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by Nazy Nazhand
The Arab world’s art boom is tripartite: 1) record-breaking auction prices for works by contemporary and modern Arab and Iranian artists; 2) extravagant annual art fairs in Dubai (March) and Abu Dhabi (November); and 3) the recent UAE museum boom, which has seen world-renowned starchitects commissioned to design the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (I.M. Pei), the Museum of Middle East Modern Art (MOMEMA) in Dubai (Ben van Berkel and UNStudio), the Louvre Abu Dhabi (Jean Nouvel) and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (Frank Gehry).

Behind this spectacle of wealth and culture is a not-so-gentle reminder that each emirate has staked its own claim as an international hub of commerce and culture in the Gulf. As for the West, well, it has taken notice, and is clearly ready to pounce. But for many observers, all this activity has revealed a significant problem of national and historic identity.

When it comes to modern and contemporary art, the Middle Eastern region has little sense of its own development or native identity. Its cultural evolution has been reduced to a narrative addressed to a Western audience and concerned only with the immediate. The actual grassroots have been neglected in favor of transplanted palm trees.

The March Meeting
Such notions were swirling through my brain when I arrived for the "March Meeting" in Sharjah in the UAE, fully expecting to encounter little more than ritualistic paeans to "contemporary art" and fetishized notions of Eastern culture. And it was with great pleasure that I discovered otherwise.

Sponsored by the Sharjah Art Foundation in collaboration with the New York-based nonprofit ArteEast, the March Meeting is the brainchild of Jack Persekian, the foundation’s ambitious director, who this year invited the meeting’s participants "to look into the future and present ideas and works in progress, and identify the resources needed to realize these projects."

For three days, artists, curators, members of collectives and representatives of independent spaces, small-scale nonprofit organizations, and theater and performance groups from the MENASA region –- the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and their diasporas -– spoke and made presentations about their programs. Each of 50 speakers was restricted to 15 minutes, with only two or three quick questions from the audience allowed. This method kept the focus sharp, the audience’s attention firm and, more importantly, fostered a desire for further dialogue among the attendees during the breaks and at the end of each day’s presentations.

In between the morning and evening sessions, small groups of three or four speakers would gather for informal presentations across the canal at Shelter Maraya, a kind of temporary art center (see below). Keynote lectures by Moroccan literary scholar Abdelfattah Kilito (on translation) and globetrotting Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor (on archives) rounded out the second and third evenings.

While diverse, the various presentations offered a rare look at the grassroots cultural movements taking place across the Arab world today, as well as the challenges faced by such endeavors. Three common themes could be discerned: the use of new communications technologies; funding of alternative art schools and independent spaces; and libraries and archives.

Some highlights
The Sharjah-based Lebanese musician and artist Tarek Atoui (who is artist-in-residence at the New Museum this month), spoke about the Arab Platform for Art and Technology (APAT), an institutional database -- searchable in Arabic and English -- designed to map, archive and link individuals, organizations, and projects the fields of visual arts, new media, and multidisciplinary new technologies throughout the Arab world.

Antonia Carver, projects director for Bidoun, the quarterly magazine on Middle Eastern art and culture, discussed the peripatetic Bidoun Library and a parallel effort to form an association of independent Arab art-book publishers. Carver envisions a bilingual catalogue of both existing and forthcoming art books in the Middle East, designed to foster distribution in the region and around the world.

The twin brothers Rashid and Ahmed Bin Shabib -- a pair of 26-year-old entrepreneurs who publish Brownbook, an urban lifestyle guide focusing on art, design and travel across the Middle East and North Africa -- presented a new project they call Shelter. Designed as an "alternative community," Shelter offers rental space in Dubai and Sharjah where creative individuals and businesses can host a range of activities, including art exhibitions, educational programs and film screenings.

The Iranian artist Bahar Behbahani, who has recently exhibited her works in the Silverstein Photography Annual in Chelsea and at Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery on Madison Avenue, showed scenes from an unfinished short film -- both haunting and exquisitely well-crafted -- titled Leyla CANCELLED due to bad weather.

The March Meeting also serves as a platform for its host, the Sharjah Art Foundation, which took the opportunity to introduce curators Suzanne Cotter and Rasha Salti, who presented their theme for the 2011 Sharjah Biennial, "Plot for a Biennial." Also coinciding with the meeting was the opening of a retrospective exhibition of works by the Palestinian-Kuwaiti artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein, organized by Persekian, at the Sharjah Art Museum.

Persekian later noted how important it would be for participants in the March Meeting to "share ideas and resources, weave possibilities of cooperation and joint-ventures and work in complementary ways." Without a doubt, the seeds of these ideas were firmly planted, but I hope next year’s March Meeting can also bring into the mix some patrons, mentors, enablers and funders, so that the dialogue can move beyond a platform of ideas and emerge as a catalyst for realizing innovative artistic endeavors throughout the Arab world.

NAZY NAZHAND covers contemporary art from Middle East and is the founder of Art Middle East.