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Where to Now? Shifting Regional Dynamics and Cultural Production in North Africa and the Middle East

Sabrina DeTurk
1 June 2016

As I write, Art Dubai 2016 has just closed, Design Days are over and the Sharjah Art Foundation has wrapped up its March Meeting. For a short week, the UAE, particularly Dubai, asserted itself on the world stage as a hub for the production, display and marketing of contemporary art. The varying political, cultural and economic circumstances of the participants in Art Week events, however, merit further consideration, as it is the differences among them that highlight the current constraints and opportunities for cultural production in the region.


The March Meeting program included curators from the Townhouse Foundation (Cairo), Britain's Tate Modern Museum (London), RIWAQ (Ramallah) and MoMA P.S. 1 (New York). One of these spaces has only recently been reopened following its closure by government officials in late 2015, another operates in one of the most tensely contested and besieged areas in the Middle East and two represent the pinnacle of popular, critical and financial success in the art world in the West. Inarguably, there is value in bringing these institutions into dialogue with each other and yet the gap between the practical circumstances of cultural production that each represents is vast and perhaps unbridgeable. Those differing circumstances were reflected in the tone, content and context of each presentation and were instrumental in shaping audience members' understanding of each institution. Thus, even a culturally and globally aware group of artists, curators and academics viewed the MENA institutions through a lens of conflict and repression that echoes popular perceptions of the region, relegating their cultural production to a secondary status behind their struggle for operational existence.


At Art Dubai the choice of what was displayed in each booth reflected some of the same cultural and situational divisions seen among institutions at the March Meeting. The booth of the Atassi Foundation, a Dubai-based non-profit supporting the promotion of Syrian art and culture, presented a visually compelling video display highlighting the development of modern and contemporary Syrian art. Yet, no matter how interesting the images, it was difficult not to focus on absence – of the works themselves, of the artists who created them – and on the cultural destruction playing out in the country itself. In its coverage of the fair, the New York Times focused on exhibitors and artists whose work could be linked to the conflicts in the region. In no other art fair coverage that I have seen has the sale of works with six-figure price tags been given only a brief mention, overshadowed by an account of the political and social climate addressed by the art shown.


Much has been written about the politics of display in museums and galleries. In the MENA region it is perhaps the display of politics that frames and shapes cultural production and cultural dialogue in ways that are not as foregrounded in global art institutions. The question for the region's cultural producers is whether that this is a frame that fits, or one that needs to be expanded or broken altogether.

Sabrina DeTurk

is Assistant Professor in the College of Arts and Creative Enterprises at Zayed University in Dubai. Her research interests center on art as a form of social commentary and on the contemporary visual culture of trauma and conflict. Current projects include a comparative study of memorial architecture and memorial museums in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East as well as research on street art and visual culture in the MENA region. She has presented papers at numerous conferences and published essays and reviews in a variety of arts publications. She previously held faculty and administrative positions in the U.S. at La Salle University, Salem College and Saint Joseph's University. Dr. DeTurk received her B.A. in the History of Art from Wellesley College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in the History of Art from Bryn Mawr College.

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