Showcasing unsung contemporary voices

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A new academic term in Durham coincides with the opening of a fascinating new exhibition at the Oriental Museum featuring artists from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region; many of them on display for the first time. The exhibition is a culmination of targeted collecting by the Oriental Museum over the last five years, documenting the creative development of MENA contemporary art since the Arab Spring.

The artworks on display primarily originate from digital sources or have been digitally manipulated, yet they draw inspiration from traditional techniques and iconography. Some exquisite examples on show include calligraphic drawings, Persian miniature paintings repurposed in digital collage, and calligraffiti, a fusion of street art and calligraphy originating from Lebanon. Western motifs also permeate, Qajar-era photographs of a royal harems on a Vogue front- cover, and 19th century Orientalist painting repurposed in collage.

I spoke with curator, Gillian Ramsay about the exhibition:

What initiated the Oriental Museum’s contemporary collection of MENA art, and why is it an important area of collecting today?

“For a long time, the core of the Oriental Museum’s West Asian and North African collection focused on the past. We collected beautiful examples of historic pottery, Bedouin jewellery and textiles but it didn’t reflect the realities of the contemporary MENA region. The region is so diverse and vibrant, and it has undergone monumental changes over the last 50 years that it seemed amiss to not reflect this reality in the collection. Even if we could only collect a handful of items relating to a particular event such as the current “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests in Iran, they would support us in reflecting these important historical moments.”

When curating the exhibition featuring various mediums, artistic expressions, and identities, how did you ensure that the artists’ voices remained as a central theme?

“The information the artists gave me fed into the labels and some labels have been written by the artists themselves. A number of them are also creating videos explaining their art and inspiration which will be available soon in the gallery. I knew that I wanted to have the artists involved from the start. I simply couldn’t tell their story without their input, because it is their personal and unique lived experiences that have influenced their art.”

Were there any challenges encountered when collecting the artworks from regions experiencing ongoing conflicts, or when acquiring protest art and ephemera?

“One of the wonderful things about digital born art is that no matter where you find yourself in the world, as long as you have a phone or laptop and internet access you can create art, email it to a gallery and they can print, display, and sell your work. It’s why digital art has become so popular as a medium in the MENA region; it’s egalitarian. You don’t need to have gone to art school, you can create it in your spare time; you can be quick and responsive to current political situations.”

How did you approach the curation of artworks from regions currently affected by ongoing conflicts?

“In terms of display material created in response to conflict or by displaced artists, you have to tread very carefully so you avoid fetishising the topic. During the Arab Spring there were criticisms from some MENA artists, of especially the Western art market, who were cashing in on art created in support of the protests because it was considered cool and edgy. These dealers and galleries weren’t interested in the genuine suffering and loss of life occurring in these countries. It was just a fad. I was keen that we didn’t fall into this trap so again this is where speaking with the artists themselves is so important.”

What is one thing you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?

“I hope that visitors leave the exhibition with an appreciation and deeper understanding of art from the MENA region. I want them to realise that the art from this region and the artists creating it (whether in their home countries or as part of the diaspora) are vibrant, exciting, challenging, controversial, and vital. Art isn’t restricted to Europe and North America, it is global.”

Voices: Contemporary Art and Craft from the Middle East and North Africa is open now until 12 May 2024 at the Oriental Museum. Entry is free.

Image credit: ‘Opinion on The Arab Spring’ by Adnan Samman (reproduced courtesy of the artist)

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