Being a researcher – and now also a curator – in contemporary art from the Middle East has always been something of a daunting task, while at the same time a very particular adventure. In the absence of adequate sources, academic literature and a tradition of criticism and pushing boundaries, every researcher is mostly on his own, facing art with the help of critical tools acquired from other disciplines; art history, cultural studies, philosophy, etc. Other issues must be dealt with as well: attempting to write an art history in a time when art history itself is being challenged and one looks more at narratives than at histories. Then there’s also the struggle of not being entirely clouded by a critical apparatus born in and for the West, and the idea that there was no art in the Middle East ‘before Dubai’, as if the nearly one hundred and fifty years of Egyptian and Lebanese painting did not exist.
In the Arab world, aesthetic commentary remained largely confined to Islamic motifs and it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that an academic source distinguished between Islamic and Arab art, in the work of Texas-based scholar Nada Shabout. A few years ago, doing the rounds of the little material available in order to begin writing about regional artists, I came across the resourceful blog Art of the Middle East that was one of the only comprehensive resources at the time; though new platforms have been added, together with institutions and galleries, this now well-known blog was certainly a pioneer. In 2012 I became acquainted with the man behind this adventure, Taymour Grahne, a young art collector from Beirut (and other places) who shared the passion for regional art, and despite his age, a seasoned collector of some important names in contemporary art from the region.
Among his valuable collection, there are pieces of artists I highly regard, such as Camille Zakharia, Oussama Baalbaki, Hussein Madi and Reza Derakshani, among many others. Earlier in 2013 I learnt that Taymour had plans to open a gallery in the trendy Tribeca district of New York and thus, his cycle comes to completion: starting as a blogger and collector, then pursuing an education in art business and finally opening a gallery to showcase important artists from the region in one of the world capitals of art, where Middle Eastern art hasn’t had the exposure that it has in say, London or Paris. Indeed, a daring adventure in uncertain times for the Middle East and elsewhere. But he is well prepared for this adventure after a degree at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, hiring Helena Anrather, formerly of Chelsea-district Lehmann Maupin Gallery, an exciting artists program and a prime location in New York.
The Culture Trip spoke recently with Taymour about collecting art in the Middle East, the challenges of regional artists and the opening of his gallery.
The Culture Trip: How did you begin collecting contemporary art from the Middle East and how did you educate yourself as a collector in a region where art discourse is not particularly developed?
Taymour Grahne: I have always been passionate about the arts, so it developed quite naturally. I founded the blog [artofthemideast.com] four years ago as a way to document and share my reflections on artists and art events from across the Middle East. The gallery represents an opportunity to share the work of artists I respect with a wider audience – and to develop a strong program of events and exhibitions to showcase their work. I studied International Relations at Boston University, with a focus on the Middle East, including art history courses. After graduating, I decided to take my art education one notch higher and pursued and received a Masters in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York. Because art discourse is quite rare in the Middle East, I take it upon myself to research as much as I can, and have amassed a wide-ranging collection of art publications and catalogues from the region. I also read a lot, from publications that cover art from the Middle East — including Canvas, Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, Bidoun, Nafas, Contemporary Practices, and Ibraaz — as well as international outlets such as Art Info, ArtForum, Frieze, etc. I also attend art fairs, biennials, galleries and museum shows as frequently as possible, which helps stay on top of new trends in contemporary art and the art market. I am driven by the strength of work coming from new art hubs around the world, especially from across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. Artists are movements that have been overlooked are receiving long overdue international attention.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for artists in the Middle East from the perspective of artistic production? Censorship? Thematic variety? New formats?
While international attention on Middle Eastern artists has definitely increased, they need to exhibit more widely in the West — especially in the USA. This helps artists build a wider following for their work and also helps to expand the understanding of the diversity of art from the region. I also strongly feel that Middle Eastern artists should be presented without a ‘from the region’ label; we want the artists to be seen for the value of the work. This is why the gallery has an international focus.
The ‘Oriental’ in art is a topic tirelessly and yet unsuccessfully explored in art theory. Do you think that it is still relevant to speak of the Oriental in contemporary art?
Traditionally in both the West and the Middle East, the region has been viewed within the framework of the ‘Oriental’ — and there are some artists who play on this theme — however I want to show another side to work from the region.
How did the idea of opening a gallery come about? Do you think there’s a growing interest for art from the Middle East as a part of international art or it is still an exotic curiosity?
The gallery developed out of my work on the blog. It represents an opportunity to share the work of artists I respect with their wider audience — and to develop a strong program of events and exhibitions to showcase their work. More and more Middle Eastern artists are exhibiting internationally, with institutions such as the MET, Tate, LACMA, the Louvre, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, focusing on the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) region. Unfortunately when the West views the Middle East, there is sometimes an emphasis on such tropes as the veil, the role of women, calligraphy, exotic or orientalist connotations of the region. Also, explicit political and social commentary — however great the awareness about the region that this brings, but I think this is starting to change. My job is to firmly place Middle Eastern art in terms of international art, without the labels.
Tell us a bit about the artists you selected for your program and why you think they’re important figures in presenting Middle Eastern art to a New York audience?
I have selected an international roster of artists, with a core offering that reflects my experience in the Middle East and it brings a much needed platform for artists from the region to the US, however we do so in an international context, with a range of artists from Ireland to Indonesia. In fact, many of the artists we work with who have roots in the Middle East have lived outside the region. For example, Nicky Nodjoumi is as American as he is Iranian, having lived in Brooklyn for decades. Similarly Hassan Hajjaj has been based in London for many years now. Although they have roots in the Middle East, they are international artists. I am committed, as a gallery, to be a global space, which is driven first by artists I believe in rather than being limited to any particular locality or national perspective. I am proud that our program includes four artists who represented their countries in Venice this year — Tarek Al Ghoussein (Kuwait), Mohammed Kazem (United Arab Emirates), Camille Zakharia (Bahrain), and Albert Yonathan Setyawan (Indonesia). We want to cultivate an international following, but our primary audience is New York. It is an exciting prospect to introduce New York to contemporary artists from other parts of the world and we have already worked closely with several institutions to place works showcased at the gallery, in museums.
As a collector you should know how traditional the practice of collecting can be when it comes to Middle Eastern art. What are the expectations for new media works in this context?
Middle Eastern collectors are at present firmly drawn to painting and photography. There is a very limited audience interested in collecting video and installation works; however this is slowly beginning to change. This is why institutions in the region are so critical, as they can really expand the general public and collectors’ overall interaction with and experience of new media. It is great to see these institutions develop, as they support artists’ long-term careers, build international awareness, and cultivate local art-conscious publics.
Taymour Grahne Gallery opens its doors to the public on September 7th with the inaugural exhibition Chasing the Butterfly and Other Recent Paintings, by Iranian-American artist Nicky Nodjoumi, which has received attention from high profile magazines in the art world and will be the talk of town as the art world is returning from the long summer break and a busy calendar of exhibitions awaits lovers of Middle Eastern art in Dubai, Istanbul, London and Paris. Eyes are also set now in New York as Taymour Grahne’s project takes off with well-established artists who are well known not only to galleries, but to biennials, art fairs and professional publications. It will also be interesting to see what this young gallery; with an edge both Middle Eastern and contemporary, will be bringing to upcoming art fairs. Perhaps a reshuffle on the reception of Middle Eastern art in America? Time will tell.