A different Middle East showcased at Oxford International Art Fair
The two Arab stands at the Oxford International Art Fair presented the bright and tragic sides of life. Wajdan Majeed, executive director of the Bridge for Life art consultancy, exhibited the works of ten artists whose explosion of colours revealed a joy of living, in contrast with the dark and haunted figures presented by Saudi artist Hanouf Muhammad.
The exhibition, featuring photographs, illustrations, paintings, bespoke crafts, ceramics, jewellery and sculptures by 150 emerging artists and galleries from 26 countries, was at the iconic Oxford Town Hall.
“When we created the fair five years ago our intention was to provide artists and galleries with an affordable and accessible shop window for their work, within the setting of a unique space that fused the art together with the architecture of the venue chosen to host it,” the fair’s curator Joelle Dinnage said in a statement.
Majeed, born in Iraq and who went to the United Kingdom in 1990, wanted to make sure the works exhibited showed a Middle East different from the one usually portrayed in the media. “People hear about [the Islamic State] ISIS and war. My aim was to show another Middle East of beauty and splendour,” she said.
The works included the traditional oil paintings by Iraqi artist Jabar al-Rubaee depicting the landscape of the Tigris and camels in the desert; the abstract work of Sana Hussein, a young artist from Basra expressing child-like images in vivid colours; and Rashmi Agarwal’s printings on silk with vivid red and pink.
Majeed, an archaeological scientist who studied ancient and Near Eastern languages at London University, began researching the possibility of setting up a Middle Eastern art consultancy in 2014 after ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. She said she was concerned about the destruction of Iraq’s heritage and wanted to replace the darkness and hatred spread by ISIS with a message of hope and understanding by promoting and exposing Arab art.
A Bridge for Life was registered in 2016 and a portion of its profits is donated to the restoration of historic buildings that can be turned into art schools.
“I received many messages on Facebook from artists in the Middle East asking how they could escape from the dire economic situation they faced. They were not able to sell their work and unless they are sponsored by the government, they received very little support,” Majeed said. “The great benefit of the ‘Arab spring’ was that people realised they can be masters of their own destiny. They don’t have to rely on their governments.”
“Not being able to sell and exhibit his or her work is similar to a (slow) death for an artist. The standard of living in many countries of the Arab world is such that individuals cannot afford to buy art and many beautiful pieces are being created but never see the light of day,” she said.
Majeed is responsible for marketing the works of 50 Arab artists and introducing them to a Western audience. They send her a selection of their work, which she sells through the digital marketplace on her website and at international shows and exhibitions.
“The artists are very happy to have such a consultancy. It does not cost them a lot to send me their artwork and they no longer feel they are stuck in the Middle East. It is not easy for an artist to buy a ticket to Europe and it is difficult to get a visa. Then they have to pay for a gallery space and a hotel. I am saving them all these expenses,” she said. “Once an artist’s work has been shown at several exhibitions they become known, their name sticks in people’s minds and they start asking for work by that artist.”
“Disorder,” a multimedia work by Sharjah-based British-Syrian artist Ayat Alhaji implied that disorder was a movement towards order.
The philosophy of Dubai-based Irish national Humaria Hussein, who lived most of her life in Europe but whose roots stem from Pakistan and the Middle East, is to make a beautiful painting that is familiar and tangible. This was evident in her flower luminosity works, which showed a great love of nature.
Muhammad’s “Agony, Boredom and The Burden of Existence” are powerful, genderless works exploring personal dilemmas. “It’s a way to communicate, a way to make sense of the world and a way to express the deepest emotions that cannot be uttered,” Muhammad has said.
A Bridge for Life has exhibited Middle Eastern artwork at many European and overseas shows, including the Amsterdam International Art Fair, Sailing in Colours International Art Symposium in Alexandria, the Barcelona International Art Fair and the Rotterdam International Art Fair.
The consultancy is also producing “Colour and War,” a modern encyclopaedia of Iraqi art 2003-13.
Karen Dabrowska is an Arab Weekly contributor in London.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.