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

Talinn Grigor
1 June 2016

There is never a neutral position for critique, but there certainly ought to be the practice of critique. And that is precisely the element that is missing in top-down formation of the art scene in West Asia and North Africa, and perhaps in the rest of the non-western art scene. I can only speak from my position in contemporary Iranian art where from its origins, art criticism was bound to other top-down art institutions. Akbar Tajvidi's L'Art Moderne en Iran is commonly considered the first scholarly work on contemporary Iranian art. It was the shah's Ministry of Culture and Art who published it in 1967. In those years, Empress Farah who rapidly created the official Iranian art scene became the market, the audience, and the force behind its continual development. Acting 'quite simply' as 'the country's patron', collector, and most dedicated audience of modern art, she thus wedded the image of the monarchy with that of Iranian avant-garde art.[1]


In this centralized and monitored atmosphere, 'negative criticism would have upset relations within the closely interdependent network of artists, dealers, collectors, the press and, of course, the Pahlavis'.[2] As in the Islamic Republic, under the monarchy, (self)censorship and ideological demands upon the discipline of art sustained 'a protocol of congratulations all around'.[3] 'Our educational systems and institutions', wrote former MoMA curator Fereshteh Daftari, 'need to cultivate visual literacy and critical thinking'.[4] She further added: 'we also need more professional curators and critics armed with insights instead of self-aggrandizing agendas'.[5] Art criticism and critical art history remains a missing ingredient in the formula. 'We have good artists', insisted the director of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art Alireza Samiazar, 'we have good museums, we have good galleries, we have good collectors, and we even have the thirsty sophisticated audience'.[6]


To me, the most urgent issue affecting cultural institutions and practices across West Asia and North Africa is genuine, impartial, and independent art criticism. Given the volatile and increasingly violent political reality of the region during the last five years, it is not enough to write critical art history as mere art history. More is needed. That art critique ought to be a form of activism; a responsible and a persistent intellectual stance against violations of human rights, against authoritarian patronage, against child abuse, against labor abuse, and against violence itself. We are all implicated in the system that makes the 'art scene' possible. As Baudrillard cautioned us, the neoliberal unrelenting drive for global hegemony and accumulation of capital has coopted difference as a form of currency that can be bought and sold.[7]


The so-called 'art scene in the region' often seems to me to be a disturbing, yet highly stylish, manifestation of this transaction, that can but reject sincere critique. It seems that critique itself has been drafted in the commercialization of the art market and art education in the region, increasingly complicit in the display of civilizational tropes (i.e., biennales, museums, collections, etc.) without confronting the violence of the system. What we need – or rather what the globe desperately needs – is, as Zizek puts it, "patient, critical analysis" in order to revel, through art and its discourses, the impact of 'not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustains relations of domination and exploitation'.[8]




[1] See, 'Empress Farah Pahlavi', in Art and Patronage: The Middle East, ed. H. Amirsadeghi (London, 2010), p. 126. On how Empress Farah encouraged the art market, see Sohrab Mohebbi, 'Rasht 29', Bidoun (Spring 2010), pp. 46-49, at p. 49.


[2] Sarah McFadden, McFadden, 'The Museum and the Revolution', Art in America, 69/8 (October 1981), pp. 9-16, at p. 10.


[3] McFadden, 'Tehran Report', p. 10.


[4] Quoted in Hossein Amirsadeghi, ed., Different Sames: New Perspectives in Contemporary Iranian Art (London, 2009), p. 110.


[5] Quoted in Amirsadeghi, Different Sames, p. 110.


[6] In an interview with Dr. Alireza Samiazar, director of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and the general director of the Visual Arts Office of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance 1997–2005, conducted by Talinn Grigor, 14 June 2009, Tehran.


[7] See Jean Baudrillard,  'The Violence of the Global', Power Inferno (2002), pp. 63-83.


[8] Slavoj Zizek, Violence (New York, 2008), p. 7 and p. 9.

Talinn Grigor

is Professor of Contemporary Art in the Art and Art History Department of the University of California, Davis, USA.

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