Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Oh, I've been terrible about keeping this up, and I know it...even as the world increasingly notices the richness of these works, with events like the focus on Arab and Iranian photography at Paris Photo in November, and an exhibition at the Quai Branly along with it.  Am now just finishing up an article on Iranian photography to be published in the spring, and along the way have encountered works by artists I hadn't known before, with one in particular having taken my breath away: Parastou Farouhar.  Have a look and a read.

Friday, November 13, 2009

and a glorious exhibition of Iranian photography opens in Paris.  I was not even aware that Iran had been at the forefront of photography as early as the 1930s - and as far back as 165 years ago...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Arab and Iranian Art at Sotheby's London

Sotheby's London pioneered the Arab & Iranian art sales, and they deserve much of the credit for bringing this work to the attention of the Western art public.  Now they've gone a step further, and incorporated Arab & Iranian art into their  general Contemporary Art sale, scheduled for October 16.  Okay, so it's possible they couldn't locate enough good work to produce an exclusive Arab & Iranian art sale again -- much of it continues to be marketed in the Middle East -- but somehow, I doubt that's the case; and even if it were, the fact is, Sotheby's has taken what had been a niche movement and integrated it into the global art scene. No longer is Islamic contemporary art a kind of isolated species; the best of these works belong exactly where Sotheby's has put them: side by side with sculptures by Arman (and the ones coming up in October are stunning), and works by Anselm Kiefer, Anish Kapoor, and Christo.

And oh, those gorgeous calligraphies: works by Ehsai,  and by Koorosh Shishegaran (an artist whose work I did not know previously but am definitely going to find out more about!) and Nasrollah Afjei.  Of course, there are the requisite Shirin Neshats, 
but they become increasingly monotonous and, well, weak, once one becomes familiar with other Iranian and Middle Eastern artists. The top lot (if not my own favorite): Mona Hatoum's "Untitled (Baalbeck Birdcage),"  a
 122 x 117-inch cage which explores and entraps space, leaving the viewer, as it were, isolated and alone.   Viewings are from Sunday 11th -  Thursday 15th October at 34-35 New Bond Street.

Top: Mohammed Ehsai, "Untitled"
Right: Shirin Neshat, "Bonding"
Left: Mona Hatoum, "Untitled (Baalbeck Birdcage)"

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Arab and Iranian art sales hit Paris

The latest from :

>>On Oct. 24 the house will signal "its commitment to this part of the world," auctioneer Fran├žois Tajan says, by holding its first sale of Iranian and Arab modern and contemporary art in Paris.<<

Meantime, Sotheby's London is a step ahead - they've been doing those sales for a few years already, and are now planning to incorporate Arab and Iranian art into their other contemporary art sales later this month: an acknowledgement, as it were, that these artists, and the glorious art that they produce, has become a part of the global art scene.  More on the Sotheby's sale to come.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Iranian Contemporary Art - Book Review in Wallpaper

Worth reading - with a summary of the history of Iranian contemporary art (newer than you'd imagine):

>>The Islamic Republic, which took power in 1979, immediately rejected all modern art as decadent, excluding any discourse. It didn’t help that most forward-thinking artists immediately fled the country for Europe and the US. What replaced the vacuum was reminiscent of Socialist Realism, an art form dominated by the large propaganda murals that for years decorated the urban landscape. This so called ‘Irano-Islamic’ art also included the return of calligraphy, albeit using only religious texts.
Contemporary Iranian art was born at the close of the 20th century under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami. He actively encouraged an external dialogue with western artists as well as with the large Iranian diaspora, for example inviting New York-based artist Shirin Neshat to exhibit in Iran. The internet opened the window for Iranian artists to join the global debate. A new generation of artists, many of them women, emerged and began expressing themselves through other mediums such as video installation and art photography.<<

Me, I'm ordering the book.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Kandinsky, the Spiritual in Art, and Islamic Contemporary

Something extraordinary happened in the middle of the Kandinsky show, now up at the Guggenheim Museum: I saw contemporary Islamic art.  

In this Russian-born painter's  patterns and curves and iconography, calligraphy emerged, and story, and the power of line and form -- the way calligraphy converges language and line and form and color --  and "the spiritual in art," as Kandinsky called it, pressed out from the canvases and into the marbled light of the museum.  

It is this, I realized, which draws me to contemporary Islamic painting, as well.  It is here, too, this spiritual in art, this symphony of riches.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Iranian Election Uprisings Interfere With Los Angeles Exhibition

A planned exhibition of Iranian street art in Los Angeles faces problems that result from the June elections and the mass demonstrations that followed them, according to the LA Times:

>>Weeks ago the artist, who goes by the name ICY, tried to send the work to Shahbazi, along with about two dozen other pieces. But a postal employee in Tabriz, Iran, opened the package, inspected the work and deemed it unsuitable for shipping to the U.S.

"He told me we can't send these . . . works because they have green color," ICY wrote in an e-mail.<<

Full story is here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hala El Koussy wins Abraaj Capital Art Prize

Hala El Koussy, a photographer originally from Cairo, has been named the winner of the 2009 Abraaj Capital Art prize, along with Jelle Bouwhuis, director of the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum's Bureau Amsterdam.   El Koussy, who has been working in the Netherlands for the past few years, is known for  photographs that focus on Cairo culture, and on the tensions between reality and the photographic scene (In one project, for instance, she created a photo album of an Egyptian "family" that did not really exist; the portraits in the photos were of people who had no real relationship with one another.)    The $200,000 prize, created by a private-equity firm based in Dubai, will fund an upcoming project to be produced for exhibition at the 2010 Art Dubai. 

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Times Goes On...

Funny thing: about two years ago, I offered a story to the NY Times' Arts & Leisure section on the importance of the art coming out of the Middle East, and of exhibiting contemporary Middle Eastern art in the West while Western art was appearing in the Middle East. Apparently, I was too soon. Now, Jori Finkel, a fantastic writer/reporter and my former editor at Art & Auction, takes on the subject in the Times' latest coverage on "The American Qur'an."

With my own book on Islam in the West due for publication in a few months, I found the following particularly interesting:

>>The first exhibitions of Mr. Birk’s “American Qur’an,” a work-on-paper series that is roughly a third complete, is about to open: 30 hand-painted pages at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco starting on Thursday and another 30 at Koplin Del Rio gallery in Culver City starting Friday. (A New York exhibition slated for this fall at the P.P.O.W. Gallery was rescheduled for winter 2010 after a gallery fire.)

“We’re very concerned about repercussions from the Muslim community,” said the Culver City gallery owner, Eleana Del Rio. “But it’s important to know that Sandow did this with the best intentions, no irony or satire intended.”<<

 Ms. Del Rio is clearly aware of something many Americans are not: the dangers associated with presenting the Koran in anything but the most reverential context, even here in the West. Other artists, after all, have taken on similar risks -- like Sooreh Hera, for instance, whose photographs of gay men dressed as Mohammed and his son-in-law Ali led to death threats against her and warnings to the museum where they were scheduled to be shown (until a certain lily-livered museum director gave in). I commend Del Rio and the other gallery owners for their courage and their principles.

I am also, if I may say so frankly, rather proud to have been at the forefront of this - and look forward to more exciting events and projects (my own among them) ahead. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

LTMH Gallery

The Times story is here. Meantime my colleague and I visited the space today, which proved a pleasant excursion, though not quite the magnificent experience I'd hoped for - many of the works on view are less than the artists' best, and some of the best artists were tucked away into corners and hard to find - perhaps because their prices don't quite meet the level of some of the others. What also struck me was how haphazard the installation seemed to be; I found no rhyme nor reason for the works' placement, no relationships to speak of among adjacent pieces, with the exception, perhaps, of the multi-media works which, for expedience sake, were placed together in one room. (But then, why were so many other works also in that room - works that had no relationship to the multi-media ones beyond the national origin of their makers?)

Nonetheless, I'd encourage New Yorkers interested in art of the region to visit the space at 39 East 78th Street, where they will in any case receive a quick overview of contemporary Iranian art and the major stars, if not the major works.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Quick on the bandwagon, Carol Kino profiles Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller, one of the contributors to the "Iran Inside Out" show at the Chelsea Art Museum, in tomorrow's New York Times (link to follow when the article is posted at the Times). Coincidentally, I've had an appointment to visit the gallery this coming week since about a month ago - part of the curatorial research for the exhibition I'm currently organizing with another New York gallery. The piece mentions the obvious stars - Neshat, Moshiri, et al -- and includes images of some of the pieces in the Chelsea show, though none of the more powerful ones, like Abbas Kowsari's breathtaking photographs of women police recruits, their dark uniforms partially obscured by black chadors. I suspect that's a decision made by the ever-tentative editors of the Times, who are likely to follow the path of those like Yale University Press - and an unfortunate path, indeed. Much better work is out there for the viewing - but that's the stuff I've written about already...and will soon again, now my other book is done!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Art Newspaper Discovers Islamic Contemporary - and doesn't get it

I'm thrilled that The Art Newspaper has brought such attention to this important movement. But I do wish their editor would allow artists the freedom to follow their instincts. Is it "colonialist" to insist that artists from the Middle East keep to their traditions? Or is it, rather, a way of keeping them caged, like zoo animals we like observing, to keep these artists from reaching beyond them? Isn't it, in the end, the artists' choice? The greatness of the work being produced by Muslim artists is the freedom they have found to create work that both celebrates and embellishes their culture. This is what they bring to us. Let them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bringing the artists to light

Okay, so I'm not keeping up. Why does blogging have so much resemblance to dieting?!
Today's link: the UAE contribution to the Venice Biennale, which will finally bring some of these extraordinary artists to the international public eye, and their work the attention it deserves:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The New York Times Discovers What Some of Us Already Knew

I love it when the Times figures out something I've been focusing on for a while. Actually, I even mentioned the topic to one of their editors a couple of years ago - but I was apparently too early. Now Deborah Sontag has written a piece about -- what else? -- contemporary Islamic art, based on works by two different Muslim artists living in America. Worth reading, but oh, so limited.... Nonetheless, it's a start.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Okay, I know. The thing about a blog is that it has to be fed. And I haven't been feeding it lately. Dental surgery will do that to you...keep you from doing a whole lot of anything other than complaining and gargling and pulling ice packs out of the freezer. But I have, at least, been doing stuff, like contacting a couple of Iraqi artists - one in Holland and one in London - to interview here. Coming up soon. Really.

Friday, April 24, 2009

More About the UAE Pavilion, 2009 Venice Biennale

I received this press release the other day with more information about the UAE project at this year's Venice Bienalle (excerpted with permission)

>>The UAE Pavilion has been initiated and supported by His Excellency Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Owais, UAE Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, the Emirates Foundation and Dubai Culture and Arts Authority. The UAE Pavilion is being developed and presented under the leadership of its Commissioner, Dr. Lamees Hamdan, a member of the Board of Directors of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority. Serving as curator for the UAE Pavilion is Tirdad Zolghadr, an internationally respected curator, critic, professor and filmmaker.

“It’s Not You, It’s Me”
The UAE Pavilion will be titled “It’s Not You, It’s Me,” a playful and provocative name for the country’s first pavilion at the world’s most prestigious contemporary art event. “B
y and large, art professionals around the world dismiss the notion that a pavilion can truly represent a nation,” Zolghadr explains. “There still remains much to consider—especially when the nation in question is a place where more efforts are being invested in the development of a global art arena, within a smaller geographic space, and within a shorter time frame, than ever attempted before.”

Coming from a new arrival at the Venice Biennale,” Zolghadr continues, “the title ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me’ might therefore be interpreted to mean, ‘Look, it’s the UAE’s turn now.’ The UAE Pavilion will be unapologetic about documenting the nation—even while the Pavilion as a whole can be seen as an exhibition about exhibition-making, reflecting on the very act of national showcasing at the Venice Biennale.”

Built in a large and prominent location in the Arsenale—one of the two main areas of the Venice Biennale—the Pavilion will draw attention to its nature and function as a showcase through a combination of scenographic elements and architectural design by the partnership of Rami Farook (founder of the UAE’s Traffic design gallery) and the Belgian architectural collective 
D’haeseleer & Kimpe & Poelaert, known for its collaborations with visual artists. Physically, the entire Pavilion will highlight a “World Fair” theme that will incorporate various components:

  • work by the featured artist, Lamya Gargash
  • a showroom of work by several UAE artists
  • a Kiosk featuring conversations with key figures in the cultural panorama of the country
  • a documentation of a Dubai performance by the Jackson Pollock Bar
  • scenography reminiscent of the World Fair tradition, including text panels and architectural models of UAE arts infrastructure

As Zolghadr states, “The UAE Pavilion offers a set of parallel endeavors – artistic, performative, architectural, discursive – which enjoy a measure of independence and singularity within a larger whole.”

The Art and the Artist
For the exhibition in the UAE Pavilion, Lamya Gargash has created a series of photographs titled "Familial”, the series plays on the aesthetics of hospitality, the politics of interior design and the disingenuous lure of documentation,” Zolghadr comments. “Although the work successfully stands on its own and for itself, the connections to the Pavilion as a whole are perceptible, and even tangible.”

Born in Dubai in 1982, Lamya Gargash frequently dwells on themes of identity, culture and the passage of time, as evoked in modes of dress and the design of architectural spaces. Her work has been shown in exhibitions including Dubai Next (organized at the Vitra Museum by Rem Koolhaas and Jack Persekian in conjunction with Art Basel 2008), Abu Dhabi Art, Talk & Sensations (organized by Fabrice Bousteau in conjunction with artparis Abu Dhabi 2008) and the Locarno Film Festival (where she presented her animation, Untitled, in 2006).

Art and the National Pavilion
 “If our project is to grapple with the basics of a national pavilion,” Zolghadr states, “then the documentation of a wider art scene is crucial.” The UAE Pavilion will include a selective archive of UAE artists, showcasing Hassan Sharif*, Tarek Al Ghoussein, and Huda Saeed Saif. 

Another important feature is a specially commissioned video installation by the Berlin-based artist, dramaturge and curator Hannah Hurtzig. Using a format based on her existing “Kiosk” series, Hurtzig arranged and documented a series of five conversations, held in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in March 2009. For each conversation, a key figure in the development of the cultural scene in the UAE was carefully paired with a partner from either inside or outside the country. Visitors to the UAE Pavilion will be able to listen to the conversations on wireless headsets, selecting from the choices on the Kiosk display.<<


Finally, the UAE Pavilion will include a scenographic display of elements that are typical of world expositions. It will include architectural models of UAE museum infrastructure: both the existing facilities (such as the Sharjah Art Museum and Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization) and those that are being planned (such as the S
aadiyat Island Cultural District in Abu Dhabi, which includes the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, and the Museum of Middle Eastern Modern Art - MOMEMA). Elegantly obtrusive text panels will amplify the effect of the display.<<

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Save Delara!

Delara Darabi, a young woman convicted of a murder allegedly committed five years ago when she was seventeen, has been sentenced to death in her homeland of Iran.   From an article by Golnaz Esfandiari:

Life Story Through Painting

On death row, she has told the story of her life through her paintings, most of them dark. 

In 2006, rights activists organized an exhibition of her work in Tehran in order to bring attention to her situation and to protest against her innocence. 

In a welcome message to visitors, Darabi described her paintings as an "an oath to a crime I didn't commit." 
It is very unlikely that the murder was committed by a girl with a frail body. A strong young man was there. How is it possible that the murder was done by a weak girl?

Khoramshahi says the years Darabi has spent in jail with a death sentence hanging over her head has taken its toll on the young artist. She reportedly attempted to commit suicide in her cell in 2007. 

"Bearing prison is very difficult for a girl who was studying and at the age of 17 ended up behind prison bars. Delara's three sisters and her parents have been also [affected] by her situation, they're psychologically distressed," Khoramshahi says.

Delara's father has, in a letter, called on the head of Iran's judiciary to stave off her execution. He says living is very difficult, knowing that his 23-year-old child has been sentenced to death. 

His daughter has spent the best years of her life in prison, he says, and has been denied the possibility of having a positive role in society.

Her lawyer has called on artists and others who want to save Darabi's life to try to convince the family of the victim to give up their demand for "qesas" (retribution) and let her live. 

Iranians have also launched a campaign on Facebook and Twitter to spare Darabi's life.

Darabi is just one of over 70 juvenile offenders facing execution in the Islamic republic, according to human rights groups.<<

Please read more and sign petitions at

Friday, April 17, 2009

"UNVEILED" at Saatchi gallery London

Last chance to see the exhibition "Unveiled" at the Saatchi Gallery, which runs until May 9, 2009.  I'll be honest: none of these artists are among my favorites, and I'm not especially crazy about many of the works. But the exhibition is not only politically and art historically important; it also speaks volumes about the increased attention (and value)  this material is starting to command.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Five Features Of Islamic Contemporary Art

 *An extraordinary number of the best artists are women. This may or may not related to the oppression of women in Muslim countries, but it is certainly noteworthy.

*Iranian artists seem to draw largely from their Persian cultural heritage, with art that emphasizes aesthetics. Painterly, graceful, and often calligraphic, these works are richly-colored and can be absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.   Top artists: Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, and my personal favorite, Mohammed Ehsai.

 *Iraqi artists, by contrast, are (understandably) focused on the political, and on addressing the political and sociological conflicts of their culture.  These works tend to be more secular in nature.

*A significant number of the women artists work with photography. Examples include Lalla Essaydi (Moroccan), Shirin Neshat (Iranian), Mitra Tabrizian (Iranian), and Raeda Saadeh (Palestinian).

*This summer, the Venice Biennale will feature, for the first time, an entire pavilion of works by artists from the UAE. Other countries represented from the region include Iran (which has been represented at the Biennale in the past) and Pakistan (which makes its debut this year).    The inclusion of these artists reflects the growing interest in Islamic Contemporary art throughout the international artworld.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

This blog was inspired by passion and surprise. 

A couple of years ago, on a visit to Istanbul, I visited several collections of contemporary Turkish art, and visited some of the city's younger artists.  The work I saw was fresher, more powerful, more beautiful, than any of the art that I had seen in some time. I was captivated.

Later, an exhibition of new Iraqi art came to a new, experimental museum near my home. Eagerly, I attended the opening, having no idea what I might find there.  I had, when the war in Iraq began, held hopes to visit the region and get to know artists there, and to bring Western art to Baghdad.  While I was quickly talked out of this idea, the longing remained. 

What Iraqi artists were producing, I discovered, was even more compelling and exciting than what I had uncovered in Istanbul: poignant, poetic, political without being propagandistic, elegant, seeped in Islamic tradition and enriched by Western culture.

If this was what was happening in Turkey and Iraq, I wondered, what else was being produced by artists in the Islamic world?

And so I began to steep myself in the art that was emerging out of Iran and Palestine and Syria, and being produced by Muslims from the Middle East and Africa who were now living in the West.   The more that I have seen of this work, the more enraptured I've become.

Although many have expressed displeasure with the phrase "Islamic Contemporary Art," I have used it from the start -- with an article that appeared in Art & Auction magazine in 2008 -- and will continue to do so.  These are not simply art works made by people from the Middle East and Africa; some artists come from Turkey and other areas of the Muslim world.  Some are second generation immigrants living in the West. What the art they produce has in common, however, is a harkening to Islamic traditions,  often expressed through calligraphy and calligraphic painterliness in their work, or a political reference to issues of importance in contemporary Islam.   

This blog is my effort to share my passion, and to bring to other lovers of art the joys of what I am discovering.  More, I hope that it will also provide a doorway for the Islamic and the Western worlds to pass through to one another, and join hands.