Writer: Jon Jensen/CNN
The past decade has seen a ‘perfect storm’ of art collectors in the Middle East, according to Antonia Carver, director of Dubai-based art fair Art Dubai. Just this May, the auction houses of London were crammed with art and antiquities from across the Islamic world, as the city celebrated ‘Islamic Week’, encapsulating the growing interest in work from the region. Records were broken for centuries-old pieces and contemporary creations alike.
New highs are not only being set in salesrooms. Boundaries are also being broken in galleries and studios. What’s more, some of the most striking work is appearing in corners of the region that might surprise outsiders (or at least, the uninitiated). Edge of Arabia, which has been travelling the globe for the past four years promoting Saudi Arabian art, finally landed in Jeddah earlier this year. It was the first major contemporary art exhibition ever to be organised in the Kingdom and served as proof of the ways in which many artists are gently pushing at the limits of expression in the socially conservative country. Operating under the banner 'We Need to Talk', the show was very much aimed at encouraging dialogue between artists and the community.
“Our aim is to deliver a message,” explained 36-year-old curator, Mohammed Hafiz. “We want to let the world know what Saudi Arabia is all about, through the eyes of its artists. We know that we have a voice that we want people to listen to. We have thoughts and experiences to share.” Those experiences extend into areas that are politically and socially charged. The Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan, for example, has devoted herself to exploring the role of women in Saudi society and to confronting the taboos that surround this sensitive territory.
“We have this debate in Saudi about women's employment and some people say women should only work in jobs that ‘suit their nature’,” she says. “It's a completely irrational discussion because who decides what suits their nature? I started photographing amazing women working in all kinds of jobs to show that the argument is invalid.” One of Al-Dowayan's works, ‘Esmi’ [My Name], shows her asking hundreds of women to write their names on wooden balls, which she strung from the ceiling. It was her way of breaking the taboo that prevents men from saying the names of women in their lives.
You might think that such statements would invite both criticism and hostility but despite the controversial nature of her work, Al-Dowayan insists she has had very few negative reactions at home. “Whenever I do a work, people around me and my galleries get very worried but in reality there's incredible room for dialogue in Saudi Arabia,” she says. “These are issues that have been discussed many times and I'm just bringing them into contemporary art.”
It is an attitude that is also finding its way into business. Alaa Balkhy is a 23-year-old designer running a business called Fyunka, selling bags, clothing and notebooks. Her designs are now sold through an online boutique in London, as well as in nine Gulf countries. She believes that Saudis are finally becoming proud of their own arts and culture. “We are trying to put a positive Saudi on the map. We really want to change the stereotype and step-by-step, we are doing it,” she says. “People are pushing the limits, but doing it gradually so people don't get a big shock all at once.”
If the current generation of artists in unexpected parts of the Middle East are anything to go by, interest in work from the region is only likely to move in one direction. And that is up.