Search archive

Platform for discussion005

How has a globalised cultural economy affected the production of contemporary visual culture in North Africa and the Middle East?

Jessica Winegar
7 May 2013

'Capital is globe-hopping, not globe-covering.'

James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order

In the 1990s, it would have been difficult to find an artist in Egypt who thought that any of their contemporaries would sell their work at international auction and for thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars at that. Artists were busy negotiating other, more immediately local, elements of a creeping neoliberal capitalist globalisation, such as the availability of new communications technologies and faster access to knowledge about art in the rest of the world, the decline in standards of living resulting from state pullbacks in healthcare, education, and infrastructure, and the explosion of residential and consumption spaces for the increasingly enriched elite that needed art and décor. The catapult of art from the Middle East and North Africa into global art markets during the 2000s stunned artist communities across the region. In Egypt, suddenly, the stakes of this new form of globalisation became much clearer. And so did its 'globe-hopping' nature.


International market integration of contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa has had contradictory effects on artists' communities. With the explosion of new art spaces, collectors, fairs, biennials, publications and funding, new forms of artistic values have disrupted older forms of value creation that were largely shaped by artists' relations to the state, local art school curricula, longstanding prestige networks, local arts institutions and the relationship of art to local and regional histories of art production. For example, in Egypt, it suddenly did not seem to matter whether or not one had a good relationship with a state curator, or had gone to art school, or was a member of the older generation, or had participated in an international biennale through state diplomacy efforts, or referenced the canon of Egyptian art history in one's work. Artists could now bypass the often tedious work of cultivating these local connections and find other sources of value for the work they wanted to do. The new market integration also provided new sources of capital for the production and display of artworks, fulfilling many artists' dreams of having the proper resources and new audiences for their work. Smartly following the networks of capital necessary to produce art that just a few years prior had not seemed possible due to both capital shortage and the limits of established local standards of evaluation, many artists hopped the globe, finding much artistic nourishment in established and emerging art capitals such as Cairo, Beirut, Doha, Dakar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Paris, London, and New York.


But, as anthropologist James Ferguson has rightly pointed out, capital 'hops' do not 'cover'.[1] Just as this market integration provided new opportunities for artists, and helped create exciting new art institutions and newly robust geographic art capitals, it also skipped over others. A new hierarchy of value started to emerge, linked with capital circuits, and, as I discuss elsewhere,[2] frequently intertwined with certain 'War on Terror' cultural agendas of western and Middle East governments. This new hierarchy of value made little to no room for art of certain kinds, produced in relationship to certain contexts or histories, through certain institutions and in particular geographic locales. Now, over a decade into this market integration, whole swathes of artistic production in North Africa and the Middle East are routinely skipped over, just as capital skips over whole swathes of our planet. Detractors will say it is because the art isn't 'good', but it may also (or instead) be because the art challenges the globalising tactics of capital-centric constructions of artistic value.


Yet in contradictory fashion, the art market creates a system in which the region must be presented as 'covered'. Art writers, curators, and artists thus find themselves in a position of representing a region that is now a market mirage in addition to a political one. We are now typically encouraged to forefront particularity through regional or national frames, even as many good writers and curators insist on other forms of particularity. Although nation-state boundaries have been challenged through capitalist globalization, the nation has now become a marketable commodity in the art world: the source of differentiation that the capitalist market needs. Thus an internationally successful artist from Egypt becomes representative of contemporary 'Middle Eastern art' or 'Egyptian art' in much more intensified and commodified ways than before. Curators and writers along with artists must frequently adopt these frameworks, often against their wishes, in order to secure funding. These frameworks do a bit of analytic work in helping audiences understand some of the references and motivations of artistic practice, but they are hardly comprehensive.


As capital hops what it claims to cover, it creates new hierarchies of artistic value that can also frustrate successful artists, as they discover new straitjackets on their artistic practice. Just as market integration, in concert with cultural diplomacy initiatives, has provided new capital sources and audiences, it has also delimited what will be valued and what will not. Thus we see capital hopping within particular artists' bodies of work. What becomes of an artist's known work, then, is frequently only what is marketable at any given moment. The rich variety of artistic experimentation, key to understanding any artist, is more often than not skipped over.


We are now in an incredibly complex moment in the relationship between art and markets related to the region known as the Middle East and North Africa. It is time for serious assessment of the effects of capital on artistic practice. As I have suggested, this assessment cannot be overly condemning because there have been very real benefits to artists and art-making. But we should not be overly celebratory either, not only because the majority of artists have yet to benefit, but also because the celebratory framework itself is too easily co-opted as a marketing tactic.



[1] James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Duke University Press, 2006), p. 38.
[2] Jessica Winegar, "The Humanity Game: Art, Islam, and the War on Terror," Anthropological Quarterly 81(3):651-681, 2008.
Jessica Winegar

teaches anthropology at Northwestern University and has written widely on Middle Eastern arts and culture, most notably the book Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt (Stanford, 2006).

of 13

Back to platform responses

What is a platform?

A platform is a space for speaking in public. It is an opportunity to express ideas and thoughts. It also suggests the formal declaration of a stance or position on any given subject.

Unique to Ibraaz is a 'platform', a question put to writers, thinkers and artists about an issue relevant to the MENA region. This platform is sent to respondents both within and beyond the MENA region and contributions will be archived every 12 months.