Home Magazine The new wave of Contemporary Art in the United Arab Emirates

The visual art of the Middle East, until the 2000s very much limited to its national scenes and neglected globally, has experienced a local evolution as well as an unprecedented international influence. The innovative transformation of the art world in this geographical area is generally based on the establishment of auction houses and thereby the formation of an international market for Middle Eastern art in Dubai. Discover more about the artists Mehmet Ali Uysal-Ronak Moshiri-Saba Masoumian-Katayoun Karami-Solmaz Cornet-Saba Masoumian

This new device has influenced not only the ecosystem of the national art world but also the choice of artists, exhibition curators as well as curators of international museums. Countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are investing heavily in the arts and culture, building new museums and hosting exhibitions. In fact, the national economies of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, are seeking to diversify their investments and find different ways to generate income. Indeed, the economy of Saudi Arabia is essentially dependent on oil extraction with 90% of revenues that come from this activity. "The contemporary Middle East art market is evolving as personal wealth and growing investment knowledge converge. The growing number of museums, fairs, galleries, art funds and "art advisers "indicates a growing regional interest in art”, writes Hussein Shobokshi, a renowned journalist of the Saudi Gazette


In the Middle East collectors are crowding into auction houses and art fairs, and cleaning out galleries of pieces worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each.


Already in 2013, the art market was highly influenced by the investments made by billionaires from the Middle East. The most spectacular arrival among mega collectors has been that of Sheika al Mayassa, the younger sister of the new emir of Qatar. She spends $ 1 billion a year on her collection. To put this numbers into perspective, the Met New York spent, for fiscal 2012, $ 39 million to acquire new parts, and the MoMA, still in New York, $ 32 million for the year 2011 -12, roughly 25 times less. In 2011, at a private sale, Mayassa bought for $ 250 million “The card players” from Paul Cézanne. This was at the time the highest price paid for a single painting. This is not her first record. In 2007, she bought a Rothko, “White Center”, for $ 72.8 million, three times more than the previous record of the artist. 


The Middle East is without a doubt a very important part of today’s art market...


Guillaume Cerutti, CEO of Christie’s, has said that the bidding for the Da Vinci Salvator Mundi painting proves “the Middle East is a major player.” In the last few years, several of the world’s blue-riband works have headed east: the attributed Leonardo’s $450 million “Salvator Mundi” went to Abu Dhabi, one of Cezanne’s views of Mont St Victoire ($100 million), as well as Gauguin’s $210 million “When Will You Marry?” and Andy Warhol’s $100 million “Eight Elvises” have all gone to Qatar.


The expansion area of Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz, Dubai. Courtesy Alserkal Avenue



Sotheby's says the number of Middle Eastern clients participating in its global sales has risen by 76% over the past five years. The surge in interest from the United Arab Emirates is even stronger, participation there is up 157%. However, the Middle-Eastern market itself currently appears to be a bit uncertain. Sales have lowered considerably since the boom year of 2008 when Christie’s Dubai auction sales peaked at about $29 million. Both the total value of the region’s sales and the number of lots consigned have been dropping since 2013-2104. Dubai, though, remains the region’s hub and Christie’s the major player. Last year Christie's London controlled the biggest market share (36.6%) of the Middle Eastern art market, followed by Sotheby's (26.5%), Tehran Auction (24.3%) and Bonhams (12.6%). The number of factors in support of the growth of the Contemporary Art market in the Middle East have been increasing, indeed there have been an increasing number of major exhibitions of Middle Eastern artists in Europe and America: Saloua Raouda Choucair was shown at Tate Modern in London in 2013, the Iranian Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian was exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York in 2015, Lebanon’s Etel Adnan appeared at the Serpentine Galleries in London in 2016, while an overview of Egyptian Surrealism was staged at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2016. 


Strong gallery programs, the opening of cultural institutions, and initiatives such as Art Dubai contribute greatly to the global recognition the UAE (United Arab Emirates) art market has gained. Art Dubai is the leading regional art fair and takes place annually in Dubai. Founded in 2007, Art Dubai is the pre-eminent platform to see contemporary artworks from 48 international galleries. Another important event is the Sharjah Biennal where works from various national markets, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Egypt are exposed. Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial exhibit the best names in contemporary art. 


Sharjah Biennal 2017. Courtesy Damn Magazine



The emergence and development of an art market in Dubai is directly related to the position of this emirate in the United Arab Emirates Federation and is part of the competition between the states of the Arabian Peninsula to establish their pre-eminence in the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi, for example, has attracted major international museums (Louvre, Guggenheim) and prestigious universities (Sorbonne, New York University), with a goal of both economic and cultural promotion following the focus on education. In Dubai, the famous Alserkal Avenue was established as the heart of the art district through the years. Alserkal Avenue is rooted in the industrial zone of Dubai, and thanks to a gigantic real estate operation it has been transformed into the artistic district of the city. The Alserkal family has long been a patron of the arts in the United Arab Emirates and their support has continued with initiatives such as the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, the Project Space Art Jameel, the Salsali Private Museum and the d.Academy. In 2017, Alserkal Avenue inaugurated “Concrete”, a multidisciplinary space designed to host exhibitions on a museum scale and events dedicated to art, design and fashion. “Concrete” was designed by Rem Koolhaas OMA and opened with a collective exhibition of Syrian art from the collection of the Atassi Foundation. Alserkal Avenue has become a model that is both region-specific, embracing the whole Arab world, but with an international perspective.


Concrete at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, OMA Studio. Courtesy by OMA 



On the 25th October 2017, Christie’s held a Modern and Contemporary Art auction of the Middle East for the first time in London during Islamic Art Week, the traditional week dedicated to Islamic art that takes place twice a year in the British capital in April and October. In the same days, a similar auction was also made by Sotheby's, while in November it was Bonhams. In Milan, contemporary art in the Middle East came, in particular, this year with the exhibition "A Storm from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa" held from 11 April to 17 June. 2018 will be a very special year for Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia will participate in the Venice Biennal for the first time since its creation, with its own pavilion. The theme of this edition will be "Freespace".


Saudi Arabia Pavilion, 2018, Venice Biennal. Courtesy by La Biennale di Venezia



A land of opportunity, but with a tightly censored media. Such contradictions play out across the art scene in the United Arab Emirates. Middle Eastern artists often work in contexts fraught with conflict, finding themselves in war zones or at the crossroads of tradition and rapid development. In many cases, due to censorship and other constraints, artists originally from the region now work in exile. The most common focus is on the adaptation of traditional motifs and ideas, for those artists who have left their homelands to work abroad, ideas around the notion of self-identity are particularly prevalent. Some of the top-selling artists from the Middle East are Khaled Hafez, Ayman Baalbaki, Lalla A. Essaydi, Armen Agop, Ghada Amer, Mona Hatoum, Ahmed Mater, Hanaa Malallah, Abdulnasser Gharem. 


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