Eight contemporary Middle Eastern and North African artists to know in 2023
Ahead of our online Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art sale in May, specialists Suzy Sikorski and Marie-Claire Thijsen reveal why these are the artists to have on your radar right now
Dana Awartani, Saudi Arabia, b. 1987
‘Dana Awartani is a Palestinian-Saudi artist who is part of a movement that fuses traditional Islamic principles with contemporary practice to explore her own identity,’ says Suzy Sikorski, a specialist in Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art at Christie’s in Dubai.
‘Icosahedron within a Dodecahedron belongs to a series of abstract sculptures she made between 2016 and 2018, which look at how certain geometries are considered sacred in the Islamic art tradition. The series, including this work, appeared in the Marrakech Biennale 6, Not New Now/Quoi de neuf là, in 2016.’
Awartani, who was born in Jeddah, studied in London, first at Central Saint Martins, then at The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts. At the latter she learnt to paint miniatures and glass, as well as the ancient skill of gilding. The intricate patterns found in her works are often created using these centuries-old techniques, alongside others such as marquetry and mosaic, employing traditional Middle Eastern materials such as clay, silk and sand.
In 2022, Awartani’s monumental sandstone-and-steel sculpture Where the Dwellers Lay, inspired by the shapes of local Nabataean tombs, became a focal point of Saudi Arabia’s most ambitious curatorial project to date, Desert X AlUla. This huge art exhibition in the desert is part of a wider effort to transform the ancient UNESCO World Heritage Site into a cultural destination.
Mohammed Kazem, United Arab Emirates, b. 1969
For more than 30 years, Mohammed Kazem — a leading figure of the ‘Second Generation’ of the UAE’s contemporary artists — has been creating visual representations of sound, using scissors to score pieces of paper, from small sheets to extensive scrolls.
‘These works draw on elements of 20th-century European avant-garde movements such as Dada and Fluxus,’ says specialist Marie-Claire Thijsen. A notable example is his 10-metre-long Scratches on Paper in New York’s Guggenheim.
As the artist himself has said, ‘I’ve been making my scratches work since 1989. Over the years, this scratching practice has become fundamental in shaping how I experience the world by capturing light, sound and its infinite movement.’
In 2002, Kazem — together with his mentor Hassan Sharif, Hassan’s brother Hussain, Abdullah Al Saadi and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim (see below) — was included in the show 5 UAE at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany, which championed the five as the region’s pioneering conceptual artists.
To date, Kazem has represented the UAE at biennials in Havana (2000), Dhaka (2002), Singapore (2006) and Venice (2013).
Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Tunisia, b. 1978
‘Having grown up between her native Tunis, Kyiv, Paris and Dubai — and now living and working in Berlin — Nadia Kaabi-Linke is one of a new generation of multicultural Middle Eastern artists whose work addresses themes of geopolitics, borders and migration,’ says Thijsen.
Kaabi-Linke’s 2009 installation Under Standing Over Views, a comment on the Middle East’s ethnic diversity, consists of chips of paint from the walls of the various cities she has inhabited. It now hangs in the UAE’s Sharjah Art Museum.
In 2011, she followed it up with Flying Carpets, exhibited at the 54th Venice Biennale, in which suspended metal frames throw shadows that represent the outlines of carpets. It is now in the collection of New York’s Guggenheim.
Of the work coming to auction, Carthage Presidence from 2009, Kaabi-Linke has said, ‘It represents the language of the youth: innocent engravings, initials and drawings on a wall of a high school near the presidential palace in Carthage. I was studying art nearby and was fascinated by the whispering voices of this wall that prophesised the Tunisian revolution. These wall prints can be seen as an archaeology of contemporary life, and planted the seeds of my current artistic practice.’
‘In 2021, Kaabi-Linke won the fourth edition of the Ithra Art Prize, awarded by the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Saudi Arabia,’ says Thijsen. ‘Her momumental winning artwork, E Pluribus Unum — A Modern Fossil, consists of 19 canvases depicting a giant arrow sign covered in scratches, and was unveiled at the inaugural Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale in December the same year.’
Hesam Rahmanian, Iran, b. 1980
In 2009, three Iranian artists — Ramin Haerizadeh (b. 1975), Rokni Haerizadeh (b. 1978) and Hesam Rahmanian — who had met at underground art classes during the 1990s, began living and collaborating together in exile in Dubai.
The trio set out to challenge how a collective is defined: their associated group grows and shrinks, incorporating other friends, artists, writers and musicians, depending on the nature of each project. Spanning sculpture, installation, painting and performance, their output has been exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston (2015), the Liverpool Biennial (2016) and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark (2019).
‘The three have become important mentors for younger artists working in Dubai,’ says Sikorski. ‘Their work, in particular their hyper-sensory installations, really challenge traditional boundaries.’
As a solo artist, Rahmanian often works with found fragments such as discarded household objects or old Polaroid photographs, to create assemblages that look at how identities are formed. With shows at Paradise Row in London (2011) and Isabelle van den Eynde in Dubai (2013 and 2019), it was at the latter gallery that the work coming to auction — Watching the Fading Fog, depicting a solitary, striped deckchair on a rocky outcrop — was unveiled.
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, United Arab Emirates, b. 1962
In 2022, the Emirati artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim was selected to represent the UAE at the 59th Venice Biennale. For his installation, Between Sunrise and Sunset, he filled an entire room with dozens of sculptures of totem-like trees in bold, bright colours, creating the appearance of a saturated forest.
Like Mohammed Kazem (above), Ibrahim was one of the five participants in 5 UAE at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, and part of the trailblazing first generation of contemporary artists to emerge in the Gulf in the late 1980s.
‘What sets Ibrahim’s work apart is his tendency to create abstract, geometric paintings and sculptures that are particularly rich in colour,’ says Sikorski. ‘He has said that his work has a deep connection to the environment of Khorfakkan, his birthplace, situated between the Gulf of Oman and the Hajar Mountains. This is reflected in the materials he uses, such as coal and clay, and his most common motif, the tree, which he paints with thick lines reminiscent of ancient cave pictures.’
Today, Ibrahim is represented by Lawrie Shabibi gallery in Dubai — a crucible of the region’s contemporary art scene since 2011. Outside the Middle East, his works can be found in the permanent collections of the British Museum and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Reem al Faisal, Saudi Arabia, b. 1973
Reem al Faisal, otherwise known as Reem bint Mohammed Al Saud, is a Saudi Arabian photographer who splits her time between Paris and Jeddah. She is the granddaughter of Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the country’s king from 1964 to 1975.
After studying Arabic literature in Jeddah, she learnt photography at the Spéos school in Paris, and in 2008 and 2015 opened photography galleries in Dubai and Jeddah respectively. They were among the earliest galleries in the region to champion the medium.
As a photographer, Al Faisal is best known for her black-and-white documentary work, which often depicts the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. In 2000 she authored the photo essay Diwan Al Noor: A Photographic Journey through Light, Water, and People, and in 2009, The Hajj.
‘Al Faisal’s work examines Saudi Arabia’s modernity as well as its spirituality,’ says Sikorski. ‘She was one of the first Saudi female photographers to explore documentary and fine art black and white photography, and the first photographer to capture the port of Jeddah.’
Hayv Kahraman, Iraq, b. 1981
Born in Baghdad, but now living and working in Los Angeles, Hayv Kahraman is one of the Middle East’s leading female artists. Her depictions of women, often naked and contorted, examine their role in Iraqi society, as well as tackling the male gaze and gender politics in wider art history.
‘Kahraman is at the forefront of the Middle East’s feminist art movement,’ says Sikorski. ‘She has international gallery representation with Jack Shainman in New York and The Third Line in Dubai, and a huge collector base. Christie’s set her auction record in 2019 at £118,750 with The Kawliya Dance (2013), which depicts four women taking part in a traditional gypsy performance.
‘There are two of her works in the upcoming auction, both on paper. One depicts Kurdish women gathered around a tree; the other is a study of traditional female Emirati dress, which was commissioned for a book in 2011.’
Kahraman’s work is in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Rubell Family Collection.
Tala Madani, Iran, b. 1981
The painter and animator Tala Madani was born in Tehran, but moved to America when she was 12. She now lives and works in Los Angeles.
Madani makes gestural, figurative works that build on the foundations of American and European neo-Expressionism, created by the likes of Philip Guston and Paula Rego.
Her subject matter, however, is highly original: she deconstructs both Western and Eastern ideas of masculine authority, typically through images of middle-aged, overweight, balding men in compromising positions. These scenes are often illuminated by beams of unwelcome light coming from projectors or disco equipment.
‘These highly provocative pictures are equal parts humorous and grotesque,’ says Thijsen. ‘And this sort of imagery is particularly at odds with the sensibilities of traditional Iranian art.’
The work coming to auction, Table Trouble (2008), has been widely exhibited, most recently in Tala Madani: Biscuits, the artist's retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles from September 2022 to February 2023.
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Madani, who is represented by Pilar Corrias in London and David Kordansky Gallery in New York and Los Angeles, received an MFA in painting from Yale University School of Art in 2006. As well as the recent retrospective at MOCA in LA, her works have been exhibited at the Start Museum in Shanghai in 2020 and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2019.
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