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October 20, 2017
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Arab Artists: The Freedom to be Different

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Graffiti in the streets of Cairo and Tunisia exemplify a new found freedom of expression in the region.

Given that representations of living beings has been forbidden in many forms of Islam for centuries,  Saudi Arabia is more well known for its oil than its oil paintings, and creative voices have often been discouraged in what is often perceived as one of the most culturally oppressive regions in the world. Princess Nouf bint Bandar al Saud of Saudi Arabia has set out to challenge that.

The Princess founded the Lahd Gallery in Riyadh in 2005 specifically to help promote female artists in the Gulf region. It was enormously successful and sparked the launch of a sister gallery in London in 2010, which was more inclusive of both genders, as well as artists from both North Africa and the Middle East.

Princess Nouf

Princess Nouf bint Bandar al Saud
(Source: EFA).

She believes in the importance of the gallery not only as a modern day agora, but also as a means of representing emotions, cultures and events to help us better understand the lives of people living regions we may not be too familiar with.  "Each country has its own unique culture and style, and as such, maybe it is all these differences that make them stand out from one another. I think that all different cultures can learn from each other, and all artists have their individual touches. Yet despite the differences, art is something that everybody can relate to," she says.

As a member of a ruling family, it is somewhat surprising that Princess Nouf wouldn't be opposed to featuring radical art in her gallery. "Contemporary art...is really an open book - anyone who has something to say can write in it. It offers one the freedom to be different. Lahd offers space for artists with something to say, and who are unafraid to question societal norms," she states firmly. Certainly, women from all walks of life can easily appreciate the wry satire on femininity as seen in Shurooq Amin's work; most people would understand the Pop Art inspired prints by Hamad and Ali, and the profound humanity of Iman Shaggag's portraiture is without a doubt, universally comprehended. But if Orson Welles was right about turbulent times generating fantastic art, then surely the Arab Spring will inspire an unparalleled body of work in the region? Several artists have already created a stir with their revolutionary pieces, from the bright red 'revolution virus' sculpture installation by established artist Rim Karoui to Khaled Hafez's mural-sized collages of soldiers and protesters in Tahrir Square and the street graffiti strewn about the streets of Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. The Venice Bienalle is even featuring Arab art, and Christies has reported a surge of interest, and subsequently, prices, in pieces from the region.

ArabSpringArt2
Arab Spring art

Lahd is not the only gallery featuring home grown artists with something to say. In Dubai, there are over 82 art galleries, which is a very good sign, as is the fact that one of these, The Third Line Gallery is holding a show entitled: The State: Social/anti-Social from September 21, 2011 which hopes to put some of the recent events of the Arab Spring in perspective. In another Emirati state, Sharjah, there was a show of solidarity outside the opening of the Sharjah Biennial for those arrested in the Bahraini uprisings, demonstrating not only an awareness of politics in the region, but of the freedom to express an opinion on them.

Art and politics, when combined, can transmit a potent message. The Lahd Gallery and others in the Middle East and beyond are undoubtedly providing forums to invigorate cultural and political discourse in the region. Long may they continue to do so, inshallah.

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