Universes in Universe  /  Art actuel du monde islamique  /  Édition 5 - janvier 2004
URL: http://universes-in-universe.de/islam/fra/2004/01/jngfa/wijdan-ali-text.html

Modern Art from the Arab World
By Wijdan Ali

Catalogue text for the exhibition "Between Legend and Reality: Modern Art from the Arab World", works from the permanent collection of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts.

Akureyri Art Museum, Iceland, 27 July - 8 September 2002
Reykjavik Art Museum Hafnarhus, Iceland, 23 November 2002 - 19 January 2003

What is modern art and what are its references? These are questions whose answers are relative to the geographical setup, time frame and cultural background of the country in question; hence to relate modernism to Arab art one has to go a few centuries back.

The Arab world includes Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen, and spreads over the Middle East (or the Eastern Mediterranean), the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Since the mid 16th century all these regions were part of the Ottoman Empire with the exception of Morocco, the only Arab province that was not part of the Ottoman domain. Therefore, no Turkish influences are found in Moroccan culture and art that stretch to a long unbroken tradition going back to Islamic Spain.

The first Arab countries in the Middle East to adopt Western art were Lebanon and Egypt. Early currents of Westernization permeated Lebanon at the hands of the European missionaries, who opened convents and missionary schools in the mountains and introduced the printing press. The missionaries in Lebanon were the ones to establish, in the 18th century, the basis for a cultural, social and political life centred on Christianity, which led to an intellectual and artistic awakening. Through the Church, Gothic style became popular in 18th century Lebanon, eventually giving birth to a local Gothic school in religious painting.

In Egypt, the invasion by Napoleon's armies in 1798 abruptly subjected the nation to European control, making it the first Arab country in the 19th century to be exposed to Western art on a large scale. It was the first time since the Crusades that a Western power invaded an Arab country not only with its military forces but also with its intellectuals, artists, historians and writers. When Napoleon founded the Academy for Oriental Studies, the wave of Western orientalism began and Europe's interest in Arab scientific and literary achievements was born, alongside its interest for the military, sociological, political and economic prospects. On the other hand, the people of the Middle East became aware of Western civilization on a grand scale.

Easel painting is a fairly recent phenomenon in Arab art. As the aesthetic and creative fibre of traditional Islamic art weakened in the 19th century, Arab culture yielded increasingly to Western art forms and styles, which had pervaded the Arab world due to the West's political, economic, scientific and military superiority and dominance. By the mid-19th century, Western Orientalism had reached its peak in Europe and a number of foreign artists, among whom were David Roberts and Eugène Fromentin, visited Egypt and recorded its native customs, historical sites and landscapes in a highly exaggerated and romanticized artistic fashion. Others, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, who settled in Cairo for several months to years, introduced easel painting into the country.

Improved means of communication between Europe and the Arab countries exposed the Arab world to Western influences at an ever-growing rate and eventually to the expansion of Western colonialism and the dissemination of Western art and culture. From the end of the 19th century, an artistic rebirth occurred in North Africa and the Middle East that eventually led to a radical change in aesthetics and the unfolding of a new artistic evolution in the field of visual arts.

Prince Yusuf Kamal, a member of the Egyptian royal family and an enthusiastic patron of the arts, opened the School of Fine Arts in Cairo, in 1908. He employed foreign artists as teachers, thus creating the first institution in the Arab world to teach Western art. Its first students comprised the nucleus of the pioneer generation of modern Arab artists. Meanwhile, in other Arab countries such as Iraq and Syria, painting remained confined to Ottoman traditions.

Sudan became a political entity after the Turkish-Egyptian conquest of the region in 1821 and the British occupied it at the end of the 19th century until its independence in 1951. It is a country with a Pharaonic, African, Coptic and Islamic cultural background. Modern art, specifically painting, is a recent phenomenon in Sudanese culture, only emerging in the 1940s. Sudanese modern art developed at an accelerating pace between 1950 and 1960.

With the end of World War I in 1918, Ottoman rule over the Arab world ended. In 1919, the French mandate was established over Lebanon and Syria, while Iraq, Jordan and Palestine were placed under British mandate and Egypt became a British protectorate. Unlike the French colonialists, the British Mandate authorities were primarily interested in training qualified civil servants and hardly took measures to contribute to the cultural growth of the countries under their control. In Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, therefore, art education and patronage were low on their list of priorities. Thus Jordanian and Palestinian artists of the post-1950 period were all self-taught amateurs who practiced painting as a hobby and art movements in both countries began to develop in the 1950s and 1960s respectively.

Easel painting in oils was begun in Iraq at the turn of the century by a group of officers who had received their training at Ottoman military schools in Istanbul. They formed the nucleus for the development of Iraqi modern art. This group of early artists was the one to introduce Western painting into Iraq through their own works, through private lessons and through teaching at secondary schools. During the 1930s, progress in the cultural field took off as the Iraqi government encouraged art activities. In 1931, the government, at the instruction of King Faisal I, began allocating scholarships for art studies abroad and in 1936 the Ministry of Education founded the Music Institute that became the Arts Institute in 1939.

It was in the 1960s that Western aesthetics and modern art began to appear in the Arabian Peninsula, which now includes the states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Two factors instrumental in introducing Western art into the Gulf countries were the introduction of a modern educational system, in the 1950s, and government scholarships for students to study art abroad.

In North Africa, the French army conquered Algeria in 1830 and made it a part of France rather than a colony or a mandate. As the mother country, France regarded its duty as one of 'civilizing' the newly acquired territory and people. In 1881, Tunisia ceased to be part of the Ottoman Empire and became a French Protectorate until its independence in 1955. In 1832, Eugène Delacroix became the first French painter to visit Algeria as well as Tunisia. A considerable number of French Orientalists followed in his footsteps thereafter, some even resettled to live and work in North Africa. Centre d'Art in Tunis was the first art school to open in North Africa in 1923. However, until independence in 1955, the number of Tunisian pupils was negligible in comparison to foreign students.

The introduction of easel painting into Morocco is associated with the period when it became a French Protectorate in 1912 and when a Spanish zone was established on its north Mediterranean coast. Like Egypt, it was the Orientalists who introduced European easel painting into Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

Most Arab countries gained their independence from British and French colonial rule between the end of World War II and the mid 1950s. Although the political, economic and social environments since the 19th century have caused the decline of traditional arts in the Arab world, they simultaneously have paved the way for the development of modern art movements in painting that encompassed Western aesthetics yet succeeded in creating distinctive styles in sculpture and painting, by drawing on their ancient traditions and linking them to international artistic trends. By the middle of the 20th century, modern Arab painting had developed, based on Western aesthetics and norms; and by the end of the 20th century all Arab countries had extended modern art movements that reflected their cultural and artistic growth through art institutions, artistic activities, the increasing number of artists and the new art tendencies that interacted with other art movements in various parts of the world.

The exhibition "Between Legend and Reality: Modern Art from the Arab World" neither represents a survey nor does it cover all artistic trends in our region. In this exhibition I chose three categories that are very much particular to modern Arab art. They are: issues pertaining to political, gender and humanitarian matters that seem to affect our everyday lives in the Arab world; the modern calligraphic school that draws on its Islamic cultural roots yet in contemporaneous styles and media; and finally abstraction that is both old and new to Arab artists and constitutes one of the most popular styles in this part of the world.


An interesting phenomena of modern Arab art, whether directly or indirectly, is that all Arab artists have experienced the stress and anxiety created by the political realities in their region, mainly the occupation of Palestine. Many of them share a common subject matter, related to the political and social problems resulting from the loss of part of their land. Even those born outside Palestine and are part of the art movements of their own or host countries, have shown strong national ties. This common theme is certainly unique in the history of Arab art and has influenced other artists from the developing world, as well as moderate Jewish-Israeli artists, some of whom, have actually exhibited with Arab-Israeli and Palestinian artists. Art for Palestinians in particular, has become an emotional and introverted mechanism by which they preserve their identity and publicize their cause throughout the world. Other events such as the second Gulf War, the U.N. sanctions on Iraq, the double standards that the big powers apply in dealing with Muslims and Arabs, civil wars, fundamentalism, destruction of the environment, gender and humanitarian issues such as women's rights, poverty, human rights, overpopulation and Islamophobia, among others, are all topics that have affected the subject matter of numerous Arab artists. The artists in the exhibition whose work revolve around such issues are: Nasr Abdul Aziz (Palestine), Abed Abidi (Palestine), Abdul Jabbar Ghadban (Bahrain), Nabil Anani (Palestine), Hachemi Azza (Morocco), Karima Ben Othaman (Jordan), Paul Guiragossian (Lebanon), Nazir Nabaa (Syria), Rachid Koraïchi (Algeria), Suleiman Mansour (Palestine), Hamid Nada (Egypt), Mounira Nusseibeh (Palestine), Leila Shawa (Palestine) and Samia Zaru (Palestine).

The Calligraphic School

Calligraphy not only forms a link with the artists' past religious, literary and artistic heritage, it is also a living present which is still effective in their present existence. Thus, Arab artists came to realize that modern art trends could be linked to their own cultural heritage, and the Arab heritage revival movement picked up momentum, culminating in the development of the Calligraphic School of Art. Artists found in it an aesthetic with which they could identify and simultaneously manoeuvre their Western-oriented training alongside their Islamic cultural background, to reach an artistic identity through which a new cultural personality evolved. Calligraphic works in this exhibition are by: Yussef Ahmad (Qatar), Aziz Amoura (Jordan), Kamal Boullata (Palestine), Taha Boustani (Iraq), Raad Dulaimi (Iraq), Issam El-Said (Iraq), Ali Omar Ermes (Libya), Moustafa Fathi (Syria), Muhammad al-Jouqi, (Jordan), Nja Mahdaoui (Tunisia), Nassar Mansour (Jordan), Hassan Massoud (Iraq), Ahmad Moustafa (Egypt), Maisoon Saqr Qasimi (United Arab Emirates), Khairat Saleh (Syria), Samir Salameh (Palestine), Muna Saudi (Jordan) and Wijdan (Jordan).


The drive towards internationalism and modernization has also been present in the artistic milieu of the Arab world. It culminated in a style that fostered an international style with no regional features such as abstraction, the most popular trend among Arab artists. The abstract works in the exhibition belong to: Nawal Abdallah (Jordan), Farid Balkahia (Morocco), Ali Ghaddaf (Yemen), Haidar Khalid (Iraq), Mohamed Omer Khalil (Sudan), Khaled Khreis (Jordan), Abdel Latif Mufiz (Bahrain), Ayad Nimmer (Egypt), Faisal Samra (Saudi Arabia), Nabil Shehadeh (Jordan), Dodi Tabaa (Jordan), Mahmoud Ubeidi (Iraq) and Fahrelnissa Zeid (Jordan).

However, one cannot draw an exact line between all works. For example Rachid Koraïchi, Maysoon Qasimi and Samir Salameh link their calligraphic works with nationalistic and humanitarian issues while Laila Shawa employs calligrafitti in her works and Hamid Nada's stylized compositions are somewhere between abstraction and symbolism.

"Between Legend and Reality: Modern Art from the Arab World" has works by 46 artists from fourteen countries, covering generations of artists from the eldest, Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901-1991), to the youngest, Karima Bin Othman (b. 1972). The works chosen include painting, etching, and installation selected from the permanent collection of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts. Since 1980 when the Gallery was first established with 77 works, the collection has grown into more than 1800 works, by artists from 45 countries from the Developing World. It is by far the largest collection of its kind to be found under one roof. On behalf of the Royal Society of Fine Arts I thank Mr. Hannes Sigurdsson, Director of the Akureyri Art Museum, for initiating the idea of this exhibition at the end of last year. I also thank Mr. Eiríkur Thórlaksson, Director of Reykjavík Art Museum for hosting it. "Between Legend and Reality: Modern Art from the Arab World" carries to the people of Iceland a message of beauty and truth, with a glimpse into modern Arab art that hopefully will open a window towards our culture and people.

© Copyright text: Wijdan Ali

<< retour

© Website: Universes in Universe - Mondes de l'art, Gerhard Haupt & Pat Binder