Art Dubai, the region’s biggest international art fair, just wrapped up it’s 11th edition. From March 15-18, Art Dubai 2017 featured 94 galleries from 43 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, making this year’s fair the most diverse yet.
While I was unable to attend the events, I happened to walk by Afshin Pirhashemi’s House of Cards exhibit at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai International Financial Centre.
Ayyam Gallery is surrounded by a number of other galleries, but it was Pirhashemi’s massive paintings of stunning imagery that made me stop. As I walked through the courtyard I was scrolling through yet another article about hijab on my phone. All week I had been asking myself why the world is fixated on the hijab, or headscarf. As if to drive home the point, I looked up and saw a striking black and white canvas of a beautiful woman wearing a headscarf.
To the right of this image was an even larger painting with 3 disparate elements: four women in chador pointing revolvers, the White House and a Porsche. It was absurd, so naturally I was intrigued.
Looking around, it became obvious rather quickly that women and violence were central to House of Cards. Many paintings centered around women – some in chador and some without – and nearly all holding guns. But this was not commentary on Muslim women, or women in hijab, or Iranian women. This was a commentary on the media’s commentary of these figures.
Based in Tehran, Pirhashemi explores the impacts of mass mainstream media on society’s views of power, violence and gender subversion. He uses large scale, monumental imagery to draw parallels between the cold ugliness of war-induced crises and the scripted, premeditated reality of television and social media.
Images of the White House made me think of American foreign policy and its effects on countries like Iran. While this is true superficially, there is a deeper, more nuanced message.
Gallery literature pointed out “Pirhashemi’s reference to the U.S. elections depicts the absurd nature of a world informed by television and celebrity culture…In contrast to this widespread dependency on mediated reality, Pirhashemi reminds viewers of what lies beyond their screens by alluding to the growing war-induced crises that are impossible to ignore.”
Diversity was the crowning achievement at Art dubai 2017, and it would be a mistake to think of art from the Middle East as anything but that. While Pirhashmi dissected the influence of the media, politics and Donald Trump, especially Donald Trump, were not off limits for other artists. Farah Nayeri of The New York Times did an excellent summary of artists who chose to express their disapproval of Trump’s Muslim ban through their art.
Art Dubai offers a singular opportunity for artists from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia to exhibit in a large and well-funded forum. In an article for cnn.com, Fair Director Director Myrna Awad says, “I’m proud to work with an institution that has been a major catalyst in the local, regional and international conversations on art from the Middle East and beyond…it has very much contributed to putting art from these regions onto the world map.”
Far from being a short-lived spike in interest, the arts scene in Dubai grows larger every year. Furthermore, the Guggenheim and Louvre Museums are currently under construction in Abu Dhabi.
Historically, the arts – theatre, music, cimema, literature, and art – have played and continue to play a prominent role in Arabic speaking cultures. As Ayad reminds us, a push for the arts in countries like the U.A.E. and Qatar did not arrive in a vacuum; after all, Middle Eastern art has a storied past. Interest is blossoming in Dubai and Doha because they are stable and have growing economies.
Which means more opportunity to amplify the unique perspectives and stories of artists like Pirhashemi in the region. Given the demographics of the U.A.E. and the prestige of the event, a lot more people will get to see these stunning works of art.
Title image courtesy artnet.com