The art scene in the Middle East continues to evolve, thanks to the development of world-class museums and galleries and the introduction of international fairs
What a great time it is to be an artist in the Middle East – a sentiment echoed by several creatives currently preparing for their upcoming showcases in the region, as art season gets underway. In the UAE alone, the emirates will soon welcome established and emerging artists from all over the world, with Dubai Design Week and Abu Dhabi Art ready to open their doors for their respective 2023 editions. Elsewhere in the region, We Design Beirut, Qatar International Art Festival and many other art fairs are gearing up for a busy period ahead. Truly, the Middle East is cementing itself on the global art map.
Past meets present
The Middle East has a long, storied history of artistic expression, which can be traced back to the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia. Some of the most interesting finds present across museums worldwide today are remarkable works of art from these early cultures, including pottery, handicrafts, sculptures, inscriptions and more. It is this varied tapestry that laid the foundation of the modern art scene in the region, and it perfectly reflects humanity's shared history. In fact, contemporary artists from the region often credit the rich heritage of these Middle Eastern civilisations as their primary source of inspiration, presenting the perfect blend of old and new through their range of works.
To support these artists and preserve the region's artistic heritage, the past few years have seen cities across the Middle East transform into contemporary art hubs. World-class galleries and museums have opened up, while the increasing number of exhibitions, fairs and artist residency programmes has served as a platform for talented individuals to explore their creative freedoms.
"As a whole, the art scene has never been more dynamic and full of promise for future generations, not least because leadership in the UAE has placed culture at the heart of their vision for future prosperity, social cohesion and well-being," said Dyala Nusseibeh, Director of Abu Dhabi Art, whom we had the chance to catch up with ahead of the 15th edition of the event. Nusseibeh believes that it is the opening of important museums, such as Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, and the now long-standing work of institutions such as Sharjah Art Foundation, Barjeel Foundation, Warehouse 421 and NYU Abu Dhabi, that have shaped the region's identity as an art hub.
Beyond the UAE, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (also known as Ithra) in Saudi Arabia, Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, the Sursock Museum in Lebanon, Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Gezira Center for Modern Art and others have strengthened the region's art scene – and there are more set to open soon. Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi will soon become the world's biggest art hub with the single largest concentration of cultural venues, when Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum open.
Furthermore, the international fairs and exhibitions based in the region, such as Abu Dhabi Art, Dubai Design Week, Art Dubai and more, offer annual residency programmes for artists to hone their skills. The development of dedicated art hubs, such as Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, has also contributed to the region's status as a haven for creative talent.
Nusseibeh said: "A plethora of opportunities exist for aspiring artists in the region today, including artist residencies, commissions, a community to gather with, numerous art galleries and available degrees at universities which perhaps didn’t exist in the early days, all of which have helped steer us to where we are today. Overall, these have been seismic changes."
A burgeoning art market
Strong changes have also taken place in the art market in the region, going from somewhat tempestuous in the early days of auction houses opening here to now becoming robust. Nusseibeh said: "I am thinking of 2009, in particular, where Dubai saw more speculative and sensational pieces of art selling at significant price drops, especially for works produced in the UAE and the wider region. This was followed by a period of reassessment – a reordering of the sorts – and then, by 2013, there was a gentle bounce back, following which a more solid market emerged."
While this shift proved healthy for artists in the region, the opening of museums and galleries as well as the introduction of residency programmes have added depth to the ecosystem. Nusseibeh added: "We are now at the point of harvesting all that hard work."
Take, for instance, Abu Dhabi Art, which began as Art Paris in 2007 and then evolved into Abu Dhabi Art in 2009 when it was decided that the fair should be homegrown and have a unique identity. Its early editions saw participation from around 40 to 50 galleries, which brought important works to the region even before any of the new museums were announced. Participation has now doubled and grown to more than 90 for the upcoming edition. "Abu Dhabi Art now positions itself not only as a place of discovery in the sense of encounters with art, but also in terms of the kinds of research that is done around the artists, and so for someone wanting to deep dive a little into the art scene of the region, it’s possible to discover more in-depth art histories," said Nusseibeh.
The same holds true for other exhibitions in the UAE and the rest of the region as it all comes together to further enhance the multifaceted and ever-evolving art scene in the Middle East. It continues to thrive and make significant contributions to the global art world, transcending boundaries and fostering cross-cultural understanding through creative expression.