Interview with Emily Quinney-Doherty

EQ- Khaled, I am now really trying to understand, at this point, what pressures Middle Eastern artists now face from the West. For example, do you feel a pressure to work with subject matter that is political in order to be shown internationally, or is it something you naturally veer towards anyway?

KH- I believe that there is a fashion for Middle East art today for a diversified “battery” of reasons; those of us (Middle East artists) who lead a sort of “international career” may fall in the interest of curators because their works veer naturally and are inspired by, or simply can be read/deciphered by, social and political visual alphabets. 

I here have to stress on the word “naturally”, because as we would expect, some artists (or art practitioners at that) abuse this international interest by tailoring art projects; the works/projects turn out pretentious and cheap, and you see this difference between authentic and tailored works immediately.
Unfortunate for everyone in the field that some international curators do a 48-hours research when they visit the Middle East, and can be easily cheated, no matter how professional they are. Other curators depend on touring-the-biennales for Middle East names as their principal source of research; those fall in the trap of recycling artists and projects. Both categories of curators and cultural operators miss loads of interesting works and practices along the way; this is why sometimes we see Deja-vu works, the same faces of artists over and over.


EQ- I am interested in this idea that Western art markets hold pre-conceptions about what work should be coming out of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other Arab/ Middle Eastern nations: that somehow there is this belief that it should reflect what is happening socially and politically and that this makes it ‘valid’.
KH- this a very interesting point you bring here; apart from Mona Hatoum who got into the international art scene early and as a very individual case, the most conspicuous two cases who describe your point are Gahda Amer and Sherin Neshaat in the nineties; Gahda and Sherin were the first Middle East artists, and were also female artists, who tackled the three Middle East Taboos: sex, politics and religion. They are fabulous artists, and there were OTHER magnificent careers and practices of Middle East artists working in the Middle East and outside who NEVER got any international recognition: the art scene could NOT tolerate too many Arabs/MuslimsJ.Those are the dynamics of the international art scene: only a sample of the artists can gain stardom.


EQ- Perhaps this is what art does naturally anyway – that it is a response to our environment – but is there a direct link between what the West expects and what is created in the Middle East?

KH- Perhaps in the nineties, I would give you a clear cutting edge and a definite YES; after September 11, 2001, I think there is a true interest for what and how those creators of the Middle East think and work. There is a need for a dialogue between West and East more than any other time in history.


EQ- Perhaps, if there is any pressure to conform to expectations, it is from local/ Arab expectations and not the west at all?

KH- I personally think that this generous interest from international curators allowed and gave way to a layer of seduced wave of artists who changed styles and practices categorically to make it to the international art scene; funny enough, that most (nearly all cases but one or two) who really show internationally are not form the seduced category, and their works have always reflected their social and political commitment and involvement.


EQ- I was looking at Orientalist paintings from the 19th century at an exhibition in Abu Dhabi recently and it occurred to me that Orientalism may have gone through a transition of sorts, but that is still with us.
In this scenario, European imagined and exoticized scenarios of the East are being sold back to Arabs as representation of their own past which I find problematic in itself: any comments?

KH- we are in an age of recycling, rememberJ
I think what you are referring to can be extremely true today as regards “inspirational” level.
In the physical world it has been related always to colonialism as a concurrent phenomenon to military colonialism: It is like the East India company that sold tea back to the IndiansJ and the French cotton shirts taken from Egyptian and Sudanese cotton sold back in Egypt.
Hollywood has adopted all sorts of “raw material” from every corner of the world, and for a century managed to change behaviors and attitudes, create labels and stereotypes; now artists from the Middle East “reflect back” references from Hollywood, that have been adopted by Hollywood from the Middle East: African artists too are doing the same, etc.

Back to the inspirational level: in modern and contemporary art, many modernists and contemporary artists took references from Africa, the far and the Middle East; now Arab artists take references from twentieth century modernists and contemporary artists who “got inspired” by the Middle East; same in music, dance and other art disciplines.

The West has adopted elements, assimilated them, experimented with them, produced from them, and made established artworks from, then came Middle East artists who assimilated this production of the West and now exporting to the West their own production.:)
Am I talking Chinese nowJ

EQ- Today, the West is buying art works from Middle Eastern artists but what are the dynamics of the exchange?

KH- I would give you a precise answer in five years, not today. This “exchange” is only budding and in its beginnings; I am talking here about art practices that come from the Middle East not from diaspora since the artists of diaspora who lead international careers are in the mainstream for nearly two decades.
I can guess that in five years time there will be international galleries opening in Abudhabi, Dubai and in some other parts of the gulf Middle East; only then we can describe the proper dynamis.
So far, we are in a phase of showcasing Middle East artists in international groups shows, biennales, festivals and fairs; the few of us who sell in the West are selling with “less than” international prices of our mid-career peers in the West. Sotheby’s and Christies are only beginning, and we cannot identify the type of collectors, if those are “even collectors.
The dynamics so far (and those are not yet standardized) are few galleries in Italy, Germany, USA, London (UK), France or elsewhere that deal REGULARLY with very few artists from the Middle East; most works in question are painting and photography; the content of the work deal mostly with identity. For biennales and events, most of the works are videos and/or video installations, and all probe issues of gender, identity, migration an alternative realities.

EQ- Is it that the dynamics HAVE shifted and that the only pressures artists feel is that which they place upon themselves?

KH- I guess it is a point to reflect upon; it is definitely true for artists who are frantic to emerge on the international scene who “tailor” works for each curatorial theme; in the case of more serious artists the pressures would be mostly deadlines and “productivity shortage” to meet the booming interest in their worksJ.