Rising popularity of Arab art signals sign of ‘hope for the region’

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An increasing number of artists from the Middle East are holding exhibitions in London, with specialists saying the increasing presence of Arab artists in the city is a result of a new found thirst from collectors for works from a region perceived to be in turmoil.

When popular uprisings swept across parts of the Arab world starting in Tunisia in 2011, they took with them long standing dictators and brought high hopes of change and a fresh start. Ongoing conflict has plunged the region into a political crises, but it also appears to have enflamed creativity and with it a rising global awareness of an 'alternative' Middle East.

Palestinian artist Samia Halaby who is holding her UK debut in London's Ayyam gallery says art from the Middle East hints at innocent 'hope for the future.'

“I think if you look at Arab society you will see that there is a certain innocence that has not yet arrived to the decadence one sees in certain large European cities. And so there is more optimism and hope for the future among the artists and so their artwork is, if I may be so brash as to say, healthier emotionally and morally,” the abstract painter told Reuters TV.

Halaby who lives and works in New York was born in Jerusalem, her family was expelled from their home in the port city of Jaffa when she was 12 years old.

The artist says her work, which is an assemblage of bright colors on canvas that represent nature is not constrained to her heritage as a Palestinian. But Halaby says that recent events have pushed Middle Eastern artists to reach out across borders with their work.

“The practice of art has become something important to the region because it tells the world - 'we are not violent, we are victims of violence and we have a history and art,” said Halaby.

The opening of new spaces that showcase Middle Eastern artists have also pushed Arab art to the forefront of the art scene in London.

Originally founded in Dubai, the gallery Art Space opened its doors in London in May last year with the mandate of exhibiting a 'powerful array of Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art'.

In early 2013 Ayyam gallery launched in London and Jeddah. The gallery already had a presence in Damascus, Beirut and Dubai.

Ayyam, which says it hopes to challenge 'the popular perception of Middle Eastern art' displays the work of artists from the region all year around, with several new artists making their London debut under their guidance.

Co-founder of Ayyam gallery Hisham Samawi says art in the region has matured in recent years and interest for work among collectors has peaked.

“Well I think in general the art scene in the Middle East has been maturing over the last five to six years, it has really gotten to the point where it is ready for a wider international audience. I think there has been definitely an increase in attention, with the art fairs and with Dubai and Abu Dhabi collectors coming there. And now with us being here that dialogue is not happening just once a year but it is happening all year around. So we are here and part of the art community here now."

Samawi added that the general public now looked to art from the region to give an alternative and positive representation of the Middle East.

Roxane Zand from auction house Sotheby's says an increase in cultural 'Arab activity' has also encouraged buyers to snap up pieces from the Middle East.

“Arab countries have been very much in the news. This is actually the year of the UK-Qatar cultural exchange, there have been a lot of political and economic developments in the Arab world. And also of course, many Arab galleries have opened up this year,” said Zand.

“There has been a lot of Arab activity basically going on culturally and in London, which means that people take a greater interest in the market,” added Sotheby's deputy chairman for Middle East and Gulf region.

Zand predicts that popularity of Arab art will only increase in the coming years.

“We are going to see a very interesting period of time in the next year or two, in terms of the Middle East market. There is so much afoot right at this very moment,” she said.

The Sotheby's specialist suggested events like the biennial Shubbak Festival, which kicked off in 2011, celebrating contemporary Arab art and culture, will encourage the London market further toward investing in art from the region.

“Activities are going to really open up the understanding and perception of British audiences to Arab art and Middle Eastern art and I think it is a very promising time for this market,” Zand added.

With more Middle Eastern artists making their UK debuts in London, Zand says younger collectors are bound to take advantage of 'affordable' art.

The fall of Middle East tyrannies and renewed conflict will continue to have an international impact on politics, but it appears artists and creative bodies are also battling to win a prominent space in the fabric of international art.

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