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Art in the Middle East: Exposing Realities and Bridging Communities

Brooke Sherman

Art is a powerful tool of expression in the Middle East, where speech is constrained and public information can be untrustworthy. However local artists face skeptical audiences and limitations to the space and materials they need. MENA needs a stronger art ecosystem to increase its social utility.

Summit Mona Elkateb
"We Will Summit." 2021. Mona Elkateb.

Art is a powerful medium for creators across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to shed light on lived realities in a fast-changing, sometimes turbulent, region. From street art to photography, artists leverage their work as a form of political expression and civic engagement directed at both local and international audiences.

Over the past several months, I’ve spoken with diverse creators from across the region as part of the Middle East Program’s Art in MENA series to highlight the social and political utility of art, as well as unique challenges – and opportunities – they face as artists in or from MENA. Nearly all guests share a common goal to underscore issues often considered taboo. They take pride in normalizing conversations around difficult topics, including foreign political influence, self-censorship, and inequality of women and youth.

However, most guests cite a hesitancy among MENA audiences to embrace unconventional or innovative forms of art. Another shared struggle is a lack of physical resources, including quality materials and public spaces to display art, or a strong ecosystem to connect artists with opportunities and new markets. Greater investment in creative industries is vital to accelerate the capacity and visibility of local artists.

Art ‘activism’ in MENA

Artists respond to their environment and its impact on their physical and mental well-being in intentional, provocative ways. For example, in Laila Ajjawi’s street mural “Look at my Mind,” part of a Women on Walls campaign, a woman’s mind is depicted as an unlocked cage releasing birds, flowers, and rainbows. The imagery evokes the consequences of harassment Ajjawi and other Middle Eastern women face and the need for safety and fulfillment. In her work, Ajjawi, a Palestinian-Jordanian who grew up in a refugee camp, brings attention to the shared experiences and humanity of refugee and host communities.

Walls Laila Ajjawi
"Look at My Mind," by Laila Ajjawi as part of the Women on Walls campaign.











































Art also increases awareness and dialogue over politically charged topics where freedom of speech and expression is constrained. Most artists I spoke with care deeply about using their art to inform local audiences and, in some cases, encourage their participation. Murad Subay gained notoriety for launching five campaigns across the streets of Sana’a, Yemen from 2012 to 2015 on themes related to war and great power competition. In his “Color the Walls of Your Street,” Subay invited people to paint over bullet holes in Sana’a. “It created a debate in the street and awareness. When people finished the campaign, they went home to discuss,” he recalls. For his second campaign, “The Walls Remembers Their Faces,” Subay asked people to share pictures and stories of political activists and journalists who were forcibly disappeared, inviting their relatives and friends to participate. Before fleeing Yemen in 2015, Subay tried to, “create bridges between people,” despite language, geography, and religion because, “art can unite us.”








On the flip side, political flashpoints and social unrest provide an opening for creators to evolve professionally and disseminate their work. Many artists transitioned to the street during Lebanon’s October 2019 Revolution; street artist Selim Mawad contends the revolution “created a space for artists” to engage with political and social themes, as well as showcase their work to the thousands of people on the street. Mona Elkateb transformed her painting hobby into a tool to participate in the 2020 online movement led by Egyptian women, using digital art to depict the “collective trauma” women experience living in Egypt. Her work was part of a protest wave that galvanized the country over poor governance, police brutality, and economic decline. This pivotal period in part motivated Mona to adopt freelance art as a full-time career. 




2019 Revolution Selim Mawad
Beirut, Lebanon. Street art by Selim Mawad during the 2019 Revolution.














































Local context inhibits creativity








Artists assert that the industry in MENA is underdeveloped, as structural and cultural factors stunt its growth. Several widely cited limitations of the professional community include: too few opportunities to collaborate with new artists, a lack of government support to secure resources and space for showcasing art, poor quality of domestic raw materials, and expensive duties on imported goods.








Further, many believe art institutions, like galleries and museums, can be elitist and exclusionary, a reality that’s apparent worldwide. These intersecting challenges pose many obstacles to emerging artists, and makes art as a profession an intimidating, sometimes out of reach pursuit. Mounia Lazali states, “As a professional artist in Algeria, you have to be the merchant of your works [and] own gallerist. It’s a lot of energy instead of focusing on artistic creation.” Many artists rely on their own networks to finance and promote their work, as the region lacks a strong ecosystem to connect them to opportunities and resources.








Two additional challenges commonly cited were a lack of appreciation for art – especially the unconventional – among MENA publics and a tendency to look at the West for inspiration. The former makes it difficult for artists to introduce new methods and mediums. Zaina El Said, a digital collage artist, and Mays Almoosawi, who experiments with figure form, recall strong, often skeptical reactions at the onset of their careers. Audiences either did not understand their output or went so far to say it does not classify as art. As a result, MENA artists can be hesitant to experiment and instead turn to recycling well-established methods or following trends from Europe and the United States. El Said adds, “We import our ideas, our techniques, everything from the West. There isn’t much room for indigenous creativity.”




Authority Zaina El Said
By Zaina El Said














































Building an art ecosystem








Given these challenges, building an enabling environment for artists in MENA requires a combination of physical support and a shift in cultural mindsets. Importantly, forging networks for resource-sharing will broaden their impact and reach. Houari Bouchenak co-founded Collective 220, the first photograph collective in Algeria, to bring photographers together and increase the visibility of their work. A robust and diverse ecosystem will expand the opportunities artists can tap into and drive home-grown innovation that many argue is lacking from the region.








These communities are better positioned to spearhead art awareness and education campaigns. For example, Collective 220 offers workshops for schoolchildren and the public to educate them on the importance of photography for documenting life in Algeria, in addition to ways to enter the sector. Cross collaboration between artists and the local community can be a virtuous cycle: the more the public is engaged with the art scene, the more success local artists will achieve, and the more resources they’ll have to lead public awareness projects. As mentioned, community engagement is deeply gratifying for most artists, and for some, a key motivator in putting their work out, especially those who practice art on the side.








The government can also be an important partner in augmenting the work of local artists. Several Arab countries in the Gulf see growth in the creative industry as a source of economic development. In June 2021, Saudi Arabia doubled its budget to $40 billion on the Diriyah Gate Project, a culture and leisure complex in Riyadh. The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 also includes the creation of the Saudi Cultural Development Fund to support individuals and businesses in the sector. The UAE’s Louvre Abu Dhabi is the culmination of eight years of construction and a nearly $1.4 billion price tag. The museum is a centerpiece of Saadiyat Island, a tourism and cultural project, which will soon also be the site of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.








A strong creative industry can be a source of soft power on the international stage, attracting much-needed foreign investment and tourism to economies lagging post-Covid. The Grand Egyptian Museum, for example, is part of $1 billion of state investment in heritage and culture to boost the tourism sector.








Emerging technologies inject innovation








Despite the need for greater support and innovation, the artists I spoke with stressed that the art scene in MENA has seen encouraging change over the last decade. Technology is an important driver of both democratizing the industry and exposing artists to new methods. Elkateb argues that social media enables the mass production and consumption of art, which counters elitist and exclusive art institutions. Advances in technology also expand the resources available to artists, particularly those who experiment with unconventional techniques. Photoshop, for example, allows El Said to create collages experimenting with myriad patterns, colors, design, and more. Digital art is simply more accessible. It can be viewed with a tablet or phone, exposing excluded communities to the art world.




Messanger Gharem
"Message Messenger." Abdulnasser Gharem (2010)














































Conceptual art, driven by an idea or concept instead of appearance, is gaining momentum as well. Khaled Barakeh attributed its growth to the unprecedented movement of people, technology, and ideas following the turn of the century. “With conceptual art, you have more freedom, which means more possibility,” he said, noting, “it is more liberating for artists, specifically when you touch political and social matters.” His work engages with the injustices Syrians face, both at the hands of their government and discrimination in European contexts.








This art movement can counter the tendency to reproduce trends from the West. With essentially no rules to follow, artists do not have to conform to one technique or medium. Rather they are driven by the idea or message they intend to disseminate. This can prove a powerful trend for the thousands of artists already dedicated to using the art as a platform. And, encourage people without formal training or access to resources to engage in the industry. 








Art is a timeless tool of self-expression and information-sharing. The work of MENA artists is critical to a vibrant civil society and sheds light on the shared experiences that bond local communities. 








The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Wilson Center. 








About the Author

Brooke Sherman

Brooke Sherman

Program Associate
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more