has revolutionized the country's political satire arena with his online segments and, now, TV show. When the narratives on the street and state media conflicted during last year's uprisings in Tahrir Square, the absurdities struck Youssef. Through impersonations and witty takes on the day's news, he's moved beyond local slapstick fare. During a recent trip to the United States, Youssef met his match, or one of his influences, when he was a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Abdul Qader Al-Rais, United Arab Emirates
The UAE's leading contemporary artist, Abdul Qader Al-Rais, who often wears a long beard and traditional Emirati garb, is self-taught. Born in 1951, his depictions of landscapes and architecture are done in “photorealistic” fashion and his abstract renderings often include Arabic writing. In some of Al-Rais' paintings, the UAE is a far cry from the skyscraper-saturated skyline of today's Dubai.
Kutlug Ataman, Turkey
Kutlug Ataman is a world-renowned contemporary artist and filmmaker from Turkey. Ataman's early work is described as pondering people's creation of identity through self-expression and his later period as concentrating on history and geography as “man-made constructs.” There's been a retrospective exhibit of his work and a documentary about him, but he's not done yet. Ataman is aiming for production of his next feature film project, South Facing Wall, this fall.
Kayhan Kalhor, Iran
In addition to keeping up classical Persian music, Iranian-born Kayhan Kalhor also innovates within the traditional form. A virtuoso on the kamancheh, a fiddle-like instrument with a long neck, Kalhor has collaborated on many international projects such as the Silk Road Ensemble, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. A Grammy nominee, he helped to invent a new instrument and is on tour with his latest album, "I Will Not Stand Alone," while on tour this year. Recorded after the crackdown on Iran's Green Movement, which erupted in 2009, he's called it a rumination on “one of the most difficult stages” in his life.
Hassan Khan, Egypt
Prominent Cairo-based artist Hassan Khan is a multiform talent. His audiovisual artwork and installations (like "Jewel," pictured here) have been on display in international venues. He's composed music for plays, toured with his experimental genre and been called a pioneer in Egypt's underground music world. He has also written widely on art, expression and other topics.
Nayla Al Khaja, United Arab Emirates
Nayla Al Khaja is bent on cultivating local film talent in the UAE. Considered the UAE's first female film producer, Al Khaja has lamented the hurdles Emirate filmmakers face in movie-making in a country where large investments are made toward big Hollywood studios. Through her company, D-SEVEN Motion Pictures, she recently created Aflam, a film club intended to be a platform for independent Arab filmmakers. Her own films include, Once.
Ahmad Abdalla, Egypt
Ahmad Abdalla is already an award-winning filmmaker at the forefront of Egypt's emerging independent film industry and he is still in his early 30s. From his first feature, Heliopolis, set in Cairo, he moved to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria for his 2010 film, Microphone, which, though fictional, has a documentary feel as it portrays the city's underground music scene. Here, a still from Microphone is pictured. Last year, he contributed a short film to the collaborative project, 18 Days, documenting the revolution.
Banu Cennetoglu, Turkey
The buzz around Turkey's contemporary art scene is fueled in part by the likes of artist Banu Cennetoglu and other youngish practitioners who are forging their own creative spaces. In the last decade, Cennetoglu founded BAS in Istanbul, considered Turkey's first center for archiving, displaying and producing artist books. She has said that with books one doesn't need to exhibit work or have a curator or editor; instead the artist gets to wear those hats. The photographic artist (whose work is pictured here) was one of two artists to represent Turkey in the 2009 Venice Biennale.
El Tanbura, Egypt
Master musicians from Port Said make up the Egyptian folk band El Tanbura. While preserving the traditional tunes of their region, the group also had a big role in the revolutionary music that invigorated crowds — young and old — in Tahrir Square. Founder Zakaria Ibrahim, who runs a center that manages other folk groups and runs training schools, has noted their particular folk form has a history of being populist resistance music. As they continue regular local performances and travel to festivals, Zakaria advocates that social change can occur through the arts.
Tarzan and Arab, Palestine/Gaza
Budding filmmakers and identical twin brothers Tarzan and Arab — their real names are Ahmed and Mohamed Abu Nasser — hail from Gaza. The brothers had never been to a movie theater until they travelled to the United States recently, so they produced a line of 20 posters for imaginary movies, named after real Israeli military operations, they would have made of they could. The posters as well as their acclaimed short film, Colorful Journey, have been featured in exhibits abroad.
Tahmineh Milani, Iran
Tahmineh Milani is one of Iran's most prolific female directors. Her films zoom in on women's economic, social and psychological struggles, fetching her both domestic box office success and international recognition. But she's also faced censorship and even arrest. She told an Indian newspaper last winter that she wants to make a film about women who kill their husbands, but has been denied permission to do so. Still, Milani continues to create, with a movie out last year and another film on the Iran-Iraq war in the works, according to Iranian news reports.
Urban arts are on fire in Cairo following the revolution. In the graffiti, mural and street art department, the artist known as Ganzeer (real name Mohamed Fahmy) is among the pioneers. Ganzeer has lead group mural painting and artistic activism on top of his individual street art and works displayed in international galleries. For his “Martyrs Mural Project,” he's painted the likenesses of those killed in last year's unrest. Alongside ongoing street-based expression, Ganzeer is also a graphic designer and illustrator, making posters and even developing a new Arabic screen font.
Sheika Al Mayassa, Qatar
The daughter of Qatar's ruling emir is often called the driving force behind the oil-rich country's unabashed cultural ambitions. Armed with a degree from Duke University, she heads the board of trustees for the Qatar Museums Authority, which oversees the Museum of Islamic Art (pictured above), Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum of Qatar. The Art Newspaper says Qatar is the world's biggest art buyer in the market. Earlier this year, the royal family paid more than $250 million for Cezanne's “The Card Players.”
Wael Shawky, Egypt
Wael Shawky is a contemporary artist in Egypt who employs various media in his artwork. He was among the 2012 winners of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, which facilitated his project, “A Glimpse of Clean History.” From painting, puppetry, sculpture, animation and film, he employs multiple media while contemplating culture, religion, modernization, transition and other topics. Showing that it's possible to dedicate oneself to one's art, he founded, MASS Alexandria, the first independent studio program for young artists in Alexandria, his base.
Thaer Hilal, Syria
Contemporary artist Thaer Hilal has compared the seasonal colors of his village, Al Nassireya, outside Damascus, with the patterned hues present in his paintings. He work has been featured in several international exhibits, museums and biennales, where he's picked up awards. In addition to painting, he's created installations. He told Al Arabiya recently: “Though I embody the pace of people, I am just a bystander who imparts everything around me to my paintings.” Hilal also lectures on art runs creative workshops for kids in the UAE, where he's based.
Even as world headlines from the Middle East focus on upheaval and violence, the region's culture continues to thrive. Here's our look at some groups and individuals making their mark on arts and culture in the region.