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The Middle Eastern art market has taken off, with staggering results. A special report on this developing scene.

Artists from the Middle East who were barely heard of internationally a few years ago are seeing their works fetching six- and seven-figure sums at auctions in Dubai.



Contemporary and modern art from the Middle East has tended to be largely overlooked. Instead, attention has focused on the West, and, in the last few years also on China, India and Russia. But now the art world's radars are also beaming onto the Middle East region.
Christie's and Bonhams are both holding twice-yearly auctions in Dubai, while Sotheby's is holding twice-yearly sales in London. There's also the Sharjah art biennial (www.sharjahbiennial.org), which launched in 1993, and two art fairs: Art Dubai (www.artdubai.ae) and ArtParis-AbuDhabi (www.artparis-abudhabi.com), an export of the French fair. New museums are underway in Doha and Qatar, and a museum island called Happiness Island, which includes branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, is due to be constructed in Abu Dhabi by 2012 to the tune of $27 billion. These activities are attracting more culturally inclined visitors to the United Arab Emirates and are encouraging the development of more local galleries.
"The market is maturing and is going from strength to strength, with increasing participation from all sectors private collectors, galleries, art fairs, auction houses, corporations, institutions and government authorities," says Michael Jeha, managing director of Christie's Dubai.
Sales of Iranian art are leading the way in the auctions. A bronze sculpture, titled "The Wall (O, Persepolis!)" by Parviz Tanavoli sold for $2,841,000 at Christie's auction in Dubai in April this year, setting a world record for any modern Iranian artist. This was followed by a calligraphic and mask painting, "Tchaar-bagh," by Charles Hossein Zenderoudi going for $1,609,000. And a painting of green intertwined, abstract letters on a black background, titled "He Is The Merciful," by Mohammad Ehsai sold for $1,161,000.
The Christie's sale came hot on the heels of Farhad Moshiri's "Eshgh" (Love)'s fetching $1,048,000 at the Bonhams inaugural sale one month earlier in March. It marked the first time that a work by a Middle Eastern artist reached over $1 million at auction. The picture spells out the Farsi word for love in Swarovski crystals and glitter across the black canvas.
Significantly, Zenderoudi, Ehsai and Moshiri have all embraced calligraphy, using a freehand script rather than traditional calligraphic formats as their primary artistic medium. The script in Zenderoudi's canvases is sometimes small, tight and intricate, referencing Iranian modes of religious devotion. By contrast, Ehsai's script is big and bold with interlocking words and letters suggesting a sense of God's omnipotence. The work of their fellow Iranian artist Ahmed Moustafa also commemorates God's divinity while creating a strong impact on a religious and visual level.
While Iranian artists have good reason to celebrate, there is plenty of scope for works by artists from other countries in the region to skyrocket too. "What seems hot at the moment is contemporary Iranian art," confirms Matthew Girling, Bonhams' chief executive for Europe and the Middle East. "Next year it could be art from Iraq or Syria; it's a very fluid market with great potential for change, development and growth. Artists who are not even being talked about at all on the art market could suddenly spring into view, and that's what makes the market exciting."
The collectors are mainly private individuals from the region. But participation is also being seen from corporations and institutions, many of which are made up of Syrians, Iranians, Europeans, Indians and Pakistanis who have moved there for work. "A lot of those people have set up businesses and have been quite successful over the last 10 years," says Girling. "You see gleaming towers and a huge amount of optimism. And those businesses want to reflect that optimism in the region by buying contemporary and modern art. Everybody wants you there, and for it to work, so there's a great impetus and enthusiasm for the art scene to develop."
Girling compares the position of the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East to that of Hong Kong in Asia, saying, "It's quite similar to what went on in Hong Kong 25 years ago and how Hong Kong became a hub for auction sales in that region. The United Arab Emirates is set to do the same in the Middle East."
Interest is growing outside the region too. "We are seeing buying from across the Middle East, but also beyond, as we see the Middle Eastern art market increasingly internationalize," says Jeha. Moshiri, one of the artists whose prices have soared in a short space of time, agrees. "With each auction and event, there's more internationalism in collecting," says Moshiri. "It's moving very fast, more than any of us can control."
The auctions are being supported by the local scene that is developing partly thanks to several Middle Eastern galleries. These include The Third Line (www.thethirdline.com), B21 (www.b21gallery.com) and Artspace (www.artspace-dubai.com) from Dubai, Agial Art Gallery (www.agialart.com) from Beirut, Galerie Sfeir-Semler (www.sfeir-semler.de) from Hamburg and Beirut, Atassi Gallery (www.atassigallery.com) from Damascus, Silk Road Gallery (www.silkroadphoto.com) from Tehran, and Townhouse Gallery (www.thetownhousegallery.com) from Cairo.
Certainly, the range of art and photography being produced in the Middle East is richly diverse. Some female artists are addressing the social, political and psychological dimensions of women's experiences in Islamic societies. Other artists are reflecting on the political turmoil in the region, the differences between the Middle East and the West, religion, or universal themes such as love and solitude. Calligraphy often appears in Middle Eastern art, including in the photography by the Iranian photographer Shirin Neshat and the Moroccan-born, Boston-based artist Lalla Essaydi. Such artists also have representation in Western galleries, reflecting the increasing recognition of their work.
And with sales of modern and contemporary art from the Middle East due to be held by Christie's and Bonhams in Dubai this fall, it is quite possible that more records will be broken.

Christie's sale of International Modern and Contemporary Art is in Dubai on October 30, 2008. www.christies.com

Bonhams' sale of Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian, Indian and Pakistani Art in Dubai on November 24, 2008. www.bonhams.com

ArtParis-AbuDhabi is from November 17-21, 2008. www.artparis-abudhabi.com

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