By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman empire’s hegemony in western Asia declines, and a new era of European influence and dominance begins. Great Britain consolidates power in the Gulf, controlling the strategic port of Aden in Yemen and the foreign relations of Bahrain, Kuwait, and the future United Arab Emirates. A new educated class emerges, with an enhanced consciousness of their history and a desire to introduce Western science and technology and revive Arab/Islamic culture. Intellectuals begin to call for the reinterpretation of Islam, to reflect what they believe is its inherent consistency with the ideals of modern civilization. Nationalism takes shape in nascent political movements in the region. In the early twentieth century, the beginnings of a modern art movement coincide with a renaissance of Arabic literature. Following the collapse of the Ottoman empire after World War I, Arab aspirations for independence are crushed as Britain and France establish colonial mandates in the Arab provinces. France occupies Syria and Lebanon, while Britain controls Iraq and Palestine and creates Transjordan within the Palestine Mandate. In their mandate, the French increase control by supporting and segregating religious minorities and thus weakening the Arab nationalist movement.
Colonialism, wars, European missionary schools, the cinema, and more recently the mass media all have affected the cultural models and values of the region. In countries such as Syria, their impact is resisted, while in Lebanon the new Western models are completely absorbed. The speed and stages with which modern art is adopted and developed varies from one country to the next; Lebanese and Syrian art movements spring from a long history of commissioning artists for religious frescoes, murals, and icons as early as the sixteenth century, while many Gulf states see no indigenous modern art movements until the 1970s.
Introduction of modern education helps pave the way for advanced training in the arts. Iraqi artists, including women, receive government scholarships to study art in Europe and Cairo. Baghdad’s centrality is secured by its vibrant art discourse; as a result, several art societies are formed such as New Vision, which seeks a unique Iraqi art based on the region’s culture. In the 1930s, women artists in Baghdad and Beirut exhibit in galleries and are offered freedom to participate as equals in growing art movements in a profession deemed unthreatening to patriarchy. Debates over the role of Western forms of expression and Arab authenticity set the background to the anticolonial revolts leading to independence for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Arabic poetry takes experimental directions seeking uniquely Arab innovations in form, underpinned by the peak of Arab nationalism in the late 1950s.
After World World II
After the euphoria of national liberation, the new Arab nations struggle with internal and external conflicts that had their seeds in the colonial era. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict results in five wars and, by the end of the century, total occupation of Palestinian territories by Israeli forces; in the process, a million Palestinians are displaced and seek refuge in neighboring Arab countries, where artists find support and contribute to local artistic trends. The Palestinian crisis and Arab-Israeli wars continue to have a profound effect on Arab social and political consciousness, which is reflected in the art of the region. Following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian artists establish a movement that, along with film and theater, sustains a national culture of resistance to occupation. By the end of the century, Palestinian artists are in the vanguard of experimental art that gains international recognition.
These events hold very different implications for Jewish art movements. In the early 1900s, Jewish artists arriving from Europe seek to create a unique Jewish form of art fusing modern European Orientalist styles with Middle Eastern cultural influences, depicting biblical themes and Bedouins. In the 1930s, Expressionism becomes popular but is soon overshadowed by events in Europe. In an effort to establish a Jewish historical link to the land, artists seek inspiration in ancient Canaanite mythology and art. By 1948, influential groups like New Horizons turn to abstractionist modes, attempting to forge an Israeli artistic identity recentered around European contemporary art. These trends are challenged by a decade of political and social upheaval following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. A trend toward individualistic and Conceptual art repoliticizes Israeli art and challenges previous nonpolitical art forms.
From the late 1960s, the regime in Iraq supports the arts by establishing cultural centers in European capitals, organizing regional and international exhibitions, and commissioning public art projects. However, this period of flourishing artistic production is brought to an end with increasing government restrictions on the media and cultural expression. Artists begin to leave Iraq in a wave of migration that lasts into the 1980s, when freedom of movement is restricted. Artists and intellectuals find refuge in the vibrant cultural life of Beirut, but see this space closed off as Lebanon plunges into fifteen years of civil war. With international sanctions imposed on Iraq during the 1990s, the Iraqi art movement is dealt yet another harsh blow as artists are completely isolated from the outside world.
Art patronage interrupted by wars, weak economies, unstable governments, and a limited art market faces many challenges such as insufficient government support, almost nonexistent art professionals and art critics, lack of art journals and functioning national museums, weak art associations, and limited corporate and private support. Throughout the century, individual initiatives sustain the visual arts, nongovernmental art organizations support experimental art and help preserve the visual artistic heritage of the region. But one trend is pervasive from Kuwait to Syria: women artists are at the forefront of the development of these contemporary art centers and movements in the region.
The Zionist Organization is founded at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897 with the goal of working toward the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. Under the guidance of Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is established in 1901 to purchase land in Palestine.
‘Abdul ‘Aziz al-Sa‘ud (Ibn Sa‘ud, ca. 1880–1953) takes control of Riyadh in 1902, beginning a campaign to unify the Arabian Peninsula that culminates in the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
The Bezalel School of Handicrafts, later known as the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, opens in Jerusalem.
The city of Tel Aviv is founded on the Mediterranean coast as the first planned urban Jewish settlement in Palestine. By 1950, it will become the financial and cultural center of the state of Israel.
Sharif Husain ibn ‘Ali (1853?–1931) of Mecca, from the Hashemite family, leads a full-fledged Arab revolt extending from the Arabian Peninsula to Greater Syria against the Ottoman empire, responding to British promises of future Arab independence. Britain and France negotiate the Sykes-Picot Agreement in direct contradiction of these aspirations, formulating the division of the Ottoman Arab provinces into areas of French and British control. In 1917, British foreign minister Arthur Balfour (1848—1930) issues a declaration committing Great Britain to help create a national home for the Jews in Palestine. The 1917 Balfour Declaration secures British support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in historic Palestine, and throughout the next two decades, Britain encourages Jewish land acquisition and immigration. The increase in Jewish settlement leads to riots in Palestine and clashes between Palestinian and Jewish immigrants. In 1936, Palestinians rebel in an uprising that lasts until 1939.
Following the fall of the Ottoman empire during World War I, the League of Nations places Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate and Palestine and Iraq under British Mandate. Both Transjordan and Iraq are handed to British-supported Hashemite kings.
The first exhibition of Jewish artists is held in the old city of Jerusalem.
Oil is discovered in Iraq. During the 1930s, British and U.S. companies compete for concessions in the Gulf region, as oil is discovered in Bahrain (1932), Kuwait (1936), Saudi Arabia (1938), and Qatar (1939). Until the 1970s, most oil companies in the region are foreign-controlled.
Khalil Gibran (1883–1931), a prominent Lebanese writer and artist, publishes The Prophet, a book of twenty-six poetic essays since translated into more than twenty languages.
Tel Aviv becomes a showcase of International Style architecture as European-trained architects set up practice in the city. Arieh Sharon (1900–1984), Dov Karmi (1905–1962), and Ze’ev Rechter (1899–1960) dominate the field, producing public buildings and cooperative housing estates. In 1948, Arieh Sharon, who studied at the Bauhaus, is appointed director of the National Planning Agency, heading up the development and design of twenty new towns to be built throughout the newly established nation of Israel.
The first Arab modern art exhibit opens in Iraq, part of a budding art movement supported by government funding for Iraqi artists to study in Europe and Cairo. By 1939, a painting and sculpture faculty is established at Baghdad’s young Institute of Fine Arts.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art opens in the home of the city’s first mayor. The museum becomes a hub of cultural activity, organizing exhibitions of local and foreign artists.
Kuwait implements a modern school system and is the first country in the Arabian Peninsula to offer an art curriculum and grant scholarships for study abroad.
The Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts) is founded in Beirut.
A Nazi-orchestrated genocide results in the death of almost 6 million European Jews. In 1941, 20 percent of the Jewish population die in Warsaw ghettos.
Lebanon gains independence from France in 1943. In 1946, Syria becomes independent. One year later, the Arab Ba‘th (Renaissance) Socialist Party forms in Syria.
The State of Israel is established. Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq declare war on Israel and their military forces are repelled. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War brings attacks on and the expulsion of at least 700,000 Palestinians by Zionist militias. The refugees seek asylum in Lebanon, Gaza (under Egyptian control), and the West Bank (under Jordanian control).
The influential Jewish artist group New Horizons is formed to create a unique Israeli art movement linked to European contemporary art movements.
Oil is discovered in the Trucial States (United Arab Emirates).
Iraqi artist Faiq Hassan (1914–1992) founds La Société Primitive (The Pioneer Society), paving the way for several art collectives in the country, including the Baghdad Modern Art Group, founded by Jawad Salim (1920–1961) in 1951. The latter soon emerges as the most influential art movement in the country. Debates within the group on the synthesis of tradition and modernity spark critical theories that influence several generations of artists. Artistic debate in Baghdad—and Beirut—includes not only artists but also critics, poets, writers, and architects. Their influence is felt in intellectual circles all over the Arab world.
The Institute of Music and Painting opens in Amman, Jordan, and becomes a meeting place for young artists and intellectuals.
Syria and Egypt form the short-lived United Arab Republic under the leadership of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970).
The newly born Iraqi Republic commissions Jawad Salim (1920–1961) to design Monument to Freedom and soon opens the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad.
Kuwait hosts the first modern art exhibit in the Arabian Peninsula.
The College of Fine Arts opens in Damascus. Fateh Moudarres (1922–1999), a leader in the Syrian modern art movement, will influence generations of younger artists as a professor at the college. Moudarres’ work is a blend of Surrealism, abstraction, and social protest.
The Free Atelier opens in Kuwait, offering art courses, studio space, and materials. Full-time artists begin receiving state support in 1961. The Free Atelier model is soon adopted by Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela form the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Kuwait gains independence from Britain.
The Sursock Museum, Beirut’s museum of modern art, holds its first autumn Salon, featuring works by Lebanese painters and sculptors.
The National Museum of Modern Art opens in Baghdad.
Two coups bring the Ba‘th Arab nationalist party to power in Syria and Iraq in 1963. The Iraqi Ba‘th regime provides substantial support for the arts, establishing cultural centers in European capitals and organizing pan-Arab and international exhibitions.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization is formed in the wake of the First Arab Summit in Cairo. The PLO is the first official body to support Palestinian artists.
Saudi Arabia establishes the Institute of Art Education in Riyadh for male students throughout the Gulf.
The Israeli artists group Ten Plus is formed as a platform for promoting pluralism in art.
The Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria results in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem and prompts a major exodus of Palestinian refugees. Arab defeat spurs the decline of Arab nationalist fervor.
Southern Yemen gains independence from Britain.
Art societies spring up throughout the region: Al-Ru’ya al-Jadida, or New Vision, in Iraq, declaring that “revolution and art are linked to the development of humanity”; the Modern Art Society in Bahrain; the Union of Fine Arts in Damascus; and the Palestinian Artists’ Association.
Oman comes under the independent rule of Sultan Qabus ibn Sa‘id (born 1940), who overthrows his father.
The Trucial States gain formal independence from Britain in 1971, with the states of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain, and eventually Ras al-Khaimah forming the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Bahrain and Qatar choose to become independent states.
The first Congress of Plastic Arts in the Arab World is held in Damascus and prompts the formation of the Union of Arab Artists.
Syria and Egypt launch and eventually lose the October War against Israel, hoping to regain territory lost in 1967. Following the war, Saudi Arabia leads a petroleum embargo against states that supported Israel lasting until March of 1974, which, with the devaluation of the U.S. dollar in 1971, produces a massive oil revenue boom for the Gulf states. Demonstrations force the resignation of the Israeli prime minister after the initial defeat of the Israeli army in the 1973 war, which results in the Likud party gaining power in 1977.
The Kuwaiti National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters and the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts both form this year. Art societies and Free Ateliers spring up throughout the Arabian Peninsula in the decades to come with government support and funding assured by the oil boom.
The first Congress of Arab Artists is held in Baghdad, which hosts the first Arab Art Biennial the next year.
Civil war erupts in Lebanon in 1975 and lasts for fifteen years, which bring a full-scale Israeli invasion in 1982, the occupation of southern Lebanon by Israel until 2000, and an increased Syrian political presence.
Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said (1935–2003) publishes Orientalism, a groundbreaking book that examines the Western colonial depiction of the Orient and its impact on twentieth-century colonial and postcolonial relations between the West and the Arab East.
Israel and Egypt sign the Camp David Accords in 1978, leading to the return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt.
The Museum of Pioneer Artists opens in Baghdad.
Jordan’s Royal Society of Fine Arts is established in Amman, followed the next year by the National Gallery of Fine Arts, with a large collection of contemporary art from Islamic countries. The driving force behind the founding of both institutions is artist, art historian, and diplomat, Princess Wijdan Ali (born 1939), whose own work blends traditional Arab calligraphy with modern media and techniques.
The Iran-Iraq War begins in 1980, resulting in an estimated 1 million deaths on both sides; freedom of movement for artists becomes severely restricted. In 1982, Israel invades Lebanon, resulting in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Palestinian refugee camps.
Oman’s contemporary art movement receives official support when the Omani government establishes the Atelier for Fine Arts in Muscat, providing free training and later offering scholarships abroad. The Omani sisters Nadira bint Mahmud (born 1959) and Rabha bint Mahmud (born 1949) are self-taught artists who emerge as leading abstractionists; their work departs from the more popular figurative and naturalistic styles associated with local artists.
The Kuwait National Museum opens in 1983, housing the al-Sabah collection of Islamic art, archaeological artifacts, and contemporary Kuwaiti art.
The Yemeni Artists’ Society is established after many years in which artistic movements were hindered by a weak national economy.
The Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) opens in Paris with the sponsorship of the French government, dedicated to study and cultural understanding of the Arab world and promotion of Franco-Arab cultural exchange.
Iraqi forces occupy neighboring Kuwait and are ousted by U.S. forces in the Gulf War of 1991, leading to a decade of UN sanctions against Iraq and an increased foreign troop presence in Saudi Arabia.
North and South Yemen unite to become the Unified Arab Republic of Yemen.
Following five years of the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) against Israeli occupation, the Oslo Peace Process culminates in the signing of the Declaration of Principles promising the incipient Palestinian National Authority eventual control over designated “autonomous zones” in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Darat al Funun–Khalid Shoman Foundation opens in Amman to promote regional art and becomes the first organization to offer a program for visiting artists.
The first Sharjah Biennial opens in 1993, and by 2003 is focused on bringing an international audience to the Emirate state. The Sharjah Art Museum opens in 1995.
In Qatar, Al-Jazeera satellite TV launches as the first Arab television station and news organization not subject to state control.
As part of its ongoing series of retrospectives of twentieth-century Lebanese painters, the Sursock Museum in Beirut opens a comprehensive exhibition of the works of Omar Onsi (1901–1969). The show attracts more than 70,000 visitors.
Al-Halaqa (Cultural Circle), a nongovernmental organization, forms to promote the visual arts in Yemen.
A second intifada begins in the West Bank and Gaza, leading to the reoccupation of both areas in 2002–4.
Israel obtains a country pavilion at the 49th Venice Biennale, though no Arab country, save Egypt, has yet to be granted one. The 50th Venice Biennale includes exhibits featuring the work of Palestinian and Lebanese artists.
The first collection of contemporary Arab art is sold at Sotheby’s.
A U.S.-led coalition topples the regime of Saddam Hussein and occupies Iraq. The National Museum of Baghdad is looted and the National Library burns to the ground in the first days of the U.S.-led war.
“Arabian Peninsula and the Eastern Mediterranean, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11®ion=wap (October 2004)