x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Art and Patronage: The Middle East

Middle Eastern dignitaries rubbed shoulders with the upper crust of London's art world on Monday at the launch of a major new book on Middle Eastern art collectors and curators.

Middle Eastern dignitaries rubbed shoulders with the upper crust of London's art world on Monday at the launch of a major new book on Middle Eastern art collectors and curators. They listened as the book's editor took to the microphone and announced: "My name is Hossein Amirsadeghi, and I'm a troublemaker."

"Fearless innovator" is another way you might describe Amirsadeghi, who has been living and working in Europe and Dubai for the past 30 years. During the last few years he has set up a culture magazine for the Middle East, called The Bite, which ran to six issues, and published several books on the region's art scene, including volumes on contemporary work from Turkey, Iran, and the Arab world. His latest book, Art and Patronage: The Middle East, is the first to look at the financing that goes on behind the scenes of the art world, and it profiles 102 collectors, curators, gallery directors and other supporters of Middle Eastern art.

"Despite the brouhaha about art in the region last year," he told The National a few days before the event, "there isn't much in the way of books and referencing [about the art]." He explained that he wants his own book, with its glowing reports about the positive ways art can affect a community, to encourage more people to support artists in the region, as well as stimulate more international interest in the region's cultural output. "Art is a way to break taboos and create tolerance, and that is critical," he said. "This is my subversive hope: that my books will achieve those [same] aims."

London's Saatchi Gallery hosted a huge exhibition of Middle Eastern art in 2009, and the British Museum, V&A, Whitechapel, Tate and Serpentine have been championing work from the region for years. Art and Patronage's executive editor, Maryam Homayoun Eisler, praised this level of interest at a speech she made at the launch party on Monday, and suggested that American curators could do more to follow this example, saying that in the US today "unfortunately, politics tends to overshadow cultural dialogue".

Eisler went on to thank the collectors and curators at the event for helping to "take social responsibility" and "stamp a collective memory", saying that their work was about "fighting repression and closed-mindedness" and "about painting an image that is different from the image that the media tends to paint of this vast area today", one that emphasises intellectualism and creativity rather than tension and turmoil.

Anthony Downey, the author of one of three essays interspersed throughout the book's profiles, agrees that Middle Eastern art can challenge international stereotypes about the area. "Presently, most discourse about the Middle East is politically oriented," he said. "It becomes very binary, very simplified," he continued. "With art, you have more nuance; an attempt to look at things differently, which is precisely what this book is attempting to do."

Naturally, Art and Patronage has essays relating to the Emirates. There's a spread on Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim Foundation, and his plans to complete Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in 2013. Armstrong talks about the "exciting times [that] lie ahead for Abu Dhabi and its people", describing it as "a society that feels newly confident about itself". You can see here, he says, "great ambition" and "an intellectual hunger - not just here but in the whole region".

A handful of the profiled collectors are based in Dubai, including Iranian-born Farbod Dowlatshahi, the co-owner of Duabi's B21 Gallery; Farhad Farjam, the founder of the Farjam Collection; and Lamees Hamdan, who presented the UAE pavillion at the 2009 Venice Biennale. "There is a huge need for support," she says of Emirati artists. "We need to give them a voice."

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al-Nahyan, the UAE's Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, agrees. He, too, is among the profiled figures, and he is quoted extensively on his views about the benefits of a flourishing arts scene. Art is essential for getting people to "think outside the norm", he says, and he encourages students to "be courageous and to take risks and to make mistakes". In his words, "through art the world will be better".