The Economist has a story about Qatar’s new Mathaf but in the process it offers this brief explanation of just why it is so hard to see works of Arab Modern art–and why they’re so valued when they come up for auction:
Modernist art for public display in the Middle East has long been something of a paradox. Painting is not part of the Arab tradition and museums are a Western invention. Arab art from the 19th and early 20th centuries has a very European feel. A small artistic elite studied in the beaux arts schools in France and Italy and then spent their lives mostly teaching—and painting camels and donkeys, markets and peasants in an accomplished if often undistinguished manner. The chief value of these paintings today is as a record of a way of life that has long gone.
From the interwar period a number of schools sprang up in Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus and Tunis. Artists were trying to make sense of modernity, the end of colonialism and the struggle for independence, but the work they produced was often derivative and the collections in which it was shown patchy or transient. Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, for example, gathered, among other things, fine work by Jackson Pollock, Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore. These, together with its modernist Iranian works, were on show for a while after the museum opened in 1977 but have hardly been seen since the revolution two years later.
The Museum of Modern Art in Cairo shows only work by Egyptian artists, yet some of the country’s best pieces are in a private museum in Alexandria which is devoted to the work of Mahmoud Said, a lawyer who painted folklorist scenes as a hobby, and the canvasses of Adham and Seif Wanly, two brothers who worked together and exhibited in Venice and São Paulo. Most of the best work in the region is held in private collections that are rarely seen unless they are auctioned off.
A Smithsonian in the Sand (Economist)