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Why MENASA Art Matters Part II - Contemporary Art from MENASA

Why MENASA Art Matters Part II - Contemporary Art from MENASA

Tara Emad Aldughaither

Why MENASA Art Matters

Part II - Contemporary Art from MENASA


It can arguably be said that the most fruitful relationships between different cultures occurs either between innovative individuals or through the collaborative efforts of cultural initiatives. This is not to say that economic exchange is unimportant, but it is never the first concern for people who study, promote and collect art.

Art is a product of the human condition. Placing a price on it is only one way to keep it relevant. Cities with art that is seen in the public sphere through ruins, sculptures and monuments, like Rome or Barcelona, are unsurprisingly more popular tourist destinations. 

Since the 16th century European practice of “collecting” objects from around the world for the purpose of developing encyclopedic knowledge on them, the non-European world had been looked at MENASA through their understanding of foreign objects, exoticism and sometimes labelled societies as barbaric. The European elite could view these objects in places called a Cabinet of Curiosities, where they would marvel at the findings of men’s’ imperial travels around the globe.

This idea of categorical studies, however dehumanizing it may seem, made it more possible for social sciences to develop as academic studies– which a huge part of is the study of arts. Soon after the educational advancements, collections of objects from foreign lands grew into what you can now see in large exhibition halls of museums such as the Louvre.

Ranging from the Egyptian to the Ottoman and from the Korean to the Indian, sometimes even placed in entire museums dedicated to Asian history, art from MENASA regions have been important for understanding world culture. These wonderful objects which we see in such large institutions however, are only a referential frame to understand MENASA societies.


What is defined as “contemporary art” grew on the sidelines of museum studies. It was a way to communicate on a personal level rather than through discovering objects. Contemporary art is a product of individual art making that has either been produced in modern times, or which follows a long line of artistic developments that have emerged from Europe and America in the late 19th century. It would be wrong to assume that these developments in the West were uninfluenced by traditional art from the Asian and African regions but that is an entirely other topic. What I will stress is that the concept of contemporary art is indeed one which grew out of a Western concept, and has only begun to influence the rest of the world with the turn of the 20th century and with the expansions of global communication in its later half.


Thus, the surging questions of where art from MENASA regions stands in the contemporary global art market, what it means and where it’s going, are of great new importance to all who are concerned with and engaged in culture.


In the last decade, the interest in contemporary art from the region has increased exponentially.

This is evidenced by the growing number of symposiums, galleries, auction sales and art fairs that have risen from its fringes to the centre of the global art scene.

A number of new museums for modern art in these regions are already full of the best contemporary artists of each of their host countries.

The largest European museums and most prominent art collectors and art specialists around the globe are building close relations with cultural and artistic initiatives in these regions.


Indeed part of this is motivated by the mutual desire to reclaim lost cities and ruptured societies. This is but a first step at breaking the boundaries of communication and at casting a light over the shadow which previously defined the region as “underdeveloped” or “backwards”.


The term which is sometimes used to refer to this forward movement of art is “boom”; illustrating the exponential increase in production that has complimented a rise in monetary, political and social value as well as the shift in access which previously rendered MENASA as “foreign and exotic”.


The prestigious Jameel Prize for contemporary art inspired by Islamic tradition, for example, is exhibited yearly in the Victoria and Albert museum in London and is part of a wider network of collaborations that occur between London-based art specialists and Abdul Latif Jameel community in Saudi Arabia.

Edge of Arabia, the first non for profit initiative for developing art from the gulf regions, is spending a lot of money on art education and have launched the Crossway Foundation which allows artists from the Arabian Gulf to travel to different parts of the world and share their work and stories.

Other collaborations are happening at an even larger level between European, American, African and Asian art enthusiasts.

The greatly awaited opening of Louvre and Guggenheim museums of art in Abu Dhabi, UAE is one which demonstrates connections between the French, American and Arab world. The organization of important art fairs like the Sharjah, Marrakech, Beijing, Gwangju and Busan Biennials, which follow the model of the first Art Biennale in Venice in 1895, are but a few important examples.


Whatever the medium, it is rarely an easy task for artists of any kind to make their work visible and appreciated by publics. The specific relationship between MENASA and the art world is unique in that it corresponds not only to an increase in demand and production, but also an increase in the desire of the citizens in these dynamic and heterogeneous communities to express themselves through visual mediums.


It was Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University who wrote that the state of contemporary art “reveals the archaeological site of our future sensibilities meeting their historical alterities.” It is doubtless true when he adds “we are dreaming and until our artists and philosophers start interpreting our dreams, we don’t even know what it is we are dreaming.”


Part three will discuss in more depth, how art enthusiasts in MENASA are putting local and global efforts into doing so. It will briefly explain how the system of valuing art in the global market occurs.