top of page

Introduction to art from the Middle East and UAE

Presented at the inaugural meeting of KUACA, 14 September 2022

Allow me to introduce Tashkeel: Established in 2008 by H.H. Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Tashkeel is an incubator for professional visual art and design practitioners living and working in the United Arab Emirates. It provides a nurturing environment for the growth of contemporary art and design practice and in the last 14 years, it has delivered 122 exhibitions in 10 venues across 7 countries, and welcomed 78 artists from 31 countries onto its residency programme. Tashkeel’s studios, work spaces and galleries enable production, experimentation and dialogue by practitioners and the wider community.

Tashkeel is delighted to host the very first meeting of KUACA (The Korean UAE Art & Content Association). We wish the association every success!

I have been asked to give a brief introduction to Contemporary Art in the Middle East and UAE. To condense and contextualise the diversity of artistic expression across a region of over 370 million people and 2.7 million square miles in fifteen minutes is an almost impossible task but let’s try!

The Middle East (Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and the Gulf states) is a vast region of many different creeds, cultures and languages that have a rich heritage of many diverse civilization dating back millennia.

Arab Modernism

Today, let us begin with the post-war era of Arab Modernism; a time of decolonization where hope for a brighter and autonomous future was shared by all. Ideologies around a united pan-Arab identity were being debated alongside conversations revolving around localized forms nationalism. Artists started to participate in the discourse and respond to divergent opinions. Likeminded creatives began to form collectives across the region – asserting their new-found feeling of independence through new styles that were no longer adaptations of European schools of art but first and foremost born from Arab hands and Arab minds.

Poetry and folkloric memory drawn from ancient and contemporary Iraqi and Arab histories resonate in the artwork of internationally renowned Dia Al Azzawi, founder of the pivotal Iraqi art group New Vision in 1969, he was also part of the One Dimension collective founded by Shakir Hassan Al-Said.

Lebanon’s Hussein Madi mastered multiple media, working in sculpture, painting and the graphic arts. Like many artists of this era and previous, he studied in Europe. Known for his blend of colour, material, form and message.

Fellow Lebanese artist Paul Guiragossian gained acclaim in Lebanon and Europe (having studied in Florence and Paris) for his abstraction of the human figure exploring themes of motherhood, spirituality, exile and labour, all echoing his personal experiences and observations. When he dies in 1993, Lebanon gave him a state funeral.

Parviz Tanavoli, Iranian sculptor, painter, educator, and art historian is a pioneer and member of the 1960’s Saqqakhaneh school, a neo-traditionalist movement followed by other artists in Iran such as Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Nasser Oveisi.

Female Protagonists

Women were at the forefront of Arab modernism.

Monir Farmanfarmanian was one of Iran’s pioneering women artists. In a career which spanned more than five decades, she worked in both her native Iran and the USA. She combined traditional reverse-glass painting, mirror mosaics, and principles of Islamic geometry with modern concepts of minimalism.

Trained in both Paris and Istanbul, Fahrelnissa Zeid was an important figure in the Turkish avant-garde ‘d Group’ in the early 1940s and the École de Paris (School of Paris) in the 1950s. Her vibrant abstract paintings are a synthesis of Islamic, Byzantine, Arab and Persian influences fused with European approaches to abstraction.

Saloua Raoudha Choucair a pioneer of abstract art in the Middle East. Her work combines elements of western abstraction with Islamic aesthetics and is now collected worldwide.

Contemporary Arab art delves deep into politics, identity, conflict, and the language that unites the region.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we see a new wave of women artists reasserting their identity, exploring notions of female empowerment within societies that are grappling with both their own traditions and the influence of Western pop culture.

Libya’s Arwa Abouon, Iran’s Shirin Neshat and Shirin Aliabadi all contribute to discourse of female empowerment. Abouon’s focus on the women-centric perspective also highlights the notion of objectification, further examined in Neshat and Aliabadi’s practice.

The Written Word

The Arabic language continues to play an integral role in the region’s artistic expression. Impetus begins for a new dawn where artists radically move away from the strict rules of traditional calligraphy into abstract forms of Lettrism (‘Hurrufiyah’ in Arabic).

Farhad Moshiri mixed-media practice spans painting, assemblage, and sculpture. Inspired by pop art and conceptualism, his subversive work traverses clichéd traditional Persian craftsmanship and heritage with 21st century consumer culture.

Wissam Shawkat, who spent many years perfecting his mastery of traditional calligraphy, has gone on to develop his own script ‘Al Wissam’ while contributing to the field of Arabic typography.

eL Seed is bringing Hurrufiyah to the four corners of the world with his public art practice. From the slums of Rio de Janeiro and Cairo to Korea’s demilitarized zone and Paris bridges, his work is populating the written Arabic form as accessible, unifying and familiar.


The contribution of Lebanese artists has been just as significant in Contemporary Middle Eastern Art as it was in the Arab Modernism period. Loss, conflict, memory are major themes in the practice of many artists who grew up amid the violence of the civil war and subsequent decades of civil, political and financial instability. Some say that artists have a responsibility to move on from this perhaps stereotypical perception of their homeland but in a country that is so ravaged it is had to focus on anything else. Ayman Baalbaki’s expressionist paintings and installations depict the consequences of the Lebanese civil war. His portraits of war fighters and war-torn buildings juxtaposed with floral backgrounds has made him one of the most praised and most popular Arab artists.

The Atlas Group was a project undertaken by Walid Raad between 1989 and 2004 to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon with particular emphasis on the Lebanese wars of 1975 to 1990. Found and produced by Walid Raad together with Bilal Khbeiz and Tony Chakar their audio, visual and literary documents shed light on this history. This work features a document is attributed to Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, one of Lebanon's leading historians who donated his notebooks, films, and photographs to The Atlas Group in the early 1990s. This notebook contains 145 cut-out photographs of cars. They correspond to the exact make, model and colour of every car that was used as a car bomb between 1975 and 1991.

Arabian Gulf

Moving to the Arabian Gulf (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE), Bahrain and Kuwait in particular played a major role in Arab modernism in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, due in no small part to their involvement in international travel, industry and commerce. Since the accession to the Saudi throne of his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman has done much to thrust society in the Kingdom forward. Significant funds are being pumped into the creative and cultural industries today. And the changemakers of the early 2000’s are now in positions of tremendous influence. Abdulnasser Gharem, a former lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army, and Manal Al Dowayan, a former employee of Saudi Aramco oil company, are some of the leading lights now serving as role models and mentors to upcoming practitioners.

United Arab Emirates

Hassan Sharif is now lauded as the ‘Father of UAE Contemporary Art’ but such a title was only given to him in the latter part of his life. When in returned from art school in the UK in the mid 1980s his conceptual and experimental practice was deemed to radical for the tastes of his home country. Despite the criticism, he remained in the UAE developing his work and forming a collective of younger artists whom he mentored. From performances in the desert which included walking, jumping and throwing stones. Hassan’s sculptural work made subtle commentary on consumer culture and corporate elitism, often comprising masses of banal products like flip-flops, newspapers and spoons.

Under the tutelage of Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Kazem grew as an artist even when – at the age of 17, he enrolled in the army, embarking on a military career that was to continue for 20 years. Kazem’s practice is characterised by the use of reductive elements in repeating formats. He responds directly to the material conditions of his immediate geographical location, often positioning himself within his work as a means of asserting his subjectivity in a landscape marked by rapid modernisation. Encompassing video, photography and performance, his use of navigational technology gained a pivotal role in his practice. For the UAE’s participation in the 2013 Venice Biennale, ‘Walking on Water’ employed military technology and 15 projectors to realise an immersive video installation where the viewer is cast adrift with only a set of coordinates projected on the floor to aid orientation, evoking the physical sensation of being utterly lost at sea. Kazem’s preoccupation with geo-location data has continued into a substantial body of work that engages with notions of placemaking and identity.

Abdul Qader Al Rais was the first Emirati artist to be sold at auction for one million dollars. Regarded as the ‘Artist Laureate’ of the UAE, he taught himself from the art books he found when visiting relatives in Kuwait as a teenager. His romantic watercolours of Dubai’s traditional mudbrick houses and doorways have given way to colourful abstract hurrufiyah.

On the East coast of the country, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim was born and continues to live in Khorfakkan. Its mountainous territory closely reveals itself in his work. Hashed leaves, clay, paper, glue are among the materials that appear in his paintings, which reflect on his academic background in archaeology and psychology. Rather than hurrufiyah, we see markings reminiscent of the ancient cave drawings found in the UAE- marking time and memory through meditative repetition. Mohamed represented the UAE at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Dr Najat Makki was the first Emirati woman to be awarded a government scholarship to study art abroad back in 1977. She is best known for her colourful explorations, dreamlike apparitions, and abstract depictions of the natural environment. She is credited for introducing the Arabian Gulf to a new abstract painting style.

Photography has been well represented in the UAE art sector. Today, the likes of Farah Al Qassimi, Maitha Demithan and Jalal Bin Thaneya explore aspects of gender, heritage and industrialization through their work.

Sculpture has had similar dominance since even before the Emirates Fine Arts Society was established in 1980. Today, large scale works by jeweller-turned- sculptor Azza Al Qubaisi and painter-turned-sculptor Matta Bin Lahej are familiar sights.

While there many UAE artists have travelled internationally to pursue graduate and postgraduate education, few live outside the country. Multidisciplinary artist Ebtisam Abdulaziz now a resident of Washington DC. A mathematics and science graduate, Her practice is characterized by self-devised structures and systems that explore issues of culture and identity. Much like Hassan Sharif, in many of her works, Ebtisam assumes what can only be described as ‘self-mechanization’. Depicting an almost Orwellian dystopia, the artist becomes the machine, churning out infinite configurations of numbers, grids, colours. In the case of her signature work ‘Autobiography’, Ebtisam wears a black suit accentuated with green (similar to video displays at the stock exchanges) to convey a cynical critique of consumerist societies signifying the transformation of the human being into a code or set of numbers.


For a country that is 51 years old this year, the United Arab Emirates has a rich history of artistic expression that dates back way before the founding of the union in 1971. Today in addition to the Emirates Fine Art Society, several institutions focused exclusively on contemporary art fuel the ongoing development and growth thanks in no small part to passionate philanthropists: Tashkeel (founded in 2008 by Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum); Sharjah Art Foundation (founded in 2009 by Sheikha Hoor bint Sultan Al Qassimi); Alserkal Avenue (established by Emirati businessman Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal); and Jameel Art Centre (opened in 2019 by Fady bin Mohammed bin Abdul Latif Jameel)

This presentation has only scratched the surface of the contemporary art sector of the Middle East and UAE. It by no means claims to be a comprehensive overview but rather endeavours to whet the appetite of those curious to explore further.


bottom of page