10 Must-See Shows from Middle Eastern Galleries You Can View
Over the past year, the art world has made a conscious effort to highlight voices beyond the narrow confines of the West, amplifying unheard voices and moving away from the long-dominant white male gaze. Perhaps one of the most exciting hotspots within our increasingly global art world is the Middle East. Southwest Asia and North Africa have long histories of art and culture, from Baalbek in Lebanon to Al Ula in Saudi Arabia. And these ancient traditions of visual culture persevere today, with the region’s current fame for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, and so much more. To coincide with Artsy’s spotlight on the region, Middle Eastern Galleries Now, we’re highlighting 10 standout shows, which are viewable online through the end of March.
Cairo’s Gypsum Gallery presents a multidisciplinary selection of works from a multigenerational group of artists, with the subtle theme of time appearing throughout. Highlights include works by Ahmed Morsi, an artist whose career spans seven decades, and whose practice is described as offering “a mystical meditation of the remembrance and passage of time.” An untitled 2016 painting by Morsi pictures three pairs of eyes, with a clock set to 9:00 in the background.
This imagery is mirrored in Taha Belal’s collage MNMLs56 Series Vertical Whitener (2020), which shows a Rolex advertisement alongside a man scaling a mountain. We are also presented with the work of Basim Magdy, who presents us with a satirical view of the world through spaces that are simultaneously retro and futuristic, existing beyond the confines of time as we know it.
Hafez Gallery, which is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is showcasing a wide array of artists. Notable works include Ali Chaaban’s silkscreen Superman prints on Persian carpets and Joud Fahmy’s The Happy Box (ca. 2021), a three-dimensional artwork that recalls the plastic toys we played with as children.
The gallery is also presenting a number of paintings, including vibrant still lifes by Nasser Al-Mulhim and figurative works by Ibrahim El Dessouki, who is known for his use of negative space. The latter artist’s works featured here focus on gated communities, the fauna and flora within them, and the people who work and live there.
Another notable piece is a neon light work by Suliman El-Salem titled What The next Ensuing State Will Be (2019)—a statement that resonates with the current moment, as we imagine the future in the wake of a very surreal year.
Dubai’s Carbon 12 presents a selection of international artists working across genres. Particularly striking are Iranian artist Sara Rahbar’s mixed-media collages in which the American flag immediately stands out among images of soldiers and minority figures. The images are completely arresting as the world continues to feel the impact of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. These artworks reflect the artist’s earlier “Flag” series (2005–15), where she explored the iconography of the American flag, the concept of the American dream, violence, power, and her own connection to her home, Iran.
Also drawing on heritage, Iranian-German artist Anahita Razmi mines her Iranian cultural heritage and brings it into a new context. Her photograph This is not Iranian (2015) shows the artist’s arm tattooed with the same phrase in Farsi. Meanwhile, Razmi’s lenticular prints also use semiotics to play with notions of representation, misunderstandings, and shifting perspectives.
1x1 Art Gallery has been presenting South Asian modern and contemporary art to the United Arab Emirates for two decades. The artists in its group show present paintings, sculpture, and photography, including some particularly noteworthy works that comment on the perception of women within Indian society.
Ravinder Reddy’s bronze female busts with wide eyes, strong features, and garishly colored skin are inspired by Pop art portraits and modeled after both traditional religious statuary and local women. The works function as celebrations of the female form, while also parodying the ideal of feminine beauty in Indian culture.
Similarly, Pushpamala N’s prints from the “Apaharana/Abduction” series also focus on female stereotypes. The images reenact historical representations of women to subvert them. And in Sonia Mehra Chawla’s mixed-media works, the viewer’s attention is again drawn to the shadow of the female form. Chawla’s work is not necessarily gender-centric, however, but rather comments on the human figure’s connectedness to its natural and urban surroundings; some works mix biomorphic forms with flora and fauna to explore the effects of nature on the individual.
Kuwaiti artist Alymamah Rashed is featured in a solo presentation by Dubai’s Tabarai Artspace. Rashed’s paintings are a mix of oils on canvas and watercolors on paper. The artist describes herself as a “Muslima Cyborg” of the post-internet generation, fluctuating between the East and the West. Rashed’s surreal paintings investigate her own body on multiple levels: the fleshed body, the thobe (the prayer garment), and a combination of the two.
Rashed’s cyborg is not a piece of mechanics, but rather a visual representation of spiritual intelligence. I Caress My Ayn Every Now And Then (2020) is particularly striking as a gentle black figure wraps its arms around a peach-colored form that has been painted inside of it. The inclusion of “ayn,” the Arabic word for “eye,” seems to comment on how we view ourselves. The poetic titles of Rashed’s paintings are inspired by her own writing and feed into what she produces on canvas. Another noteworthy piece, Come Closer To Recollect Traces of You (2020), is a blue-yellow watercolor display of forms coming together, illustrating a sense of fragility and romanticism that flows throughout Rashed’s work.
Based in Ramallah, Palestine, Zawyeh Gallery is presenting a solo exhibition of landscape paintings by Nabil Anani, titled “IN PURSUIT OF UTOPIA.” Anani’s works show uninterrupted, perfectly manicured landscapes, which represent the picturesque hills of Palestine without the ever-increasing Israeli interventions into the land.
The paintings appear quiet and idyllic, emanating an air of calm in a region not known for its tranquility. A key founder of the contemporary Palestinian art movement, Anani is famous for pioneering the use of local media like henna, leather, and natural dyes and incorporating them into his work. In the featured paintings, he introduces straw and dessicated plants to allow the viewer to get a feel for the Palestinian landscape, where olive trees thrive. His depictions of olive groves can be interpreted as a metaphor for Palestine, as the olive tree remains rooted in the earth, despite adversity.
Doha’s East Wing is particularly known for its photography exhibitions, which is exactly what it is presenting at Middle Eastern Galleries Now. Among the works on show are a series of photographs of female figures by the eminent Lebanese artist Rania Matar. Revered for her sympathetic depictions of women, Matar is famous for her images of female adolescence and womanhood. Her contributions to the East Wing presentation are focused on women in Lebanon. The photographs of Mariam and Alae in the Lebanese town of Khiyam are particularly striking, as both women are pictured with their eyes closed gently, while embracing the landscape.
East Wing is also exhibiting captivating work by Christto & Andrew, an artistic duo based between Doha and Copenhagen, who produce surreal still-life portraits. One such arresting image is How to Speak to Spirits (2016), showing long manicured talons clutching at what looks like a crystal ball, giving us a glimpse into an indefinable future.
At Amman’s Wadi Finan Art Gallery, the figurative works of Saoud Abdallah invite the viewer to consider his female figures. These women almost always appear turned away from the audience and draw them in with their thick black hair, composed of natural sand on canvas in an unknown setting.
The gallery also presents a series of bronze and wood sculptures by Rita Hassouani, whose bronze figures are depicted trying to escape their wooden enclosures. The presentation finishes with Rasmi Al Kafaji’s series of monochrome acrylic paintings, which appear to comment on the cosmos and spirituality, something many of us have been embracing over the past 12 months.
Janet Rady Fine Art presents a solo show of works by Soudeh Davoud titled “HALF OF ALL,” exclusively online through March 30th. Davoud’s paintings and mixed-media works highlight the place of Iranian women in their communities today, while exploring Iran’s natural and mythical past. The works show female figures together among colorful Iranian landscapes and sites of mythical poems and legends from such sources as the Shahnameh (the Persian “Book of Kings”) as well as ancient sites like the Taq-e Bustan (“Arch of the Garden”).
Within these vibrant, colorful works, Davoud draws together myth and reality, with her female characters swimming together joyfully in Taq-e Bostan Swamp (2021), or physically lifting each other up in Like a mountain (2021), and dancing hand in hand in an untitled work on paper. Mixing traditional materials like pencils with airbrushing, Davoud brings fresh media to represent the exploration of old and new ideas, cementing the importance of understanding our past while moving into the future.
Beirut-based Artscoops presents a group show of contemporary female artists from the Middle East. Among the highlights are the sculptural vessels of Katya Traboulsi. In 2018, Traboulsi presented a series of hand-crafted replicas of Lebanese war bomb shells adorned with colorful patterns, transforming destructive military objects into beautiful vessels. Tunisia and Turkey are porcelain structures reminiscent of missiles, but decorated with delicate and ornate patterns, subverting how we might initially interpret the objects.
Meanwhile, Helen Zughaib’s Woven In Exile may be understood as a commentary on the experiences of Arab women living in the United States. Other standout works are by Malekeh Nayiny, whose paintings are created by manipulating personal photographs to create images that collapse her diverse geographic background—covering Iran, New York, and Paris—into single compositions. Her most arresting work is Moment of Grace, which, though produced in 2010, is strikingly reminiscent of the famous photograph of the Lebanese nurse Pamela Zeinoun cradling newborn babies in the immediate aftermath of the August 4th Beirut explosion.