BEIRUT: “There are different challenges when it comes to seeing work from the modern period,” observes Beirut researcher and writer Kristine Khouri.
“Practically speaking, it’s hard to see art work from Arab modernists. Even to get images of work to speak about or write about is a challenge.“So any place able to exhibit work from that period – whether a museum dedicated to modern [Arab] art or a small exhibition in Beirut, whether a dealer, a collector – it’s fantastic. The first step is to show these works, so conversations can begin.”
Over the past few years the Miami-born Khouri has been involved in such historically inflected contemporary art projects as Walid Raad’s “Scratching on Things You Could Disavow: A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art.”
Her research on the history of modern Arab art saw her and curator Rasha Salti co-found “The History of Arab Modernities in the Visual Arts,” a long-term project aimed at investigating the production, exhibition and consumption of art produced in the region from the 1950s to the 1980s, as well as the breadth of critical engagement that it has attracted.
Later this month, Khouri will bring her expertise to Art Dubai in two capacities. At the fair’s Global Art Forum, she will be participating on a panel devoted to Kuwait’s 20th-century encounter with modernism, giving a talk on the history of the city’s Sultan Gallery.
Khouri is also one of four international experts selected to participate in Art Dubai Modern. This new initiative will showcase a selection of galleries, each of which will present a solo or two-person show featuring influential modern masters from the Middle East and South Asia.
Her colleagues on ADM’s advisory committee are renowned curator Catherine David; Nada Shabout, an art historian specializing in modern Arab and Iraqi art; and art historian Savita Apte, who chairs the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, one of Art Dubai’s parallel events.
Several Lebanese galleries and artists are participating in ADM, including Michel Basbous (Agial Art Gallery, Beirut), Nabil Nahas (Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai) and Huguette Caland (Galerie Janine Rubeiz, Beirut).
“What I appreciate about Art Dubai Modern,” Khouri reiterates, “is that there’s an interest in looking at that period and in starting a conversation about it.
“I saw it as a great opportunity to [assemble] former gallerists who are still active in the arts, ...” she says, “individuals who had particular experiences, who have a lot to offer and have particular expertise with specific artists they’ve worked with in the past and [to whose] works they may still have access.”
Khouri is excited about what could grow out of ADM.
“There are some interesting artists here,” she smiles, “absolutely ... Hamed Abdalla [1917-1985], Huguette Caland [b. 1931] and Michel Basbous [1924-2006] are a few of my personal favorites.
“One of the goals was to not show modern artists whose works are very well known – not that they’re not in the canon but lesser known ... in Dubai and internationally.
“This is an interesting moment – whether for curators or dealers or gallerists or researchers interested in particular artists – to really dig into one estate and invest time into one artist’s work.
“It’s not that there hasn’t been modern art [at Art Dubai] before, but now there’s a formal focus. I hope in future there will be more programming around the work of single artists, to provide a broader context than just art in booths.
“This is part of a process,” she continues. “What it comes down to is that there has to be a lot of education and research that has to happen before you can really talk about artists in a larger context or to understand how to relate them to each other.
“Nabil Nahas [b. 1949] was an interesting proposal. You don’t really think of him as part of the modernist [moment]. People may find it surprising to see him there [because] his work comes a little later than other works in this section but it’s great to show that period of his work.
“You see the diversity of where people studied and of their practices. I’m very excited to see that what’s there to stir things up.”
Khouri reluctantly admits that this inaugural edition of ADM did not lure in all of the figures she hoped to see involved. She sees the reasons to be structural.
“You need a gallery that has the financial backing to come and say, ‘We have this artist,’” she says.
“The goal was to focus on individual artists and discuss one point in his career. I think the main challenge was finding galleries that have knowledge (and there are) and access to the work, multiple works, that tell a story.
“This isn’t a criticism of Art Dubai but ... of what’s happening in the market around modern art in the Arab world: It’s hard to gather these works in one place and exhibit them anywhere. To do that within a gallery structure is even more difficult.
“To have someone who’s ... worked with an artist for a period of time, to have access to the works and to be able to show them and to afford to show them at an art fair – there are a lot of difficult variables there.
“In Lebanon, for instance,” she says, “there’s an artist named Fadi Barrage [1940-1988] whose work is spectacular. His biography is very interesting ... He produced some beautiful work that I saw by chance in a gallery here that’s been defunct for a very long time. It’s one of those things where people say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember his work. We really ought to do something on him.’
“So there are a lot of artists who have been written about, who could potentially be a part of [ADM], but because there’s not necessarily a gallery that works with them, or because their work is unavailable, that’s not possible.
“There’s also a set of artists whose work is not well researched,” she says, “or people haven’t been putting energy towards trying to recover/uncover them.
“So there’s different levels of exclusion: because of practical reasons, because there’s just not enough knowledge about an artist, or access [to] their works ... If works don’t exist in the artist’s estate, if someone isn’t managing it, then it may be harder to get it. If the work is already distributed, had been sold back in the day, it’s harder to pull off something like Art Dubai Modern, which focuses on one artist. Most of the art is going to be sold ...”
“What’s great is that this could be a start,” she adds. “We have to remember that Art Dubai is a fair. Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation is very committed to the history of modern art in the Arab world.
“What’s hard is when they’re mostly, or most-often, featured in a commercial space ... I don’t want to say you don’t learn as much [there], but a retrospective of an artist’s work is different from a booth of that artist’s work within a fair.
“Art Dubai Modern provides an opportunity for a large, diverse audience to be inspired to start asking questions about an artist or to engage in a conversation with the gallerist about that artist. Within [the art market] infrastructure, it’s a space that allows conversation.”
Art Dubai runs March 19-22 at the Madina Jumeira conference center. For more information see http://artdubai.ae