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Art

10 Middle Eastern Artists to Discover

For over 15 years, the prominent New York–based nonprofit ArteEast has prioritized its mission to promote the artistic scenes of the Middle East and North Africa. In doing so, it has organized artist residencies in the United States, hosted on-site professional workshops, and maintained a growing archive of film hailing from the Arab world.
In partnership with Artsy, ArteEast’s newest initiative is an ongoing fundraising exhibition that features more than 50 artists associated with the region. Under the title “Legacy Trilogy,” it uniquely pays tribute to a wide breadth of established and rising contemporary talent through three separate sections: Past, Present, and Future. The funds raised will be used to preserve the organization’s film archive, including supporting the participating artists.
The question of “What is Middle Eastern art?” has surfaced from time to time in recent years, leading to discussion and debate in the art world. Given the contentious and geographically constrained nature of the term “Middle Eastern art,” the answer varies and is rather subjective. But as evidenced by the diverse works of the 10 artists below from the ArteEast exhibition, it stretches far beyond the typical realms of pure calligraphy and ornamentation. By looking within and connecting with the events of the world at large, artists from the region and its diasporic communities have developed a compelling approach of producing art that proves to be thought-driven, socially engaged, personal, contradictory, and experimental.

B. 1962, Kuwait. Lives and works in Abu Dhabi.

Starting in the early 1980s, Tarek Al-Ghoussein has dedicated himself to the field of photography. An artist with Palestinian roots and an NYU Abu Dhabi professor of visual arts, Al-Ghoussein places himself in his performative images. His works are arresting in their use of space and palpable silence. With his back to the viewer, he confronts the vast desert, sea landscapes, and walls.
Through his work, which has been acquired over the years by the Guggenheim Museum and British Museum, among others, Al-Ghoussein explores personal issues related to his Palestinian identity. At times, he wears the traditional Palestinian scarf, known as a keffiyeh, aiming to challenge how Palestinians are depicted in the media, and bringing to light the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the physical, cultural barriers it generates.
Aside from his self-portraiture series, dating back to 2002, Al-Ghoussein has documented various other themes in recent years. Some of his notable projects include photographing all of the 250 islands of the emirate of Abu Dhabi and a soon-to-be demolished Kuwaiti housing development and the remnants left behind by its multiethnic inhabitants.

B. 1976, Damascus, Syria. Lives and works in Berlin.

A former calligrapher, the conceptual artist Khaled Barakeh always cites his visit to Paris’s Palais de Tokyo in 2005 as his introduction to the world of contemporary art—a far cry from the traditional art practices of his native Syria. It was a moment of “artistic shock,” as Barakeh once said, which led him to pursue a master’s degree in art in Europe.
Barakeh has since taken on the role of cultural activist, fighting social injustice and advocating for fellow artists of the Syrian diaspora through managing several platforms including the Syria Cultural Index and Syrian Biennale.
Artistically, Barakeh’s body of work is bold and offers thought-provoking statements. He delves into topical themes of migration, exile, and displacement. A multimedia practitioner, his works—like an installation of rubber stamps and a work on paper made from granted visas and denials—remind the viewer of the complexities of bureaucracy that control a person’s sense of movement and being.

B. 1977, Chicago. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

The multidisciplinary artist Yasmine Nasser Diaz addresses touchy issues surrounding gender, religion, and third-culture identity—all of which impacted her during her youth, as a daughter to Yemeni parents living in the United States. Though her boundary-pushing work is specific to her own personal narrative, it resonates with many who have faced complicated clashes while growing up in an environment of two or more opposing cultures and their values.
Diaz has so far explored this tension of collectivism versus individualism through striking neon, collage, fiber etchings, and site-specific installations. Her ongoing “Teenage Bedroom” series invites the viewer into her intimate, pink-hued world, transporting one back to her 1990s teenage years spent in the bedroom with her friends and sisters, taking snapshots, chatting and dancing to music in this little cocoon.
On the other hand, the work uncovers struggles the artist battled with while living in a conservative household. At one point, while in the process of planning her future by applying to colleges, she escaped from a prospective forced arranged marriage. As an independent feminist who can now speak her mind, Diaz hopes her art can spark conversations towards achieving equality of the sexes.

B. 1982, Giza, Egypt. Lives and works in Houston.

It was exactly 10 years ago that the so-called Arab Spring erupted across the streets of the region, where millions of citizens demanded change, dignity, and an end to decades-long governmental corruption. Among the most active street artists of that era was Ganzeer, who was then in his late twenties and revved up by the people’s will, fueling him to create public artwork on the walls of Cairo.
Just like the sociopolitical themes of his satirical murals, the pseudonym of Ganzeer—meaning “bicycle chain”—is of a similar essence, emphasizing the artist’s role in society. “He likes to think of artists as the mechanism that pushes change forward,” reported the New York Times.
One of his most powerful murals from the 2011 Egyptian Revolution depicts a large military tank facing a boy on his bicycle, carrying bread on his head. He notes that the Egyptian-Arabic term for bread is similar to the word for life, echoing the people’s chants: “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.”

B. 1972, Beirut, Lebanon. Lives and works in Beirut.

One can liken the San Francisco–educated painter Hiba Kalache’s poetic compositions to the contradictory nature of life itself: Where there is beauty, there is pain. In her abstract paintings, Kalache applies a soft palette as a background, passionately covered with bursts of color and thickly contoured scribbles, almost acting as open, fresh wounds.
Looking closely, there are visual hints of floral and erotic elements, evoking an atmosphere of violence, tension, and a glimmer of delicateness, where everything seems to coexist. The more one looks, the more one discovers intriguing details. Influenced by her geographical and sociopolitical surroundings, she claims her work to be autobiographical, reflecting occurrences of everyday life and how a human endures trauma.
Literature has served as a vital source of inspiration to Kalache’s artistic process. The words of acclaimed writers Georges Bataille, Clarice Lispector, and Patti Smith have informed her work, notably the long, multilayered titles of her canvases, like the trouble with dreaming is that we eventually wake up, the inexplicable love makes the heart beat faster, or simply, as it goes, so do we.

B. 1979, Tabuk, Saudi Arabia. Lives and works in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

When Ahmed Mater was studying surgery in medical school during the late 1990s, he was simultaneously taking part in photography and painting workshops held at the King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh. In an unconventional move, he would eventually shift his career focus from medicine to art. Now, Mater is considered one of the Gulf region’s leading contemporary artists, and his installations, photographs and found objects collected over the years tell of local histories and reflect cultural changes that have been rapidly transforming Saudi Arabian society.
In Evolution of Man, a popular conceptual artwork from 2010, the viewer is faced with an LED lightbox, showing in stages how a human X-ray pointing a gun to its head turns into a gas pump. “I am the son of this strange, scary oil civilization,” Mater stated. “In ten years our lives changed completely. For me, it is a drastic change that I experience every day.”
The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca also surfaces in Mater’s artistic output. He documents, for instance, how the historical and holy site of the Kaaba has undergone major redevelopments, which have caused concern for some, amid a system of imposing cranes and bulldozers.

B. 1942, Kermanshah, Iran. Lives and works in New York.

With an eventful decades-long career, Nicky Nodjoumi is considered a key artistic figure of the Iranian diaspora. During the 1960s and ’70s, he obtained university degrees in art in both Tehran and New York. Upon his return to Iran to teach in the mid-1970s, he became politically active by creating posters criticizing the ruling Shah and his circle. After the groundbreaking revolution of 1979, he eventually left his home country and settled in the United States.
Nodjoumi primarily works in painting. His figurative style offers an expressive, daring, and satirical retelling of the state of the world today. He depicts a comical, chaotic political climate of faceless, masked men in suits, manipulated by strings, in a circus-like theater. In addition to inserting personal, historical, and surrealistic references, an important issue that he has strived to highlight in his large-scale and dramatic imagery is the power dynamics between humans, as well as with animals.

B. 1985, Nazareth, Palestine. Lives and works in Berlin.

An emerging artist and art lecturer, Ruba Salameh has tried her hand in a variety of mediums, from painting to video art and installation. As a woman, she engages with concerns tied with the (love of the) self, as she puts it, “in an age that is highly characterized by individualism.” Meanwhile, as a Palestinian, she immerses herself in the concept of geographies, displacement, and colonial power, illustrating the relationship Palestinians hold with their fractured land.
In her recent series titled “Tensegrity,” previously exhibited at Zawyeh Gallery in Dubai, Salameh presents pastel-toned, edgy paintings that are orderly and minimal. Influenced by and Russian Constructivism, the images’ geometric shapes link up and develop an overall state of harmony on the surface on the canvas. However, on a closer inspection, small ants are surprisingly incorporated, finding their space on different parts of the composition. In a subtle way, their presence may symbolize a demonstration of resilience and rebellion akin to a people keeping hold of their diminishing space.

B. 1969, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in New York.

Language is at the heart of the visual artist Hadieh Shafie’s vibrant, intricate sculptural paper works. With great dexterity, she is known for utilizing a multitude of paint and ink-inscribed paper scrolls, rolled and tightly packed in an overall circular form. The mosaic-like result is bedazzling to the eye, like a kaleidoscopic landscape. The scrolls contain written texts, offering words on the timeless and universal subjects of love and loss. Deeply inspired by her Persian cultural heritage, Shafie previously used the writings of Iran’s pivotal 20th-century poets Forugh Farrokhzad and Sohrab Sepehri.
Elsewhere, Shafie’s equally colorful and playful drawings from 2019 found her taking simple yet emotionally loaded terms, especially eshgh (meaning “passionate love” in Persian), and writing the words repetitively in an elongated way. With her work, she creates a sense of disruption, as if throwing a pebble into a pond, by cutting and rotating the paper into separate circular shapes, showing the effects of sound and movement.

B. 1982, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Upland, California.

With a muted color scheme, a soothing stillness occupies the minimal scenery of Shabnam Yousefian’s paintings, where realism meets abstraction. She paints the passing hours of the day by focusing on reflections of road signs, buildings, cars, electric poles, and a fallen tree branch seen on the ground. It’s almost as if a destructive event took place and the aftermath is an unignorable silence.
The compositions are often presented from different viewpoints, causing a disorienting effect and prompting the viewer to look harder. Her work encompasses a psychological element of how humans perceive matters. “What is seen in life is only an illusion and reality is meaningless,” Yousefian, who officially began painting professionally at the age of 16, wrote in her artist statement. “Images are reflections of the viewer’s inner sense and mindset. Nothing in life is stable, neither inside nor around us. This defining characteristic of life is what I have challenged myself to demonstrate in my work.”
Rawaa Talass