The 10 Most Influential Women in Middle Eastern Art

Photo of Cassandra Naji
24 October 2016

Slowly but surely, Middle Eastern art is gaining international recognition, a transformation in which, whether as collectors or directors, writers or curators, Middle Eastern women are playing a vital role. We have compiled a list of 10 influential women in the Middle East’s art scene who are leading creativity in the region and challenging stereotypes as they do so.

Antonia Carver | © Clint McClean

Antonia Carver

As the Director of Art Dubai, UK-born Antonia Carver holds the reins of the Middle East’s largest and most established contemporary art fair. Previously an art writer and administrator, Carver is often credited with successfully bringing Middle Eastern contemporary art to the attention of western collectors; but far from focusing exclusively on the commercial aspect of the fair, she recognises the event’s importance as one of the region’s pivotal cultural events. The fair runs collateral non-profit programmes such as residencies and pop-up projects designed to promote a vibrant regional art scene. Carver previously held the position of editor-at-large of Bidoun magazine and Bidoun Projects, and worked on collaborations with institutions across the region, including the Sharjah Art Foundation, Emirates Film Competition, Moutamarat, Dubai Culture & Arts Authority (Dubai Next), the American University of Sharjah, TDIC and Art Dubai. She is also on the Arab film programming committee for the Dubai International Film Festival.

Fulya Erdemci | © Manuel Çıtak, Courtesy IKSV

Fulya Erdemci

As the Curator of the 2013 Istanbul Biennial, Fulya Erdemci found herself at the forefront of Turkey’s contemporary art scene during the Gezi riots and ongoing social unrest. This position did not prove problematic for the Istanbul-based curator; in fact, long before the protests began Erdemci determined that the biennial should focus on politics in the public arena. This socially aware approach characterises Erdemci’s engagement with the art world: as the director of SKOR in the Netherlands she worked on projects such as ‘Social Housing – Housing the Social’ (2011); more strikingly, when the Gezi protests erupted she withdrew all the biennial’s public artworks, refusing to cooperate with a government that, in her terms, had ‘violently suppressed the people’s voices.’ With her critical stance and her decades-long involvement in Turkish contemporary art, Erdemci is one of the key players in Turkey’s visual culture right now.

Rita Aoun-Abdo

Since Rita Aoun-Abdo arrived in Abu Dhabi in 2006, the Lebanese art professional has been at the centre of the city’s extravagant cultural regeneration programme. As the cultural director of Tourism and Culture Authority Abu Dhabi, Aoun-Abdo is at the helm of Saadiyat Island, an under-construction cultural district that, upon completion around 2017, will incorporate branches of institutions such as the Guggenheim and the Louvre, housed in the creations of star architects including Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. However, Aoun-Abdo points out that Saadiyat is not a mere homage to western cultural ideals; rather, the district aims to provide a new museum model, bridging East and West and nourishing the local art ecology. This grassroots philosophy is apparent in another of Aoun-Abdo’s projects, the Abu Dhabi Art Fair, which has grown from a relatively humble affair in 2008 to a strong contender in the Middle East’s burgeoning art fair roster.

Lina Lazaar Jameel | © Hythem Al Daham, Courtesy Fitz & Co

Lina Lazaar Jameel

Lina Lazaar Jameel has made a name for herself as an authority on bringing Middle Eastern contemporary art to global prominence. Born in Tunisia but raised in Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, the 31-year-old art specialist grew up surrounded by artists thanks to her father’s love of collecting. In her role as at Sotheby’s International, Lazaar aims to bring Middle Eastern contemporary art to the attention of worldwide audiences. To this end, she also curated The Future of a Promise, Venice Biennale’s first pan-Arab exhibition of contemporary art in 2011, and established Ibraaz, a platform for critical discourse on visual culture across the Middle East and North Africa. She is also a key player in the recently established Jeddah Art Week, the first event of its kind in Saudi Arabia.

Sheikha Al-Mayassa

Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani may be only 30, but she is nonetheless the driving force behind Qatar’s contemporary art boom, a phenomenon so formidable that the emirate has consistently been the biggest national spender on art over the past five years. As the sister of the current Emir and the chairperson of Qatar Museums Authority, Al-Mayassa oversees such purchases as the record-breaking acquisition of Matisse’s ‘Cardplayers’ in 2012, and the numerous Rothkos, Warhols and Pollocks now found in the Qatari national collection. The tri-lingual Sheikha, who studied at Columbia University, has also ensured that the works exhibited in the Gulf nations have an international outlook, with pieces such as Adel Abdessemed’s ‘Headbutt’ causing controversy among Muslim conservatives but elevating Qatar in the eyes of the global art fraternity.

Mona Khazinder

As the first woman and the first Saudi national to become director general of the internationally renowned Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), based in Paris, Mona Khazinder is a force to be reckoned with in the region’s visual arts sector. A vocal promoter of pan-Arab visual culture, Khazinder was previously the IMA’s curator of contemporary art and photography, overseeing exhibitions such as 25 Years of Arab Creativity, a group show of the region’s plastic arts, and expanding the institution’s contemporary art collection to provide a panoramic view of Arab art over the last three decades. With the opening of the Louvre’s new Islamic Wing and Saadiyat branch, Khazinder’s position looks to become even more influential both in France and beyond.

Marrakech Biennale 2014 Vanessa Branson, President and Founder | © Leila Alaoui, Courtesy Marrakech Biennale

Vanessa Branson

At the turn of the millennium, Moroccan contemporary art was nowhere to be found on the global art map. But in the wake of 9/11, with relations between the West and the Middle East at their nadir, London-based art collector Vanessa Branson set up the an event that was to become the Marrakech Biennale. The impact of Branson’s initially small-scale project was to draw international commentators and artists to Marrakech, boosting the city’s nascent art scene. In the intervening decade, Marrakech’s contemporary art infrastructure has developed to incorporate institutions such as the new Museum for Photography and Visual Arts, as well as a collateral upsurge in experimental art spaces like Riad 18. Branson continues to be integral to the Marrakech art scene, despite her description of herself as a mere ‘enthusiast’.

Suzanne Landau

Suzanne Landau has defined Israel’s contemporary art landscape for over three decades, first in her roles as Curator of Contemporary Art and Chief Curator at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, and then as the Director and Chief Curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. During her 34 years at the Israel Museum, Landau was the driving force behind the expansion of the institution’s contemporary collection, purchasing blue-chip works and curating shows by the likes of Germany’s Gerhard Richter and British-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare. A champion of young, emerging talent, Landau brings opens up new perspectives onto the Israeli contemporary scene, as well as using her international stature to generate enthusiasm for Israeli culture.

Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé | © Corinne Vachon

Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé

Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé has been a key player and charismatic ambassador of Iranian contemporary art for many years, building bridges between Iranian artists and the West. She founded the Geneva-based ILLA, promoting Iranian culture in all its facets, from music and performance to videography and visual art, and started the Persian Garden of Geneva project. More recently she established Endjavi-Barbé Art Projects (EBAP), organising art residencies for non-Iranian artists in unique Qajari mansions in her native Shiraz. Last year, EBAP put on the wonderful Good News from Iran, a highly acclaimed exhibition of Iranian contemporary art. Yet another illustration of why Time magazine tipped Iran as one of the region’s most vibrant visual art centres in 2012.

Laure d’Hauteville | Courtesy BEIRUT ART FAIR

Laure d’Hauteville

France’s Laure d’Hauteville is one of the biggest names in the Middle East’s commercial art scene, having been involved with the establishment of no less than four of the region’s art fairs. She founded Artsud in Beirut in 1998, the first fair focused on modern and contemporary work from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (the so-called ME.NA.SA area) before moving on to set up the Abu Dhabi edition of Art Paris in 2006. Deeply involved in Lebanon’s visual art, she founded the Beirut Art Fair a few years later, and in late 2014 will follow this with Singapore Menasart, a fair dedicated to bringing ME.NA.SA art to Southeast Asian audiences. With those kind of credentials, d’Hauteville holds great sway with collectors, dealers and gallerists, but what really seems to motivate her is building bridges between the Middle East and Asia, a passion evident in her support for promising artists in both regions.

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