The Booming Art Scene in the Middle East


By Hyacinth Mascarenhas

Islamic calligraphy, geometric paintings, and exquisitely designed mosaics.

Moving beyond the commonly known artistic legacy of the region, the Middle East has seen a revolution in its art scene in the last few years, a phenomenon that is forcing the world to sit up and take notice of the region’s creative prowess.

From a handful of galleries and museums, the region is now blossoming with upcoming international galleries, highlighting modern and contemporary art in the Gulf states.

Since the first edition of Art Dubai in 2006, the region’s art scene began to accelerate with the openings of the Museum of Islamic Art in 2008 and the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in 2010.

The UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, is investing $27 billion in its upcoming Saadiyat Island cultural by attracting big-name galleries and artists eager to have their work showcased into the new international museums. In addition to featuring a Louvre and a Guggenheim, the cultural district will also include the Zayed National Museum to highlight the history of the UAE and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s role in unifying the emirates.

Qatar has also been drawing critical acclaim through its rapid construction of museums, plans to showcase major Western works of art in addition to promoting its own local cultural and historical artistic heritage.

The 28-year old daughter of the emir of Qatar, Sheika Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is known as one the most powerful women in the Arab art world as the head of the Qatar Museums Authority and a major headliner for Doha’s art scene. According to Forbes estimates, Al-Thani “controls an annual art-buying budget in the neighbor of $250 million.” She also set a record for the highest-price paid for a painting ever by spending $250 million for Paul Cezanne’s ‘The Card Players.’

“The overarching aim is to create museums that promote artistic dialogue and get people to think about the way Islamic art is not just interwoven into the history of the region, but that of the world,” said QMA board of trustees’ member Edward J. Dolman in a New York Times article.

Local inspiration

Portraying a wide variety of issues such as identity, culture, political positions, oppression, religion, women and war, these regional and international artists have a story to tell.

London-based Egyptian artist Nermine Hammam for example, drew most of her inspiration from the unrest in Egypt (even prior to the Arab Spring) in her multi-layered compositions of painting and digitally manipulated photography.

Moroccan artist Karim Attar’s abstract paintings which depict the human form in transition are incorporated with verses from the Koran are interpreted as a metaphor for Moroccan youth in search of identity.

New galleries have also sprouted all over the Arabian Peninsula in Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Istanbul, and Doha with billions invested in the sale and promotion of Middle Eastern art. Aiming to establish their countries as international hubs for cultural art, regional governments are often the primary sponsors for these new galleries.

Critical acclaim

The growing influence and reach of the booming art sector in the Middle East has gotten collectors, fellow artists and critics speculating on the momentum and future of this growing trend.

World-renown art critic Anthony Haden-Guest who has also been carefully observing the growing phenomenon in the region said the cookie-cutter view of Arab art as “white and gold and ornamental” does not hold up, according to an article in The National.

“In reality, it is far more complex than that,” he said in the article. “For instance, identity plays a strong role, whether an artist is Egyptian or Lebanese, whether they have spent their working career in London or Paris and how those European influences factor into the work, how different cultures complicate it.”

Like many others, he was also initially skeptical of the sudden growth spurt in the art scene citing it as possibly “a way of channeling in the big petro dollar.” He has however, noticed a few regional differences already.

“Abu Dhabi to me seems to have the international art market covered, so that you are more likely to see all the big western and American names on display there,” said Haden-Guest in the article. “At Art Dubai, I saw no Damien Hirsts on the stands, no Richard Princes, no Murakamis and just one Warhol. Art Dubai is a regional fair, and it is all the more interesting for that. It is stronger on Arab art, with some very good Iranian art. It’s not just another cookie-cutter fair selling blue-chip art. They are seriously showing what is being made out there in the region.”

Beyond borders

The rising regional art scene has also drawn in plenty of commercial buzz attracting collectors from around the globe to purchase pieces from up and coming artists in the Middle East for millions.

Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said’s painting ‘The Whirling Dervishes’ for instance, set a world record in 2010 when it sold for $2.54 million beating out his previous record cost of $2.4 million for his “Les Chadoufs” that year.

Swelling with internationally acclaimed art work and galleries, the region is poising itself as a growing go-to market for collectors and curators looking for select pieces to add to their collections.

The trend has also sparked the creation of global art initiatives and museum exhibitions around the globe including the prestigious Guggenheim Museum.

Launched in 2012, the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative targets contemporary art in the MENA region as well as South, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

According to its press release, the multi-year collaboration “encompasses curatorial residencies, international touring exhibitions, audience driven educational programming, and acquisitions for the Guggenheim’s permanent collection…to stimulate dialogue and creative interaction both regionally and globally, fostering lasting relationships among institutions, artists, scholars, museum-goers and online communities.”

CEO of UBS Wealth Management Jürg Zeltner said the initiative allows them to highlight regions with immense economic potential that may not be seen in the “largely Western-centric international art scene.”

“They are challenging the Western world’s virtual monopoly in many disciplines,” said Zeltner in the press release. “Art is something which many of our clients are very passionate about, and our collaboration with the Guggenheim makes an ideal fit with our long-term objectives: the promotion, education and collection of art among a wide audience at an international and local level.”

From the Edge of Arabia in London to the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, the Arab art scene is moving at a pace to be reckoned with new styles, themes and ideas relative to the region are captivating collectors, art lovers and critics all over the world.

“Soon, inshallah, we will find that the artists will not be seen as Middle Eastern or Iranian, but merely just Artists,” said ARTSPACE Art Director Ruba Asfahani in a Your Middle East article. “Artists in their own right, whose work can be found in many different collections in many different locations across the world.”




  1. This article does a good job trying to cover all that’s happening in the art scene in the MIddle East. It is hard to keep up with all of the activity there, very exciting time for the art business.

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