Tracing the Modern in Post-Modern: The dilemma of Contemporary “Islamic” Art

While pre-modern Islamic art continues to grow as an academic field and as a profitable investment for collectors, the attention given to contemporary Islamic art has been increasing significantly among art dealers, academics and curators.

Muhammad Ehsai Daffodils Christie's
Muhammad Ehsai, “Daffodils”. Christie’s 24.10.18 lot 55, sold £137.500

Starting this article, the intend was to create a focus on a few living artists well represented on the market. However, writing about contemporary Middle-Eastern art is like going trough the rabbit hole of a blurry and confusing terminology. In short, how to introduce a field that struggles to define itself?

When does “Post modern” start?

In 2006, Kader Attia, French artist from Algerian origin wrote: “To the question “is there a contemporary Islamic art?”, I would answer, we are currently building it, re-appropriating our culture and its influences in our own way“.
Through this quote, the impact of French colonisation on Algerian culture emerges from the subtext. However, one cannot generalize, as Islamic culture was never unified and contexts are very different. In Turkey for instance, there is no gap in artistic production between the end of the pre-modern era, marked with the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1924, and what occurred right after, though the emphasis shifted slowly and quietly throughout the 20th century toward a more diversified and fragmented artistic production.

It is only since the recent years, roughly the 90’s, that collectors, curators and academics have started to turn the spotlight on Middle-Eastern artistic creation.
The task of defining Islamic art has already shown its complexity for the pre-modern era, as I wrote in a previous article, but while pre-modern art is mostly based on the repetition of a defined artistic syntax, post-modern Islamic art follow the concept of artist individuality – as most of post-modern art forms do – making it even more difficult to quantify.
Artistic productions from Qajar Iran (1789-1925) are considered as modern, especially from the second half of the 19th century. This definition continues throughout the reign of the Pahlavi, until the revolution of 1979, when it switches to Post-modern or Contemporary.

Mahmoud Mokhtar, Sotheby's Oct. 2018
Mahmoud Mokhtar, Au bord du Nil, 1931-48. Sotheby’s Oct. 2018, sold £75.000

In Ottoman territories, things are more complicated and less linear. The vocabulary of Art History shifts from pre-modern, referring to art productions before 1924, to post-modern, embodied by 20th centuries artist. The “Modern” in between has very little representation on the market and in academia, and reflects a historiography gap that pains to be filed. For this reason, it is not rare to find artists from Turkey, Egypt, Bilal al-sham and Maghreb in Orientalist or Pre-modern Islamic arts auction catalogues. This confusion is due to the fact that no one knows how to label such creations, as they fall right within a semantic grey area.

The Egytian artist Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934) illustrates perfectly the problem. His life put him right on the border between premodern and modern but his work is unmistakably modern and reflects the impact of Art Nouveau and the Vienne Secession. “Au bord du Nil” statuette was sold at Sotheby’s London in October 2018 during the “20th Century Art / Middle East” auction, but was previously sold during the “vente Orientalisme” auction at Artcurial in 2016 (18th May, auction 3002, lot 76, sold 39.000€). It seems difficult to justify classifying an Egyptian artist as “Orientalist” but it is simply due to the fact that the French auction house hasn’t devoted an auction to contemporary Middle-Eastern art since 2009, and Mokhtar dates are too recent to insert his work in an “Islamic Art” auction.

Islamic, Middle-Eastern, or else?

The same way, Mokhtar work highlights the difficulty of putting the “Islamic” label on a Middle-Eastern artist. The Au bord du Nil statuette shows a clear inspiration of pre-Roman Egyptian art in the overall design, proportions and monumental rendering, while influence from Ottoman or medieval Islamic art is mostly absent from his artistic palette. Other Mokhtar works reflect his battle against British protectorate and his political engagement, a common characteristic of several artists labeled as “Islamic”.

This conundrum is not restricted to Mokhtar but applies to numerous artists. Following Kader Attia definition, contemporary Islamic arts would only apply to creation openly influenced by traditional media and forms such as calligraphy or geometric designs. While artists such as Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) or Muhammad Ehsai (b. 1940) would both fit the description for their extensive work with calligraphy, an artist such Manoucher Yektai (b. 1921), largely influenced by French modern painting, would struggle to find his place in such a restrictive field.

Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat, “Unveilling”. Christie’s 24.10.18, lot 76, sold £27.500

It seems indeed that contemporary art of the Middle-East falls under an unspoken double standard. While contemporary art has prided itself on transcending borders and vernacular political issues, it is a requirement for Middle-Eastern artists to be tied in some way to their country of origin, regardless the fact that some of them were born in diasporas. The same way, the market of Middle-Eastern contemporary art is mostly in demand for transgressive creation, pieces linked to a more or less obvious underlining statement, either political, religious or cultural.

Culture and influence play a major role in the definition of contemporary Islamic art. It implies a timelessness of Islamic arts that is difficult to justify, but it is mostly based on a series of pre-established criteria of what Islamic art should be, emphasized by ethnocultural makers used as nationalist motifs: Islamic calligraphy, Persian painting… The Jamal Prize delivered every year by the Victoria and Albert Museum illustrates the dilemma. Described as “an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition”, it can be won by all artists without distinction of cultural background, localisation or religion, as long as as they display some type of “Islamicity”. Most of the awarded artists use calligraphy as an identifying characteristic. Though Arabic calligraphy is immediately recognized by all crowds as an Islamic art form, it does restrict the field to a form of expression focused on religion, leaving aside the countless secular art forms developed through the ages in Muslim country, and today gathered under the Islamic label.

Auction houses have found a way to get round the problem: they removed all reference to an Islamic culture from catalogues to focus on geographical criteria.

Middle-Eastern Art on today Market

Manoucher Yektai Sotheby's
Manoucher Yektai, “Untitled”, Sotheby’s 25.04.2017, sold £81.250

While this is a convenient way to include more artists, it doesn’t solve the issue. It does, however, target the audience in a steadily increasing market. The criteria described above fully apply to the market, and the most represented artists display strong links to either their native country, their cultural roots or their religion. Mostly represented by Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams in London and Dubai, as well as Tehran Auction, fully focused on modern and contemporary Iranian art, auctions gather 20th century artists under titles such as “Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary”, or “20th Century / Middle East”. This excludes Pakistani and Indian arts – at least partly – that fall under “Modern and Contemporary South-Asian Art”, showing once more the impossible task that is defining and circling Islamic arts.

Regardless the title, modern and contemporary Middle-Eastern art is taking more and more space on the market and is gaining an international recognition with bidders from the region, but also from the US, Canada and Europe. This growth is also due to an increasing number of governments and institutions local initiatives to popularize contemporary artistic creation, taking the form of museums (Le Louvre Abu Dhabi is the most famous example), art fairs, temporary exhibitions in galleries and so on. These projects overall contribute to sales in the Middle-East, particularly in Iran and Egypt, holding the most market shares.
Christie’s was the pioneer for Middle-Eastern and Contemporary art, starting in 2007. However, the house profits have dropped these past years in favor of Sotheby’s that shows an agressive growth since 2013, reflecting by a more ambitious selection. Bonham’s always appear as the third player in Islamic arts, but in this specific case it falls behind Tehran Auctions that yet shows uneven results through the years.

Modern art seems to do better than Contemporary, the top prices these past years being achieved by modern artists such as Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901-1991). Her painting Toward a Sky broke record at Sotheby’s in 2017 by achieving £992.750.

Fahrelnissa Zeid Towards a Sky Sotheby's
Fahrelnissa Zeid, “Towards a Sky”, Sotheby’s 25.04.2017 lot 15, sold £992.750

Though the proportion of Modern artists is superior, some living creators have become regulars in auctions. It would be quite superfluous to enumarate them all, I will have the opportunity to introduce more when I write about auction news. However I will conclude with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, who illustrates perfectly the dilemma of contemporary Islamic art and the way it is mostly perceived by the market.

Born in 1922 in Qazvin, Farmanfarmaian possesses one of the strongest visual identity on the current market. Her works, mainly made of glass treated and cutted, performs as a reinterpretation of pre-modern (18th-19th c.) glasswork displayed in Safavid and Zand palaces and pavillons. The craftmanship that characterizes her work transcends cultural borders, while it also emphasized her Iranian origins. The aesthetic appeal of her glassworks, as well as her origin and the influences visible through her work put her on the list of the most profitable artist on the market.