Middle Eastern Art in London Today: A Dialogue Between the Past & Present
By Lucia Hawkes
The term ‘Middle Eastern’ is used to designate the geographic zones of Western Asia and Egypt, referring to countries such as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Oman, Syria and Turkey. Once criticised for its Eurocentric and imperialist associations, the label defies clear-cut categorisation and remains problematic. In the past decade, historians have questioned the implications of the term and its relation to Western history; its existence as a geopolitical construct, or ‘virtual space’. Yet, Middle Eastern territories have been recognised as the ‘cradles’ of civilisation, being some of the first areas to develop a network of sophisticated urban centres. Of clear certainty, however, is the abundant and diverse cultural history connected and indebted to the Middle East. A history which, today, is being utilised and reinvented by contemporary artists connected to the region.
Having received more support from London’s largest museums and auction houses in the last decade than ever before, Middle Eastern contemporary art appears to be gaining a newfound acceptance in the capital. Contemporary artists such as Saad Qureshi (b. Bradford, 1986) and Shahpour Pouyan (b. Iran, 1979) are actively engaged in reformulating notions of ‘Middle Eastern’ art in/for the contemporary period. Grappling with the tensions between tradition and modernity, artists are exploring issues such as: religious, cultural and national identity; Iranian and Islamic history; the construction and deconstruction of historical mythologies; the impact of war, violence, migration and political oppression.
The Oxford-based artist Qureshi interrogates notions of cultural identity, and engages, specifically, with Islamic faith. Since graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2010, he has exhibited extensively throughout the UK and internationally. His sculptural works make use of the found or transformed object, such as burnt prayer rugs or sections of railway track. Through this, he aims to create multifaceted and ambiguous objects; objects that resonate with a variety of different cultures and faiths. Qureshi investigates the transformative effects of fire, and its symbolic evocation of violence and terrorism. Qureshi’s manipulation and redefinition of the once-recognisable object serves to evoke feelings of unnerving displacement within the viewer. His mixed-media works, such as Eternal (2016-2017), are unsettling with their wide, bleak and desolate spaces, instilled with a sense of the imaginary and arcane.
His sculpture, As Fate Would Have It (2010), consists of two charred Islamic prayer rugs, suspended from the ceiling. By desecrating these sacred objects, Qureshi performs a gesture of disrespect – vandalising both the traditional Islamic decorative design and, provocatively, their emblematic, devotional meaning. In the Muslim faith, the prayer rug is used to signal the direction of Mecca. The rug is also used as a sign of respect, and to maintain cleanliness during prayer. Considering the rug’s purpose as an object of cleanliness, Qureshi’s gesture appears darkly ironic; his tarnishing of the prayers rugs subverts a consecrated Islamic custom. By obfuscating the religious significance of the rugs, therefore, Qureshi encourages viewers to reflect upon the purpose of religious objects, and in turn, the fallibility and relevance of religion in contemporary society.
Likewise, the Iranian artist Pouyan is inspired by the ancient symbolism of Hinduism and Persian culture. Pouyan’s mixed media piece, entitled: After ‘Battle of Rostam and the demon Akvan’, Shahnameh Esmail, Safavid dynasty (2016) (the 1564 original held in the collection of the Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran) draws upon the history of Persian miniatures, specifically The Shahnameh, otherwise known as The Book of Kings, composed in c. 999. Absence speaks loudly in Pouyan’s illuminations; he draws attention to the voids, gaps and neglected spaces, not only in Iranian visual culture, but within widely accepted historical narratives. Removing figures from his imagery, Pouyan thus focuses on the aesthetic implications of the Persian miniature, aiming to emphasise the unsaid and tease out a ‘real world’ obscured by fabricated historical accounts.
Pouyan’s Projectiles (2011-2013) series provides a commentary on domination and possession in the age of globalisation. His iron and brass missile-shaped constructions are hung from the ceiling, crowned in gold, akin to new-age relics. Embellished with fine metalwork and hand-carved Iranian designs, the typically threatening rocket shape is reformulated into a regal form. Pouyan’s installation thus alludes to violence and materialism, and the esteem bestowed upon ‘modern’ nuclear power. Their suspension also hints at the ever-present and lingering threat of mass destruction – the catastrophic and disastrous capabilities of these small, elegant objects. Pouyan’s series merges references to – and highlights the conflicts and continuities between – archaic and present-day methods of warfare. His eclectic visual idiom is based principally upon a dialogue between the past and present, contributing to an international artistic discourse on the issues of power and cultural exchange.
Museums in London have set a precedent for others to follow suit, engaging a mass audience of art lovers by staging large-scale shows, such as the Fahrelnissa Zeid (b. 1901 - d. 1991) retrospective, currently on display at the Tate Modern. Additionally, the Barjeel Art Foundation Collection, in collaboration with London’s Whitechapel Gallery, is committed to spreading awareness about artworks from Middle Eastern countries, such as: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.
Whilst there has been an increasing acceptance of Middle Eastern artists in mainstream London galleries and museums, works by artists from the area have yet to reach the auction heights of their Western counterparts. Nonetheless, an increasing number of record-breaking sales for the sector have been reported over the last few years. According to ArtTactic, the domestic Iranian Modern & Contemporary auction market grew 58% between 2014 and 2015. In October of last year, Bonhams also reported significant growth in Islamic art sales, with a painting by Mahmoud Saïd – a pioneer of modern Arabic art – selling for ten times its original estimate, at £1.2 million. More recently, Sotheby’s reported record-breaking results for their ‘Art of the Middle East and India’ week. Christie’s also published an online ‘Collecting Guide’ for 2016, which listed the key names in Middle Eastern Contemporary art, mentioning: Nabil Nahas (b. 1949), Farhad Moshiri (b. 1963) and Ahmed Mater (b. 1979). Hoping to further internationalise the market, Christie’s are also hosting their first ever sale of Middle Eastern contemporary art in London, in October of this year.
London’s thriving art scene has been, and continues to be, an important staging ground for the development of contemporary Middle Eastern art. New definitions surrounding the term ‘Middle Eastern’ have been forged by contemporary artists in the city, as they reconcile and collaborate a vibrant artistic past with an equally vibrant and dynamic present.
‘Contemporary Middle Eastern Art’, Artsy, https://www.artsy.net/gene/contemporary-middle-eastern-art [19/08/2017]
German, Senta. ‘The Cradle of Civilisation’, Khan Academy, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/ancient-near-east1/the-ancient-near-east-an-introduction/a/the-cradle-of-civilization
‘Modern & Contemporary Middle Eastern Art’, Christie’s, http://www.christies.com/departments/Modern-Contemporary-Middle-Eastern-Art-98-1.aspx [18/08/2017]
‘Middle Eastern Art Market’, ArtTactic, https://arttactic.com/categories/art-markets/middle-eastern-art-market/ [18/08/2017]
‘Fahrelnissa Zeid’, Tate Modern, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/fahrelnissa-zeid [20/08/2017]
‘About’, Saad Qureshi, http://www.saadqureshi.com/ [20/08/2017]
‘Shahpour Pouyan’, Lawrie Shabibi, http://www.lawrieshabibi.com/artists/29-shahpour-pouyan/overview/ [20/08/2017]
‘Middle East’, Thesaurus, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/middle-east [20/08/2017]