Two ruined balconies confront each other from separate video screens. Reduced to skeletons of their former selves, they are perilous relics of lives that once could afford to look outwards, to dream, build and create. From Berlin-based Palestinian artist Kamal Aljafari, “Balconies” (2007) is part of Refraction: Moving Images on Palestine, the inaugural show of P21 gallery, a new not-for-profit space in London’s King’s Cross. According to its mission statement, P21 intends to “build a viable culture link between the world known as Arabia … and a western European audience”.
Much of the show feels like a radical reinterpretation of traditional landscape art. In solemn, neo-expressionist monochromes, Mohammed Al-Hawajri paints a tea-tray on a balcony overlooking a sea traced by a warship. From London-based pair kennardphillipps, a canvas made for the long side wall narrates the familiar history of Palestinian dispossession via a collage of 19th-century and contemporary photographs printed on to painted scenes of refugee camps and spirals of barbed wire. From Khaled Hourani, a quartet of collage drawings use paint, paper, and Arabic script to evoke wall surfaces that are exquisitely battered palimpsests of conflict and neglect.
Powerful, poetic and sad, these images transcend their political messages without betraying them.
The driving force behind P21 Gallery is its director Yahya Zaloom. Born into a Palestinian family that raised him in Jordan, Zaloom moved to London in the mid-1980s and studied as a haematologist. Only when he read about plans to build Tate Modern in London did he decide to retrain as an art historian.
“I felt I had a duty to speak out about my culture,” he says. Zaloom perceives widespread ignorance in the west about the artistic production in Arab lands. “When I studied art history at university in London, the only critic to engage with Arab culture was Edward Said. Everything about the Arab world was focused on politics and religion, not art,” he recalls.
His point of view may seem curious, given the growth of interest in the west in art of the Middle East. “There are too few properly curated shows. The documentation is lacking,” he responds. “I will not do any show here without an independent curator.” The curator for Refraction is Shaheen Merali, who is based in London and whose previous roles include co-curator of the Gwangju Biennale in 2006 and head of exhibitions, film and new media at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany’s national centre for contemporary non-European art.
Certainly, activity around contemporary art in the Gulf is still strongly tied up with commercial interests. Catalysts have been the arrival of Christie’s, Bonhams and Sotheby’s, who opened in Dubai and Doha between 2006 and 2008 – and the fairs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. A museum infrastructure, in Qatar and Abu Dhabi most notably, is being created to balance the picture, yet doubts about its validity – from labour conditions to issues of censorship – are regularly voiced by journalists, artists and academics.
When the private sector grows more rapidly than its public counterpart, it’s inevitable that boundaries blur. At the Venice Biennale in 2011, for example, the Saudi Arabian pavilion was co-curated by Robin Start, who is an art dealer and art-market investment adviser. Meanwhile there was outrage when Syria outsourced the commissioning of its pavilion to an art publisher from San Marino, Cristian Maretti and two Italian curators, who included many artists from Europe in their selection.
Khaled Samawi is co-owner with his cousin Hisham Samawi of Ayyam gallery, which has spaces in Damascus, Dubai and Beirut, and is about to open in London and Jeddah. He recently expressed an interest in organising a pavilion at 2013 Venice Biennale on behalf of the Free Syria campaign. (It ultimately proved too complex a challenge.) Asked if he didn’t see a conflict of interest with ownership of a private gallery, Samawi replied: “The name ‘commercial gallery’ is a very broad, vague name. [In] the Middle East right now … we are just starting to put the infrastructure together for a future that might be commercially fruitful but at the moment, with all this fighting, we want to make sure that all the art that these artists are producing is being shown around the world.”
Given its history, it’s little wonder that Ayyam regards the parameters as fluid. In Damascus, where it opened in 2006, it found itself at the forefront of an emerging contemporary art scene with no public spaces to back it up. When violence convulsed the city, it stepped in to help many of the gallery’s artists move to safety abroad.
Like P21, Ayyam sees its role, as Hisham puts it, as a “catalyst and education” in bringing Middle Eastern art to a London audience. “The time is right for Middle Eastern art to grow from a regional to an international level. We hope our space in Mayfair will be a launchpad for that,” he continues. Khaled adds that they want their artists to show that there is more to Middle Eastern art than “calligraphy, calligraphy, calligraphy”. Ayyam’s opening show in London will be devoted to Nadim Karam, the Lebanese artist renowned for his “urban toys” – huge, steel sculptures that he installs in public spaces – who will here show paintings that present a “playful, almost satirical perception of love and war”.
Right now, it is difficult to find work from the region that does not draw on political themes. “I keep asking artists to do something that is not political,” says Yahya Zaloom. “But they say, ‘If I don’t do this kind of work, I feel I have lost my identity.’ ”
As the Arab spring evolves into a political landscape that is far more contradictory than many envisaged when it began, the commitment to showing as much work as possible can only be healthy.
Last December, Ayyam’s Dubai gallery exhibited new work by Syrian painter Tammam Azzam that was directly inspired by the conflict. Yet in March last year, artworks referencing the uprising were removed from Art Dubai prior to a visit by the emirate’s ruling family.
Meanwhile, a recent report by the British Council, “Out in the Open: Artistic Practices and Social Change in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia”, highlights fears that new Islamist governments could impose political and religious censorship as fiercely if not more so than the previous regimes.
Symptomatic of the complex situation is P21 gallery’s current funding crisis. Originally financed by the Emir of Sharjah, support was withdrawn with no explanation as the space was ready to open. Although Zaloom then approached all the major players in the Gulf, he received no response from any of them. “Maybe it is because [our subject] is Palestine,” he muses. “I don’t really know because they don’t give an answer.”
‘Refraction: Moving Images of Palestine’, P21 Gallery, London, until March 16. email@example.com
‘Nadim Karam: Shooting the Cloud’, Ayyam Gallery, London, January 25 to March 9. www.ayyamgallery.com