In vogue: London gallery reflects Arab art boom

The launch of a new gallery in the British capital this month is the latest demonstration of Middle Eastern art's growing international cachet 

If ever there was proof that art from the Middle East is increasing in both international visibility and viability, it surely comes with the arrival of Ayyam Gallery in London later this month. With three existing locations in Dubai, Damascus and Beirut, it would have been easy for the founding collectors, cousins Khaled and Hisham Samawi, to rest on their laurels, comfortable in the knowledge that – as Vision noted late last year – art is becoming a vital component of the wider cultural strategy of the Middle East.

But the enthusiasm for Middle Eastern art outside the region hadn’t gone unnoticed by the cousins. “There had been more international interest in Middle Eastern artists because of fairs such as Art Dubai,” says Hisham. “But we wanted to encourage people to think about our contemporary artists outside that one event, or a Christie’s Dubai auction. We felt ready to have a full, year-round presence in London – where everyone from curators, museums and collectors can be educated and entertained.”

It’s not any old “presence”. Ayyam London happens to be on fashionable New Bond Street, rubbing shoulders with Bulgari, Chanel and Ralph Lauren. A far cry from its first gallery in Damascus, opened on little more than a whim in 2006.

“The contemporary art scene was basically non-existent back then,” smiles Hisham. “But it was about cultivating, supporting and developing artists, and it worked. It was similar in Dubai – from very little six years ago, Dubai is now the centre of the Middle Eastern art scene. We can’t take all the credit for that, but it does have big, flourishing pockets of galleries and collectors now, of which we’re a part.

“I think what we’ve been successful at building is a group of galleries that primarily exhibit quality contemporary art. It only happens to come from the Middle East. But to go to the next level you do need international attention and exposure, which is why we’re taking what we’re doing in Dubai to London.”

And the first exhibition at Ayyam London certainly fits into the Samawis’ ethos. Nadim Karam is a Lebanese artist and architect whose new exhibition, Shooting The Cloud, explores his interest in love and war through painting and sculpture. One of his most famous works envisaged a new development for Dubai, built in the sky.

“When London audiences see this work they’ll hopefully realise that it’s completely different from their perceptions of Middle Eastern art,” says Samawi. “It’s not calligraphy, or paintings of women in veils. Sure, Karam is influenced by where he’s from, but his work transcends borders and nationalities. In the end, it’s just amazing contemporary art by someone with great ability.”

Ayyam London opens on 25 January.