Can contemporary Arab artists free themselves from the region’s Islamic history? In conversation with Islamic Art specialist: Roberta Marin

Can the Middle East move away from its Islamic art heritage – and should it? PR imagery of most MENA countries often includes brightly coloured symmetrical patterns typically found in mosques and palaces, zellige rugs, arches, and Arabic calligraphy. Whilst these are all wonderful examples of a richly developed artistic history, and a great understanding of mathematics’ relationship with aesthetics, what is to be said of the region’s contemporary creators?

It may be impossible to entirely detach oneself from ones surroundings and absolve one’s art of any local or historical influence – but what inspires modern-day Arab artists wishing to break the mould? We discuss the issues with Islamic Art specialist, Roberta Marin, who is currently holding a series of lectures available to attend at the Arab British Centre.

Her interests in Islamic Art in the Arab world began 15 years ago, when her extensive travels around the region led to her to enrol in SOAS upon her return to undertake an MA in Art and Archaeology with a focus on the Muslim world.

What is it about modern and contemporary art from the region that you like?

I have found the art of the so-called Pioneers in Egypt, Iraq and North Africa particularly interesting. I have been admiring the artists’ effort to detach themselves from academia, to revive the ancient traditions and to fuse them with the European modern masters. Innovation and tradition are evident in their paintings and sculptures. In regards to contemporary art, I like the commitment of the artists in making their artworks ‘talk’. Issues related to politics, women’s rights, spiritual journeys, poetry, literature and religion are often portrayed in their works.

What sets “modern” MENA art apart from “classical” art in the region?

There is a major debate nowadays whether modern and contemporary art from the MENA region has been developed from the Islamic artistic tradition or, on the contrary, if it has found its way by moving away from it. In the last few decades the first assumption was the most accredited, but in more recent times scholarship has been heading towards the second one. I would say that both assumptions may not fully explain the art of the region. Some artists are still deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition whereas others focus on a totally different range of subjects, amplifying, for instance, aspects of their own personal experience, at times being artists of the Diaspora, and the recent history of their countries.

lailashawa
Creative Commons: Flickr /Jonas de Carvalho: Laila Shawa

How deeply do you think politics has influenced modern or contemporary Arabic art in comparison to the classics? 

Politics is one of the major subjects in the artists’ practice. Even though it can be sometimes repetitive, too graphic, and difficult to interpret for viewers who are not involved in the MENA region, it has certainly set the artists apart and made their work so meaningful and, at times, deeply touching.

Who are your “favourites”? 

Another difficult question! If I consider the ‘Modernists’, my favourite artist is Mahmoud Said (1897-1964). I am very engaged with his work – with his use of light and the palette of colours employed in his paintings. Among the ‘Contemporaries’, I would say Lalla Essaydi and Laila Shawa, but to be fair, my list would be much longer than this.

mahmoudsaid
Mahmoud Said (Egyptian, 1897-1964), invaluable.com

Authoritarianism is both an instigator to art, and a great repressor which forms a thick layer of censorship over a nation. From the shores of North Africa to the borders of Iran, a number of artists have been arrested or sent into exile for portraying ideals, realities, or messages not deemed suitable for the state. Which MENA country do you think is the best to be an artist right now?

I believe Jordan and Morocco. These countries have a stable political situation and especially in Morocco, new museums and art galleries have recently opened in the capital and Marrakech.

If you’re interested in attending Roberta Marin’s talks, you can sign up with the Arab British Centre here.

She will also be holding a talk on contemporary art from the Arab world and Iran at the University of York at the end of February. Sign up here.

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