Shifting markets: Middle Eastern art

As Dubai continues to establish itself as an art hub for the wider region, Ben East considers how overseas galleries are taking advantage of a growing interest in art originating from the Middle East

The sixth Art Dubai hosted 75 galleries from 32 countries in March, attracting a record 22,500 visitors along the way. The following month, Christie’s auction of Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian, and Turkish art in Dubai outperformed estimates on both days.

But perhaps the real shift in the fortunes of Middle Eastern artists was happening over 4,000 miles away. Since then, two London galleries have opened or are about to open, both of which already have spaces in Dubai and exclusively feature work from the region. “Prior to this,” says gallery director and curator Janet Rady, “we hadn’t had a new one for three years. There’s a real confidence in the global market for Middle Eastern art.”

Rady has been representing Middle Eastern artists since 2006, when she first went to the well-received Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East exhibition at the British Museum and realised there was a gap in the market. “I loved the work, but it wasn’t clear where you could actually buy it,” she explains.

Global interest

So Rady began to make more contacts, first in Cairo, and then in Dubai, where she found numerous untapped galleries and artists. The former were interested in showing work from around the region in Dubai, and the latter hoped Rady could show their work in London. The result was Janet Rady Fine Art, which has offices in London and Dubai and currently represents and works with over 50 artists.

“When I started there were four or five established galleries, in Dubai. Now there’s around 40 – the growth in interest is encouraging, she explains. 

What most people aren’t aware of is that Sotherbys had a sale of Islamic art in 1985. It wasn’t successful, but as a counterpoint to where we are now, I think even that is fascinating – in terms of there being an attempt to open up the market which didn’t work. Now it’s all changed: it seems the Dubai market has actually triggered global interest.”

Some of this, Rady concedes, is thanks to the cultural impact of the Arab Spring. An Egyptian artist whom Rady once placed in a V&A exhibition, Nermine Hammam, is currently enjoying a very well-regarded show at the Mosaic Rooms (another space in London “showcasing contemporary culture from and connected to the Arab World”) with work that references the events in Tahrir Square. But when the media’s focus moves on to another part of the world, Rady is confident that the likes of Astrid De Menezes, a Portuguese artist based in Dubai, will still be of merit.

Mixed buyers

“From what I’ve seen, the profile of the people purchasing the art is encouragingly mixed,” she says. “It’s not just ex-pats purchasing it, it’s international buyers coming over to the Dubai fairs and auctions. Emiratis have started to buy works too; the art world in the UAE has become as disparate there as it is in the West.”

And international interest isn’t limited to London. Rady notes the presence of two Dubai galleries at Art Basel in Switzerland last month, and though the new Islamic Art wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art focuses largely on the past rather than the present, it’s helped to foster a sense of interest in the region.

“I do get some people asking whether I can get them some traditional calligraphy, and that’s fine, but there’s so much more to see,” says Rady. “Dubai  is definitely at the point where we can show people that this is a really vibrant place to create, exhibit and purchase art.”