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Middle East

I have come to understand that if the world is flat - then the art world is ... Flatbush.

In 2012, soon after decamping to Bahrain, the small island Kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia - to work for the talented contemporary painter, Rashid bin Khalifa al Khalifa, a strange phenomena kept repeating itself.

I am in Dubai visiting the Green Gallery in the Al Serkal district area on the outskirts of the uber-shiny central Financial and Marina areas at the center of the city. I am there to see a show called “Brute Ornament” featuring the work of two emerging talents in the region: Kamrooz Ahram (Iranian) and Seher Shah (Pakistani). The show is curated by Murtaza Vali (Emirati).

I am greeted by the whippet-thin, chic, and espresso-dispensing gallery Director, Yasmin Attasi. Attasi offers to take me through the show and as we are circling the open-plan white cube space, I say that I admire Aram’s work and would love to visit his studio. She replies, “No problem. Actually he’s walking in right now.”

Enter a trendy young guy, mid-30s, with a broad smile and dressed in the internationally accepted artist’s duds, jeans, boots, T-shirt. Atassi introduces us. I tell him how much I like his work and repeat my request. “Hey,” I say. “This stuff is very cool. I am wondering if you would be kind enough to let me visit your studio?” “Sure,” he answers. “Where do you live?” “Bahrain,” I answer, proudly (feeling slightly proud that I am not one of those Western interlopers). “Oh, bummer,” he says. “My studio is in Brooklyn. I thought you were from New York.”

And so it goes.....

At Art Dubai, the largest and most prestigious art fair in the region, at Abu Dhabi Art, at every gallery I visit - from Doha to Beirut to Dehli. I see work I like. I ask the Gallery owner to meet the artist. I meet the artist with for me, an un-pronounceable Arabic name, that I just manage to spit out without complete embarrassment. The artist appears, speaks better English than I, launches into a chat about the latest show at P.S. 1, or the Tate Modern, or the relative merits of that year’s Whitney Bienniale, And then, just as the ending of Gone With the Wind, in which Rhett Butler never varies from his wry sign-off, “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.” The artist ends with a wave, a smile, and....“ Definitely come visit my studio. It’s in Brooklyn."

So now I understand. Most of these artists were born in the region. Some were born in the U.S. to parent’s who are from the region. Yet, if they have gained any traction on the global market, they, like me, decamped 8,000 miles from home. I just went in the wrong direction!

There is a serious point to this humorous “joke on me” and it leads me to consider the entire idea of contemporary art in the Middle East and the endlessly debated idea of “Diaspora”.

The word and idea of Diaspora has been lectured about, written upon, documented in film - ad-nauseum. It has been highlighted in symposia and exhibitions across the globe and is central to any “dialogue” - another over-used word - regarding MENASA and contemporary art.

The problem with “Diaspora” use as the term for displacement - due to a smörgåsbord of evils visited upon humanity, from wars to natural disasters, to now, even mutating, and quickly spreading deadly viruses - is that it is a bit dated and dusty. It lacks immediacy.

To underscore the point if one looks “Diaspora” up, the old- fashioned way, in a dictionary, it is defined as: “Noun; Jews living outside Israel; the dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel; (and then third billing, as) “the dispersion of any people from their original homeland.”

Diaspora, in my view, brings up images of physical displacement. And don’t get me wrong, this dimension of Diaspora is not in the least anachronistic or irrelevant. Just look at the Kurds climbing desperately into helicopters, or Syrians fainting from thirst and hunger. It is just that it, Diaspora, does not encompass, and therefore, falls short of defining the situation facing MENASA artists in the 21st century.

The immediacy of social media and the internet makes these “displaced” people able to cyber-travel through the global art world. Thus, their trials and triumphs are more multi-faceted and complex. With heretofore unheard of access to information, imagery, experiences, and in many cases pressures to “define” themselves as victims, they are different than “displaced” peoples of the past.

It is this immediacy that gives me pause when pontificating on the state of the MENASA market and leads me to believe that it is perhaps both too early and too difficult to discuss it intelligently - from the eye of the storm as it were.

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About the Author

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart has been a professional in the art world for 30+ years. Her career has included work as a journalist, editor, public relations professional and non-profit management consultant. She bega...