x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

All about Arab art at Frieze

The Frieze art fair in London returns with a strong Middle Eastern contingent, a sign of the growing appreciation of and interest in Arab art.

The Egyptian artist Sherin Guirguis's mixed media work Untitled (Shoroud). Courtesy The Third Line
The Egyptian artist Sherin Guirguis's mixed media work Untitled (Shoroud). Courtesy The Third Line

London's Frieze art fair returns this week with a Middle Eastern presence characterised by variety and breadth. Now in its 10th year, the four-day fair welcomes 175 of the world's leading contemporary art galleries, drawn from 35 countries, showing the work of more than 1,000 exciting artists to 60,000 visitors.

"Middle East galleries and organisations have an active role in the week of Frieze London," says Joanna Stella-Sawicka, the deputy director of Frieze London and Frieze New York. "There is substantial interest in art being made in the region, both in terms of museum interest and that of private collectors. Tate's Menac acquisition group is a good example of this."

Laila Binbrek, the director of Dubai's The Third Line gallery, which is showing at Frieze for the fourth consecutive year, is feeling positive about this year's event. "Our reception at Frieze has been enhanced each time we come," she says. "When we first exhibited, we were the only gallery with a mandate to represent contemporary Arab artists. We are conscious of being both a commercial gallery representing our artists and a gallery representing our region. We have a responsibility."

Opting for a thematic show this year, The Third Line will feature works by Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, Abbas Akhavan, Sherin Guirguis and Lamya Gargash, bound together by the notion of memory and history.

"We've done a few different iterations here," says Binbrek, "but we have found that having an overarching theme makes the booth stronger and also enables people to more easily relate to that story. It brings a sense of familiarity to the work even if the audience is not familiar with the artist."

The theme of memory is most prevalent in the work of Joreige and Hadjithomas. Borne out of the "martyr" portraits that cover the walls of Beirut, Faces considers the power of living among the shadows of the dead. Over time, these wall images peel and wear away so that the faces become almost ghostly. They speak of conflict, aftermath and resistance. Though fading, the haunting visions are at once relics of the past and symbols of the present.

The Egyptian artist Sherin Guirguis also produces work that investigates the uneasy relationship between the contemporary and the traditional. In Untitled (Shoroud), Arabic ornamentation is underwritten by something far more western in aesthetic, confronting us with questions of cultural symbioses and progress versus custom.

Over at Beirut's Galerie Sfeir-Semler, the director Andrée Sfeir-Semler is showing a broad range of "conceptual minimalist" Arab art. Invited to participate in Frieze Masters, a new fair with a contemporary perspective on historical art running alongside Frieze, Sfeir-Semler will show the work of Hassan Shariff (see today's cover), considered by some to be the founding father of the UAE's contemporary art scene.

At Frieze itself, the gallery will continue its focus on artists from the Arab world, including several who participated in the German international exhibition of contemporary art, dOCUMENTA (13). Rabih Mroué will present The Pixelated Revolution, incorporating images taken from the internet and videos posted by civilians attempting to document the Syrian revolution while the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky will show Cabaret Crusades, a series of four films based on Amin Maalouf's book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

While Middle Eastern galleries remain, in number at least, a minority at Frieze, Sfeir-Semler believes that they occupy a far more significant position at the fair than in previous years. "The perception of art from this region has changed massively," she says. "Our artists are storytellers, people who are trying to analyse a situation, find a shape and a format for that situation and put it in a visual frame. Each artist we represent is original and very particular in his own signature, but all are part of the same circle."

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