Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Other Middle East Talks

Alexandra Peers February 2008 Issue

With the international art market in flux, dealers and auction houses are heading for Dubai in search of new buyers and artists.


It is a truth of the art market that the richest nations always call the tune, setting global tastes, anointing the next stars, and establishing trends that the market may follow for years to come. By that logic—and the Middle East's seemingly unstoppable economic rise—the Damien Hirst of 2020 could be a native Farsi speaker. Or at least that's what some of the industry's key players are wagering as they ramp up their presence in the region.

Like the Chinese-contemporary-art juggernaut spawned by that country's roaring economy, Middle Eastern art and buyers could emerge as the next big thing. When Christie's International opened in Dubai in 2005, its business plan projected $30 million in sales between 2006 and 2009. Yet in just 18 months of auctions, Christie's has raked in $63 million—in large part from sales of jewelry and watches, but also because contemporary Arab, Indian, and Iranian works have been performing well above expectations. At the auction house's October 31 sale, held the day that oil hit a then-record $94 a barrel, Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri's Swarovski-crystal-studded map of the world soared to $601,000—seven times its presale estimate. The region's breakout star: Egyptian artist Ahmed Moustafa, whose work recently hit $657,000 at auction, nearly triple his previous record.

If anything, some players expect an even stronger market in the Middle East than in China, because so many of the art initiatives—to showcase the region's artists as well as import Western art—have the direct backing of the government or royal families. Abu Dhabi is planning to spend $50 million to fill its Louvre. (See "The Insta-Museums.") Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, of Qatar, is on a buying spree to fill a quintet of museums he's planning in Doha, the emirate's capital. There's "real dynamism" in the world of Middle Eastern art now, and the artists are "expanding onto the international stage," says Ruh al-Alam, a 26-year-old who is known for infusing traditional Arabic script with a digital feel and who has shown at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery.

The art industry is certainly betting on the region. This month, the organizers of a long-established U.S. art-and-antiques show plan to open a satellite exhibit in Dubai. Christie's third round of auctions will take place in March, the same month that Art Dubai, which specializes in contemporary works, will mark its second year. British art collector Charles Saatchi is also making his interest known, seeking to open a gallery in the United Arab Emirates and speaking to potential partners about an Arabic-language version of his website.

The region is a natural target market. The 4 million people who live there are sitting on more than 10 percent of all known oil reserves and witnessing the world's largest construction boom. Local governments are a few years into a brand-name shopping spree that includes everything from Citigroup to Barneys New York to Nasdaq. Yet if the Middle East and its collectors do become an engine of the art market, replacing skittish Americans scared off by the credit crisis, art sellers and artists will need to understand what traditions influence Middle Eastern art and what styles the locals prefer.

So what is the Dubai aesthetic? Most Middle Eastern art avoids animals and humans as subject matter, since such depictions can be perceived as condoning idol worship. Works that reference the area's history are popular. And in part because of the influence of Roman and Byzantine cultures, the region's art tends to be heavily patterned, geometric, and richly colored.

Of course, while galleries are increasingly showing Middle Eastern contemporary art, especially in London, it is still uncommon in Western collections. Most of the artists are unknown outside of the Middle East. "People always ask me, 'Where are you going next?' " says New Yorker Howard Farber, a leading collector of Chinese contemporary art who last fall sold a piece at auction for $4 million. (He had paid $25,000 for it in 1995.) Arab and Iranian art "is a wonderful genre," he says, "but I can't compete with the oil billionaires."
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