How does collecting in the Middle East differ from the European tradition, what are the trends in the contemporary art scene, and why artists shouldn’t be seen from a gender perspective? Find out the answers in this interview with the artistic director and curator of the Katara Art Center Mayssa Fattouh.
Kristina Kulakova: How did you come to curating?
Mayssa Fattouh: I came to curating in a very spontaneous way. I didn’t study Curatorial Practice, I actually studied Fine Arts, so technically speaking I trained as an artist. It was however clear to me while studying that my inclination was towards organizing exhibitions and raising awareness about other people’s work. So curating as I knew it at the time came to me and started my self-education on the subject when curating in the first years of this millennium, was still a very unclear practice in the Middle East. At the moment I am the Curator and Artistic Director of Katara Art Center, a ground level multidisciplinary platform. My choice of working in independent platforms is to remain as close as possible to young and emerging artists as well as in direct contact with the public and various audiences.
I have a strong belief in the necessity for these platforms to exist, without them the excitement of daring art production is reduced as they offer a break from an ever so growing institutionalized world.
KK: What’s your impression of VIENNAFAIR?
MF: It has a lot to offer in terms of emerging artists producing engaging works. The set up is very accessible and spacious allowing for the viewer to digest each work.
Seems to also have a clear focus on Eastern European art, which attracts a certain public and a good number of collectors from that part of the world from what I could see. The platform for talks is important just like any respected art fair; of course the main point of art appreciation is looking at art and feeling it but understanding the story, the background and everything that goes around is vital the advancement of a critical mind, hence the existence of these talks.
KK: How is it Different to the Middle Eastern fairs?
MF: There are three main fairs in the Middle East, with Turkey would be four, and new ones still emerging. The Gulf fairs, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are about glitz and glam with Abu Dhabi catering for deep-pocketed Arab collectors with an appetite for large works of established artists. Its neighbor Dubai draws a crowd of younger collectors and is the heart of many smaller transactions. People are excited to be there, there’s a lot of energy and eagerness to learn and find new artists mainly from the Middle East. This said the participating galleries are international yet representing Middle Eastern artists.
KK: What about collecting? What’s the difference between collecting in Europe and collecting in the Middle East?
MF: The main difference involves the beginnings of this whole idea of collecting. In the West this began in the form of art patronage with the powerful families. While in the Middle East this is rather new and started with acquisitions rather than patronage. There’s less involvement in the development of the artist, and more about the end result, the artwork that comes out of an art market. This said there are families in the Middle East that have been collecting for decades, out of love for art and not for tax evasion which can be the case in a number of Western collectors.
KK: What about buying and selling art?
MF: There’s not much I can say about this and even collecting as I’m not in the business of art buying and selling. I can see however that the major transactions happening in the Gulf for Gulf museums and more specifically Qatar, are happening through auction houses and auction specialists. There’s not much of an art market or scene here and the domination of auction houses and institutions doesn’t help in that sense. Beirut and Dubai are different however. Beirut, Cairo and Ramallah being major art production hubs, collectors and galleries are in direct contact with artists and have easy access to each other. Dubai’s scene is gallery made, started with the opening of several small galleries in an industrial zone which had slowly attracted artists to base their studios in relatively low rent large studios. Dubai has a lot of disposable income and a mixed public that feels at home, excited to discover new things.
KK: What are the trends there in contemporary art?
MF: Painting, sculpture and works on paper are still dominant mediums for collectors. Video, photography, installations are still perceived to be institutional mediums. “New media” however is largely produced by contemporary Middle Eastern artists, the buying is a different story.
KK: What kind of artworks do collectors prefer buying? Do they choose local or international artists?
MF: I wouldn’t say that they’re mainly collecting local art/ It is probably the opposite with big collectors. A very small portion of their “budget” goes to Middle Eastern art, of course with a few exceptions. I’m not for buying Middle Eastern art just out of nationalism or because of the auction hypes. One has to have a critical eye on the local production probably even more from a nationalistic view. We should be wary of mass producing to fill a gap or a market need, we’re not in a market of fast moving goods, it would be short sighted to think this way.
KK: How are female artists seen in the Middle East?
MF: Being a female artist doesn’t come with much difficulty in the Middle East but talking about feminine issues is a different thing if that is the question. Most art students and art professionals in the Middle East are females, as the society still perceives that the man has to own a “serious job”. Tackling feminine subjects can easily enter the realm of the cliché because there’s much Western media attention on this subject about the Middle East.
Artists produce out of obsession be it personal or universal subjects and shouldn’t be expected to produce works that only belong to a specific gender or a certain region. The world would be quite flat if we follow this map.
Mayssa Fattouh is the artistic director and curator of the Katara Art Center, a foundational platform for contemporary art and creative industries emerging in the Gulf area. She has developed projects, exhibitions, and collections across the Arab region and has participated in juries and talks around independent platforms, residencies, and the critique of the ideology of institutions. Her name has appeared on the pages of numerous catalogs and art publications.