Women artists of the Middle East: seven names to know
Whether they hail from Egypt, Lebanon, Iran or Saudi Arabia, the work of these artists has been acclaimed across the globe. Illustrated with lots from upcoming sales, including a charity auction for Beirut’s art community
In October 2019, Christie’s sold a huge reverse-glass work by the Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian (1924-2019) for £299,250. Dating from 2008, Untitled (Faravahar Wings, Zarathustra) embodies the artist’s fascination with the rhythms of Western abstraction, mirror mosaics and Arabic geometry. The latter passion was inspired by a transformative visit to the Shah Cheragh mosque in Shiraz in 1966, which she compared to ‘standing inside a many-faceted diamond and looking out at the sun’.
Shortly before the sale, Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, discussed the career of the three-times Venice Biennale exhibitor with specialist Dina Nasser-Khadivi and gallerist Sunny Rahbar during a talk at Christie’s. ‘Her vision was extraordinary and remains as relevant today as it did 50 years ago,’ he said.
In 2017, the artist donated more than 50 of her works to Tehran University. In response, the institution opened the Monir Museum — the first museum in Iran dedicated to just one woman.
In August 2020, less than a year after the artist’s death, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha opened a huge exhibition celebrating six decades of work by Huguette Caland (1931-2019). It was the latest in a string of critically acclaimed shows for Caland, following others at Tate St Ives in 2019, the Venice Biennale in 2017, and LA’s Hammer Museum in 2016.
Born in Lebanon, the only daughter of the country’s first post-independence president, Caland spent 17 years working in Paris before settling in California. She stayed there until 2013, relatively unknown, producing drawings and paintings that celebrate female identity and range from the suggestive to the erotic.
As a result of recent institutional recognition, prices for Caland’s work have been climbing steadily. At Christie’s in 2019, her auction record reached £250,000 with the painting Bribes de Corps (Body Parts).
The Palestinian artist Samia Halaby (b. 1937) has been painting bright, bold and dynamic canvases for more than half a century. The Guggenheim recently called her ‘a pioneer of contemporary abstraction’.
But Halaby is also a pioneering scholar. In 1972 she became the first woman to hold the position of Associate Professor at Yale School of Art, and in 2001 she wrote the book Liberation Art of Palestine: Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century.
Two years later she helped stage Made in Palestine at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston — the first ever US museum exhibition of contemporary Palestinian art.
Today, Halaby’s works can be found in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Raised in Cairo’s Royal Palace (her father was aide-de-camp to King Fouad I), Tahia Halim (1919-2003) left for Paris in 1945 to study at the Académie Julian. In 1951 she returned to Egypt and started painting earthy, gestural portraits of the local Nubian community — in particular, some of the thousands of people displaced by flooding from the Aswan High Dam project.
Halim participated in the Venice Biennale in 1955, 1960 and 1970, and received the Guggenheim Prize, the Gold Medal at the Cairo Salon and Egypt’s Medal of Arts and Sciences. In 2015, what would have been her 96th birthday was celebrated with a Google Doodle.
In 1966, after visiting Halim’s solo show at the Modern Konst I Hemmiljö gallery in Stockholm, the Swedish ambassador to Egypt invited the artist to his family’s estate in Sweden. The local press covered the trip and photographed Halim presenting the ambassador with the painting Untitled (above).
A poet, playwright and novelist turned artist, Etel Adnan (b. 1925) once said of her transition to paint: ‘Abstract art was the equivalent of poetic expression; I didn’t need to use words, but colours and lines. I didn’t need to belong to language-orientated culture, but to an open form of expression.’
Born in Beirut, Adnan was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, then at Berkeley and Harvard in the United States. But it wasn’t until she reached the age of 87 that her colour-field compositions — said to be Californian landscapes — received the same international acclaim as her writing.
Her breakthrough 2012 show at Documenta 13 in Kassel was followed by solo presentations at the Whitney in New York, the Serpentine Galleries in London and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The artist still works in her Paris studio at the age of 95.
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Hayv Kahraman (b. 1981) always paints the same protagonist: a light-skinned, dark-haired female overburdened by the ongoing cycle of war, violence and inequality.
A refugee of the Gulf War, Kahraman fled her home town of Baghdad aged 11. She learnt to paint in her adopted city of Stockholm, before enrolling to study graphic design at the Academy of Art and Design in Florence. She now lives and works in Los Angeles.
The youngest artist on this list, Kahraman is one to watch. She already has pictures in the collections of the British Museum in London and the Rubell Museum in Miami, and she has been the subject of recent solo shows at the Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawaii, the Contemporary Art Museum St Louis in Missouri and The Third Line gallery in Dubai.
The photographer Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956) grew up in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, before moving to Paris and Boston to study art. Her work, which portrays women with skin covered in illegible henna calligraphy, focuses on female Arab identity.
‘My work reaches beyond Islamic culture to invoke the Western fascination, as expressed in painting, with the odalisque, the veil, and, of course, the harem,’ she has said.
‘Here is another way in which my work cannot be read simply as a critique of Arab culture. Images of the harem and the odalisque still penetrate the present and I use the Arab female body to disrupt that tradition.’
In 2015, Essaydi published a monograph of her work called Crossing Boundaries, Bridging Cultures, and was the subject of a solo show at The San Diego Museum of Art in California. Two years later, in recognition of her pioneering work, she was asked to be a guest speaker at The New York Times event Art for Tomorrow: Women in Islam in Qatar.