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London a growing haven for contemporary Arab art

January 22, 2014 at 11:50 pm

As the bloody uprising in Syria continues to rage, Ayyam Gallery in Damascus does more than just show artwork; it has become a safe haven for artists. The gallery owners, cousins Khaled and Hisham Samawi, are helping them escape the violence in Syria and seek refuge in studios and living spaces in Beirut.

Ayyam Gallery also have bureaus in Beirut and Dubai and are now set to expand into Europe. This Thursday their branch in New Bond Street, London, opens its doors to the public. The inaugural show ‘Shooting the Cloud’ will feature work by Lebanese artist and architect Nadim Karam.

In one of his works, a white figure appears to be shooting a plane, whilst another lies on the ground balancing what looks like an army tank on its head. The curvy lines, large shapes and flower protruding from the aircraft denote a dream like quality, or a sardonic and mischievous interpretation of war.

Viewers will not have to look far to identify possible inspiration. The Middle East is a region that has long been riddled with unrest, and is now rocked with the highs and lows of the Arab Spring. It is no wonder that much of art from here features conflict as a theme, or makes some kind of reference to it in the work. 

Perhaps it is because of recent unrest in the Middle East that its art is becoming more popular, driven by artists desire to show a global audience their interpretation of what is really happening there. Or perhaps it reflects an audience who are increasingly keen to understand the region from a new angle.

Either way, by opening Ayyam in London, the Samawis hope to further increase the international reach of Middle Eastern artwork. “Our presence in London will allow us to better represent out artists, repositioning us from a regional gallery representing regional artists to a global gallery representing artists with a global reach”, said Khaled Samawi.

In fact, Ayyam gallery is one of several ventures that are bringing contemporary Arab art to London. P21 Gallery, a contemporary art space with a focus on Palestine, opened in early December. It draws together work from artists both inside and outside the region, and focuses on personal reflections of the conflict. ‘Light from the Middle East’, contemporary photography from the region, is currently showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

A number of other large institutions in London have sought to develop their Middle East art collections, helped by festivals such as Shubbak and Nour, which have brought architecture, dance, film, literature, music, poetry, theatre and visual arts to the Tate, the British Museum and the Science Museum amongst others.

As Arab art expands in London, it truly reflects a diverse Middle Eastern culture and helps to paint a real picture of the Arab world, beyond the interpretation of the journalist or political scientist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.