Janet Rady, specialist in Middle Eastern contemporary art and guest curator of the ‘I AM’ exhibition, envisages a new era for Arab art in which marginalisation is largely a thing of the past
With its groundbreaking content, exciting list of participants and broader implications for Arab art, the ‘I AM’ exhibition, which arrives in Trafalgar Square (St Martin in the Fields), London, on July 2, is significant for many reasons.
Perhaps that’s why Janet Rady, the show’s guest curator and longstanding specialist in Middle Eastern contemporary art, cites the show without hesitation as among her most important professional milestone to date.
“Certainly, it’s the largest exhibition I’ve curated and has given me the opportunity to work with an incredibly exciting range of Arab and Iranian female artists, but it’s more than that,” she says. “It also showcases another dimension to women from the region, a side where they’re not constrained by circumstances and which is characterised by deep harmony.”
Organised by the international East-West peacebuilding arts initiative, Caravan, and launched at the National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman, Jordan, in May, the ‘I AM’ show celebrates the rich, diverse and pivotal contributions that women make to the global quest for peace and a harmonious existence. Featuring the work of over 20 established and emerging Middle Eastern contemporary female artists from 12 countries, the exhibition travels from the UK to the US in September, where it will remain into 2018, premiering at the Katzen Arts Center, American University, Washington DC.
Aside from pushing boundaries, ‘I AM’ also indicates the higher profile that Arab art is garnering on the international stage, buoyed by developments across the region and elsewhere.
“You only have to look at the raft of new auction houses, galleries, museums and residency opportunities emerging across the Gulf region, especially in the Emirates and Qatar, to see the interest that Arab art is generating,” Janet notes. “There’s still a long way to go. However, young, aspiring artists are seeing these initiatives and beginning to believe that they have a future.”
Outside of the region, the signs for Arab art are also positive, even though, as Janet acknowledges, the market faces challenges. “Middle Eastern art is becoming stronger - the top end market of the market remains especially robust,” she says. “From a market perspective, the auction houses are undoubtedly witnessing a year-on-year revival in Middle Eastern sales. The fact that Christie’s is moving its dedicated Middle East autumn sale from Dubai to London is certainly significant since, where the major auction houses lead, others follow.”
The increase in the number of major art exhibitions and festivals outside of the region is another sign that Arab art is fast becoming a more established art form, complete with its own identity.
“For example, the Barjeel Art Foundation Collection, which ran at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, up until the beginning of 2017, marked the largest single, historical presentation of Arab art in the UK,” she notes. “We’re also looking forward to Shubbak, London’s largest biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture, which brings artists, music and events to the capital city over the first two weeks of July.”
Later in the year, the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea will host the Noor festival of arts, an annual major event which takes place from October 20 to November 5. Janet adds that initiatives such as the V&A’s Jameel Prize, an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition, are also making a major contribution by providing a focal point and incentives for young artists.
In terms of new talent emerging across the Arab region, Janet highlights the host of exciting, street artists currently making waves, such as Omar and Mohamed Kabbani, Lebanese twins who started the Ashekman Arabic street art crew in Beirut back in 2004 and are considered pioneers in their field.
Yazan Halwani, she adds, is another young Beirut-based artist whose giant murals of iconic personalities, such as Sabah and Fairouz, are creating a buzz across the city and beyond.
“Their work is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps importantly because they have an affinity with their locality, which adds to their popularity,” she comments.
Asked what kind of impact she believes that regional unrest is having on contemporary Arabic art and those creating it, Janet cautions against expecting artists to respond to events in the way that a journalist might.
“That’s not an artist’s job,” she says. “While some might be inspired to draw on themes such as war, others will turn away from it and focus on something else.”
Consciously or unconsciously, however, the effects of violence and destruction permeate the work of Arab artists, although these are sometimes dealt with in somewhat unexpected ways, such as through the use of humour or irony. “We also see artists based in countries where censorship is in place inserting subtle messages to avoid adverse treatment by the authorities,” Janet notes. “They are very, very good at doing that.”
Looking ahead, Janet is largely positive for the future of Arab art. “It won’t be an overnight explosion, but I’m confident that art from the Arab world will enter the mainstream,” she replies. “Take the most recent Venice Biennale; there wasn’t a conscious decision to ensure that it included an Arab presence either in the main exhibition or the collateral events - rather, that just happened. We will reach the point when Arab artists are less marginalised; when they are regarded as artists first and Arab artists second, with a really strong art form in their own right.”