Salwa Mikdadi is currently an Associate Professor in Practice of Art History at the NYU Abu Dhabi, as well as a bridge between the West and the Middle East connecting global thinking with local action. Born in 1948 to Palestinian parents, Mikdadi grew up between Kuwait and Jerusalem and studied in Beirut and the USA. She settled in Berkeley, CA, and established in 1988 the Cultural and Visual Arts Resource/ICWA, the first initiative to bring Arab art to American audiences. Subsequently, she went back to the UAE to work at the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and be the Executive Director of the Arts and Culture Program at the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi (2009-2012).
In this interview, she explains the Middle East art scene, in particular that of the GCC countries (editor’s note: The GCC, Gulf Cooperation Council, is a political and economic alliance of six Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Quatar, Bahrain, and Oman). Mikdadi analyses both the strong and weak points of this hot cultural spot, from the influence of the art market to the development of art infrastructures.
Contemporary Art in West Asia
Conversation transcription below
Michela Alessandrini: You are specialised in the history of Arab contemporary art and you are based in Abu Dhabi. Could you give us some insights on the art scene there? What’s happening now?
Salwa Mikdadi: What’s happening here is hardly a secret. The whole world is looking at Dubai, Abu Dhabi and several GCC countries and artists coming from there. It’s no longer in the margins. The region — not just Dubai but also Beirut, and possibly Cairo soon — is a major international centre of art. We are beyond the “what’s happening” and looking more into the “why it’s happening now” and “how is that impacting the future of emerging artists’ work”, as well as “what kind of art are we looking at these days”. It’s a great time to be here, for me.
MA: Why? Tell us why, then.
SM: First of all, I’m definitely witnessing the “first time” in many disciplines and areas of art production and practice, in general. For instance, there will be the first museum of contemporary art coming up soon – a museum at an international level; the first art market in the region that is as active as we have seen in the past years; the first commercial galleries, for many cities – I’m referring to the GCC countries, of course; and also, I’m witnessing the slow response of the infrastructures to this fast art market. In the beginning there was a slow response to it but we see more and more infrastructures growing around the art market, which was the first one that brought about the interest in the contemporary art from the region. I believe that now there are a number of art organizations playing a major role in developing the practice of art and attracting worldwide attention. Also, you see more of these art organisations in Beirut, for example, than in Cairo and, more recently, in Maghreb.
I see this happening because I’ve been following art in this region since 1968 and the international interest in it is historically unprecedented. We should also consider the approach to teaching and exhibiting art: it is more global now. For instance, an ideal situation has been created in Sharjah, where the biennial is working closely — also from a physical standpoint — with museums, art centres and art fairs. And seeing this organical development has been satisfying both for me as an art historian and for the artists, who could benefit from the relationships being developed. Being in the university gives me vantage points, such as the chance to look at what’s happening and relate it to what we teach at the university. For example, I have definitely changed my approach to teaching since I started lecturing on the art of the Arab world — be it modern or contemporary – and now the course has a more global outlook: I show examples of art from China, from Amsterdam, from all cities around the world, artists from many countries. This is exciting – it is clearly more work, but it makes sense to avoid marginalizing anyone and look at what’s happening in the arts worldwide. We can no longer look at the Arab art coming from this region and isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, nor can we look at European art without considering the one from this region. These are recent issues, in response to which we are teaching art from a more global perspective.
MA: To go back to what you were saying before, I would like you to articulate from a museological standpoint how the art scene itself is characterized or influenced by the fact that an art market was established before actual art institutions.
SM: These infrastructures are not 100% fully developed; we would like the number of independent art organizations — similar to what in the West is referred to as no profit space — to be higher. Clearly, when I first came here, the art market dominated the scene and I always wondered how local audiences could contextualize what they were seeing within this panorama of art as a whole. I think this has been changing. Yet, it is true that we are lacking important reviews and art critics. We talk a great deal about art critics, but who are the art critics, actually? All we have are curators and art historians; we are lacking real art critics. You hear this is a great deal for locals, they say that we don’t have art critics to review our work, but what this region really needs is a higher number of degrees in art practice, whether MFAs or BFAs, where students are mentored and their work reviewed at an undergraduate level. We can’t say this part of the academia is fully developed yet in the whole region.
The advantage of having an art market here is clearly for these new museums to purchase art, look at the art from the region and study it too. When the art market started, there were fewer art historians specialised in the region, while now we see many more. I receive many more requests now for interviews and advisories to Masters or PhD’s dissertations than in the 80s, for example. Possibly, in North America there were only two or three for the whole decade on the subject, but now there are many more. We were kind of expecting to balance out the art market with this higher covering that emerged in recent years, together with more writing, more exhibitions and more critical reviews of art.
Most of the support here in the UAE is backed by the government, all these projects — from the art fairs, such as the Abu Dhabi art fair, to the three museums, the infrastructures and a large segment of tourism and culture — are all financially supported by the government of Abu Dhabi. This has advantages but, on the other hand, it is not balanced by a sufficient number of independent organizations. There are a few coming up, and there are also artists increasingly working together, collaboratively. So the situation in Abu Dhabi differs for example from the one in Cairo, where, the last time they were counted, there were almost 80 artist collectives and non-governmental independent art institutions; and in Beirut there are so many… A large number. The importance of these institutions is first of all that they grow up organically; secondly, they are small and therefore can venture into new and more daring projects because they don’t have much to lose.
They don’t have a huge budget, they don’t have to worry about collections and about what museums have to take care of, and their approach is more flexible. If one exhibition’s concept does not work, they move to another one; they respond much faster to political, social and environmental concerns. They are more mobile in the sense that they can move from an area or district in the city to another and outreach more easily, with less complications and bureaucracy.
MA: If you had to describe art tendencies that you notice there, in just one word, what would you say?
SM: Do you mean future art tendencies?
MA: Even present ones.
SM: Interdisciplinary. I think we are increasingly seeing interdisciplinary approaches to art practice: dance incorporated into art practices, expressive dance, we see theatre, performance art, video art, digital art… So there is no limit, a limitless approach to art.