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What do we need to know about the MENA region today?

Anna Somers Cocks
1 June 2011

When did the major museums of the West start taking contemporary Middle Eastern art into consideration? After 2006, with the first successful sale of Middle Eastern contemporary art by Christie's in Dubai, and the announcement shortly afterwards that Abu Dhabi was going to invest billions in museum creation. Of course, the ground for this interest had been prepared by 9/11, which made the US in particular look more closely at this part of the world. But it has been the market that has put the petrol in this tank. Since 2006, the platforms, round tables, workshops, artists' residencies, prizes and Biennale pavilions have proliferated. So why does this art scene still feel so fragile, so obsessed with questions of identity?

Is it because the identity question is pervasive anyway, or is it because the market is disconnected from the origins of most artists? For example, the Egyptian market is negligible; to become rich and famous an Egyptian artist would have to make it in New York or, less probably, in Dubai where, in turn, very little of the art on sale is home grown. Is the West therefore calling the shots when it comes to deciding what will be 'important'? Not always; think how well Iranian artists have done, selling largely to the diaspora.

A more likely explanation for the general sense of insecurity is that everyone at these platforms, round tables etc. knows that an interest in art is limited to a minuscule proportion of Middle Easterners: it has not become the surrogate religion it became for Westerners around a century ago – religion is clearly not moribund here. And most people do not feel a need for art in their homes. There are, quite simply, more important things to worry about, such as how to make a tolerable living and get a government that does not exact bribes, collects the rubbish and allows you the basic freedoms of speech. Middle Eastern contemporary art has not yet grown deep roots and is ideologically and aesthetically uncertain due to its dependence still on Western definitions of what is or is not good art.

Anna Somers Cocks

is the Founding Editor of The Art Newspaper and Chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund.

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