Written by Gallery Girl (Lizzy Vartanian Collier)
The rise in awareness of female artists from and with roots in the Arab region has been huge in recent years. The number of exhibitions, films and magazine features on these women have never been so high as they are now. But who is helping these artists reach such wide audiences? Behind the scenes there are a number of females championing these artists by writing about, commissioning and exhibiting their work. We spoke to curators, editors and writers about how they are supporting the next generation of Arab artists.
After spending her summers in Lebanon during her MA in Fashion Journalism at London College of Fashion, editor Cynthia Jreige was inspired by the young designers opening their stores in Beirut to do something for the arts in the region. The resulting publication Jdeed explores art, design and fashion across the Arab world, with an emphasis on the backgrounds of each artist and their role within the emerging Arab art scene. Jreige is just one of a string of young women working to support young emerging talent within the region. Here at Banat, we chatted to these women to ask them about how they started their initiatives and their hopes for the future.
‘I’m really fighting to put an end to the cliches and stereotypes that the Arab region is suffering from in the Western world’, says Jreige, ‘We too have things to offer and the capacity to revolutionize the system. I wish that people open their eyes, broaden their horizons and let themselves be surprised. No, we’re not just abayas and bling, war and hummus!’ Jreige travels across the region to personally meet the fashion and jewellery designers, artists and musicians who contribute to a thriving youth culture across the region. She goes beyond the top layer, right to the young creatives making their first steps on their artistic journeys, providing them with exposure in a publication that exists both online and print, with distribution across the Middle East and Europe. ‘Not many people are brave enough to bet on them, or they are too focused on monetary goals – which automatically makes them overlook what’s happening beyond what’s commercially successful’, admits Jreige, ‘So it takes someone a bit crazy and passionate to do so – which is why I don’t intend to ever give up.’
Similarly, UK-based Azeema is a print magazine that emerged in 2017 in response to founder Jameela Elfaki became aware of the lack of magazines that represented Middle Eastern women and women of colour. During her final year at university she decided to create something that challenged current stereotypes and embraced culture, essentially the creation of the magazine that she wished to have seen growing up. ‘We try to showcase the voices of women across all regions, particularly those in the Middle East/North Africa’, Sunayah Arshad tells us from Azeema HQ, ‘Although we are London based, we are able to utilize our platform to find women whose stories, experiences and strengths we can share – whether it’s through a thoughtful article or a powerful image.’ And powerful images are certainly present all the way through Azeema. Featuring such women as the anonymous all-female Burka Band from Afghanistan, as well as images of Iranian women on motorcycles and group portraits of female artists supporting fellow female artists, something that we at Banat can certainly get behind.
In follow the halo, filmmaker and visual storyteller Darah Ghanem supports fellow female artists from the regions through an online publication that is sent to subscribers inboxes once a month. Not only does Ghanem interview and feature artists, but she also commissions their work, something that is rare these days. ‘To me, art is a form of cultural production and a way for communities to flourish. I think we underestimate the impact and meaning that the arts give to life’, she explains, ‘These things matter and therefore artists should be supported. And by supported, I mean truly backed, including financially. Artists need to be paid to sustain their work. In turn their work enriches our societies.’ The commissions that appear in each issue are often used to produce products that generate funds for causes in the region or to be reimbursed into the platform to support more artists. Follow the halo’s first three tote bags – designed by Rama Duwaiji, Shahad Nazer and Beya Khalifa – was in support of Medical Aid for Palestinians. The editorial side of follow the halo also features ‘culturalists’, those supporting arts through writing, curating, filmmaking and other endeavors. It was inspired by the DIY feminist zines of the 1980s and 1990s that were made by women in the United States and.. ‘That was my main inspiration’, explains Ghanem, ‘To do good and bring it back to basics.’
Also working to support artists from the region by selling their work, L. E. Brown exhibits work through East of West, a gallery she founded in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Beginning as a distant dream with an Instagram profile, East of West turned into a gallery when she heard that a building nearby where she was living was up for rent. ‘East of West came about in a period of reflection and discussion that centered around how vital it is to diversify representation in art’, she says, ‘Especially in this local community, which is much more liberal than much of the American southwest, but still quite traditional in terms of art exhibited.’ Brown provides a platform to artists that might struggle to be exhibited in the US, especially in the current political climate. She recently invited Iranian curators Kiana Pirouz and Mahya Soltani to exhibit the second iteration of BEFORE WE WERE BANNED, which presents the work of artists affected by Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, and has also curated exhibitions that focus on women and language from the region. Speaking about the difficulties of working with art that might be confronting in the US given the political climate, she says: ‘Ideally I would be able to support them all [he artists] financially by selling their work every month, but sales can be really slow at times.’ Acknowledging the importance of paying artists in the same way as Ghanem at follow the halo, she adds: ‘People want to support this vision by showing up to events and seeing the work, but I think many don’t want to live with art that confronts them; even if the art itself is not at all political, the artists’ identities seen as political just by being present.’ That said, Brown provides her artists with opportunities to be seen by visitors from across the country, facilitating a broad visibility.
Combining both exhibition and editorial content, Hind Joucka founded artmejo in 2014. Beginning as a university project, the online platform promotes the art scene in Jordan from events and talks to exhibition openings and underground shows. Focusing on the Jordanian art scene, Joucka says: ‘What we’re trying to do is to make all these events and activities, which are already free and open to the public, more accessible to everyone.’ Bringing everything under one umbrella, artmejo has just launched artmejournal. Co-founded by Joucka and Jordanian artist Sama Shahrouri, artmejournal is an online magazine that shares opinion pieces, reviews, interviews with artists and news happening in the local, regional and international art scene. With contributors from all over the world, from Berlin to Cairo, and with features in both Arabic and English, artmejournal aspires to be a beneficial source for valuable, factual and analytical information on the visual arts. In addition to being an online resource, artmejo also curates pop-ups in private and commercial spaces and has been partners of such successful events as Art at the Park.
To add to all of the incredible writers, curators and journalists already mentioned, there is a growing number of others who are working to expand on the websites, magazines and exhibition spaces already mentioned. Set to open in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia later this year, Sahaba Club, co-founded by Wejdan Reda and Noran Reda will be both a physical and virtual space for women artists, which aims to focus on collaboration, education and curating in the public realm. ‘Sahaba means a cloud in Arabic’, explains co-founder Wejdan Reda, ‘Ever since I was a child I always fantasized about pink clouds, I would watch it in cartoons and just love it. Growing up in Saudi the sky was always blue and clear of clouds. This became symbolic, the absence of clouds was in a way an absence of fantasy, of a better world where the challenges and issues I was directly dealing with as a woman and a practitioner in the art scene would now exist. In a sense the pink clouds were a form of escape mechanisms that began with me during my childhood and lasted till this current moment.’ Reda realised that instead of trying to escape, she should bring this fantasy back to earth and attempt to resolve some of those challenges directly. Sahaba Club will be dedicated to highlighting the artistic practices of female artists from the region, and will also focus on curating in public spaces, in order to further educate about these artists, empower these artists, and exert these artists’ influences over an urban setting.
‘My hopes for the future are that more and more people start to acknowledge the importance of bringing young people into the light’, says Jreige, ‘Them who are shaping the trends and have strong opinions they need a voice. You can’t make new with old.’ It seems that these women all have similar goals for the future, continuing to champion young emerging artists both from and with roots in the Arab region. ‘We hope that artmejo and artmejournal will create a ripple’, says Joucka, ‘No matter how small, to further enrich regional and international content created by young creatives, about young artists.’ Jreige agrees, ‘I think it’s incredibly important to support these young Arabs who are doing arts and interacting each other. Whether it is virtually or IRL – regardless of what country they’re from, because they are the ones who are paving the way to more peaceful relationships between Arab countries.’ Keeping the conversation open is important to keep momentum, ‘I will continue to collaborate with other organisations to diversify as much of the art world as I can’, adds Brown, ‘It’s something that we can all work towards by just talking about it, by sharing artists’ work, by keeping our eyes open, and by supporting each other every day.’
And, the best part of the growing artistic community is the support that writers, artists, curators and journalists with interests in the region have for each other. ‘I love how all the artists we’ve worked with are becoming a little community. They all follow each other on Instagram and support each other’s work’, says Ghanem, ‘I look forward for all of us to really get together and shake up the arts in the region.’