One need only scan the list of participating artists in any of the large-scale exhibitions taking place in the Middle East to comprehend the formidable presence of female artists within a regional art scene that has been drawing international acclaim for years.
From Bahrain to Morocco, women are experimenting with a diversity of artistic mediums and themes, from photography to performance art to politics to urbanism. Many are leaving the confines of the private studio to cultivate spaces that can support the public consumption and collective production of art in the Middle East.
Sharjah might be one of the United Arab Emirates’ more inconspicuous emirates, but it is home to a burgeoning art scene that arguably surpasses those of its more glamorous siblings, largely thanks to Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi. Named one of the 100 most powerful women in art by the website artnet in 2014, Qasimi is founder and president of the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF).
SAF was established in 2009, taking over the organization of the Sharjah Biennial, inaugurated in 1993. A practicing artist herself, Qasimi transformed the small-scale biennial of traditional, regional art into an international exhibition of contemporary, cutting-edge work, now celebrated as a prominent art world gathering.
The biennial provides Middle Eastern artists the opportunity to engage with international peers and audiences on their own turf, and it offers artists from beyond the region the chance to create work in conversation with the geographical and socio-cultural anatomy of an under-examined Sharjah.
In neighboring Bahrain, documentary photographer Ghada Khunji recently settled back into the familial compound of her childhood in Manama, after more than two decades in New York. A sentimental eccentric, Khunji has a love for hoarding monetarily worthless but cherished memorabilia, from squeaky toys to mannequin heads.
As a photographer, she documents people and landscapes, collecting stills from their rolling narratives — immortal testaments to the particularities that make the world so diverse, and the consistencies that weave these disparities into a common humanity. She’s followed her camera to Honduras, India and the Dominican Republic, among a host of other locations.
Despite — or perhaps in response to — the many obstacles preventing women from pursuing their professional and personal goals in the Gulf, the region has proven itself fertile ground for the cultivation of some of the Middle East’s most creative female artists.
Kuwaiti Monira al-Qadiri has become a household name among those in tune with the regional art scene. The artist, whose work has appeared in prestigious institutions such as New York’s New Museum, is distinguished by the themes that inform her practice, a notable standout being her preoccupation with what she calls "masculine narcissism."
Qadiri’s work also critically engages problematic socio-cultural norms in the Gulf. In a recent video work called "Soap," she plays with footage from regional soap operas, inserting migrant workers into narratives they are usually absent from. The work critiques a TV industry that depicts Kuwaiti families carrying out chores and looking after their households when, in reality, these tasks are reserved for domestic helpers.
Qadiri is a founding member of the eight-person art collective GCC, which also addresses the socio-cultural landscape of the Gulf.
Beirut and Cairo have served as second homes to many of the Middle East’s most acclaimed artists for decades, providing them with less restrictive, stimulating environments for creative production.
At the 9th Sharjah Biennial, Egyptian artist Hala Elkoussy premiered the memorable work "On red nails, palm trees and other icons – Al Archief (Take 2)," now a part of the Tate Modern’s collection.
Elkoussy’s work explores the neglected aspects of communal life and the hidden dimensions of Cairo’s intricate urbanity. Through this personal archive of visual material collected over a year and a half, combined to create an interactive installation, she attempted to reflect Cairo’s changing visual and cultural landscape. The photos peppering the installation showcase Cairo’s architecture, historical sites and residents, and videos play interviews with Cairenes narrating anecdotes about life in their city.
Lebanon might no longer sit at the heart of the regional art scene, but it continues to churn out homegrown talent and draw emigrant artists — in search of artistic fodder and unable to resist its galvanizing, grimy charm — back home.
One such returnee is visual artist Marwa Arsanios who, together with her cousin Mirene, runs the 98Weeks Research Project, which cyclically invites artists to engage a particular topic for a 98-week period through a diversity of mediums. Promoting a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to art making, 98Weeks has explored subjects such as urban space in Beirut, the history of cultural publications in the Arab world and the genealogy of feminist discourse and its relationship with post-colonial theory.
For Palestinians, art making is replete with unique and acutely debilitating obstacles. Those practicing their craft within Israel or the occupied territories have to contend with a state that obsessively monitors, disciplines and limits them, and a collective condition of suffering that can, at times, pressure art into proving its usefulness to the cause, threatening it with dismissal as a facetious luxury or distraction. Those living in the diaspora are forced to reflect on home and identity from a distance, to remotely and, therefore, sometimes insecurely, engage the subject that drives much of their work.
But at home and abroad, Palestine has no shortage of artists producing illuminating work that engages their much-debated nation and region in new and provocative ways. Self-proclaimed nomad Basma al-Sharif, for instance, whose life and practice were shaped in locations as disparate as Chicago, Cairo, Beirut and the Gaza Strip, manipulates images, sound and language to reflect on her own experience of transience and its relationship with politics and collective memory.
Amman-based artist Samah Hijawi, known for her interventions in public space, also grapples with collective memory and group identity. In 2013, she staged "It all collapses in the living room" in the West Bank city of Jericho’s main public square, inviting locals to sit together and imagine the possibility of historic Palestine being swallowed by an earthquake, contemplating the implications of a natural loss of the contested geographical territory.
Hijawi helps run Makan, an independent art space in Amman that offers artist exchange and residency programs. Such spaces — labors of love created by artists, for artists — are increasingly emerging throughout the region.
Tangiers, for instance, has been home to acclaimed artist Yto Barrada’s Cinematheque de Tanger, Morocco’s only independent cinema, since 2005. Barrada, known for her experimentation with photography and film, has long been enamored by the visual culture of her native city and its cinematic tradition. Her work is known for challenging portrayals of Tangier as the cosmopolitan tourist hub it has long been depicted in the West.
In neighboring Algiers, Zineb Sedira has also taken it upon herself to provide her hometown with a much-needed artist residency in the form of A.R.I.A. (artist residency in Algiers). Like many of the artists discussed so far, the complex dimensions of identity in post-colonial contexts such as Algeria is central to Sedira’s work, which often manifests in photographic or video form.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, Didem Ozbek also felt the need to move beyond her individual practice and develop an independent, interdisciplinary art space that could bring local and international artists together for collaboration and dialogue. Having observed the hegemonic hold that art institutions in fashionable Istanbul neighborhoods like Beyoglu have on the city’s art scene, Ozbek and her partner decided to establish PiST/// as a kind of subversive anti-institution distant in both geography and mission from Istanbul’s dominant art establishments.
This is only a small sample of the Middle East’s thriving population of female artists, whose layered work collectively counters the simplistic, monochrome narrative about women in the region, which all too often appears in Western media, cinema and even art.
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