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Cultural Hubs in the Arab Region

Panel V-12, sponsored byLAWHA - Lebanon's Art World at Home and Abroad, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
What makes a place a cultural hub? Besides a certain extent of freedom of expression that allows ideas to coexist, flourish and materialize, and some degree of public and/or private material support to cultural expression, it needs a sufficiently large number of artists, writers, and intellectuals who are open to exchange their ideas and engage in creative experimentation. Connected to this network of individuals is often an urgency or a vision, be it political or within the field of arts and literature itself. A cultural hub is a place that radiates and attracts others to become an integral part of it, as it carries the promise of fulfillment. In this panel, we would like to explore the notion of cultural capitals or cultural hubs in the Arab region, looking at what makes cities draw artists and intellectuals from the region over a period of time – and what makes things change. We look at how, why and when things shift, and what role different cities have played over time. Beirut of the 1950s to 1970s is often referred to as the Arab capital of culture. For whom was Beirut relevant during this time, and for whom not? What role did Baghdad play on a regional level? Has the Gulf succeeded in becoming a hub, and what are its pull factors? How can one conceive of a cultural capital under occupation? The panel examines who different cultural hubs speak to, and which actors and initiatives are central in attracting artists and intellectuals. We will also look at the nexus cultural hub-cosmopolitanism, and to what extent the two are linked. By focusing on different players within the cultural field, such as art departments, galleries, biennials, festivals, public relations departments, and the role of the diaspora, this panel provides a starting point for conceptualizing the pull and push factors of cultural hubs in the Arab region.
Art/Art History
  • Beirut of the 1950s to 1970s is often referred to as the Arab capital of culture, a place of creation and exchange for artists and intellectuals coming mainly from more authoritarian political systems. This paper analyses to what extent Beirut served as a hub for art education in the Arab region, looking at the trajectories of Arab art students in the four main art departments of the time. The Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA) opened an art department in November 1943, coinciding with the proclamation of Lebanon’s independence from France the same month. ALBA was thus from the outset linked to the formation of a nation, and pursued a mission to create a “Lebanese art” – while its curriculum was nearly identical to that of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When did students from the Arab region start studying at ALBA, and how did its mission affect them? On the other end of the spectrum, the art department of the American University of Beirut (AUB) was set up in the 1950s in the American liberal tradition, representing the American ideals of Cold War culture: individualism and freedom of expression. The educational purpose was to open up art to everyone, and nurture an appreciation for the arts in the public. Only in 1965, a department of art and architecture was established at the Lebanese University, itself founded in 1951 as a public university. The Beirut College for Women, which later became Beirut University College and then the Lebanese American University, provided art classes to women from early on. Many artists complemented their formal education in Lebanon with informal education in artist studios. And while many Lebanese artists completed at least part of their training abroad, Beirut was a place for aspiring art students from the Arab region to obtain training. Drawing on university records, notes, and personal accounts, this paper will explore what role Beirut’s educational institutions played in the artistic trajectory of artists from the Arab region in the period between the 1940s and 1980s. This will be taken as a starting place to analyse the importance of education in making a place a cultural hub, and what the underlying conditions for this are.
  • This presentation focuses on art galleries in Beirut during the 1960s and 1970s and their contribution in creating a transnational moment, when the city was open both to the region and the world, mainly Europe. Foreign cultural centres such as the Goethe Institute, the Iraqi Cultural Centre or the John F. Kenney Center also had their share in broadening the artistic canon by showcasing different artists and art trends. The number of art galleries steadily increased throughout these decades, presenting a diverse portfolio. The Centre d’art (1970-1974), for example, was well connected to France and regularly exhibited internationally known artists such as André Masson, Max Ernst or Joan Miró, but also Lebanese artists. Delta International Art Center (1972-1975) had an Italian branch before it opened a space in Beirut, and was well connected to the international art scene. The Alec Manoukian Art Center (1972-1975) was focusing on artists of Armenian origin, though not exclusively. Among the many galleries, only two had a pronounced interest in artists and artistic developments from the Arab region: Gallery One (1963-75) and Contact Art Gallery (1972-75, 1977-78) regularly exhibited Arab artists alongside Lebanese and international artists, thereby paying tribute to Beirut as a cultural centre of the region by highlighting its Arab dimension. The two galleries were supporting an Arab avant-garde identity without, however, explicitly following any particular political agenda or movement. In artistic matters, they were rather adherents of the idea of l´art-pour-l´art which releases art from the duty of carrying a message. By looking into some exhibitions by Arab artists, mainly Iraqi and Syrian, at both galleries, this presentation will focus on the question in how far their works underpinned the idea of an Arab avant-garde identity both in terms of artistic approach and media. How can the activities of these two exhibition spaces be situated within the gallery landscape of the time and what are the conclusions we can draw with regard to the political dimensions of exhibition practices? Finally, what were the contributions of Beirut´s art galleries, and of Gallery One and Contact Art Gallery in particular, in making Beirut a cultural hub in the region?
  • In 1974, Baghdad convened the first Biennale of Arab Art, a radical nomadic exhibitionay model envisioned to roam different cities in the Arab world. The idea was to celebrate the excellence of contemporary Arab art, and create alternative venues for meeting and exchanging knowledge, and for displaying and disseminating artistic production, thus empowering Arabs to defy and decenter Western dominance. This regional biennial was followed by even more ambitious initiatives, also led by Iraqis but targeting artists in the larger “Third World,” with the aim of catalyzing anti-imperial solidarity amongst the formerly colonized. Coming out of research on the grassroots art-architectural movement that flourished in Baghdad during the mid-twentieth century, I argue here that pan-Arabism took hold within the visual arts only later, when the ideology was adopted by specific Arab states and propagated by several non-governmental cultural organizations. I revisit existing literature about the ideology, and provide a pre-history of collective mobilization within the arts, which later culminated in the Biennale of Arab Art. Despite Iraq’s indisputable regional leadership during the 1970s, owing to Ba'athist secular socialism, I demonstrate how and why pan-Arabism emerged gradually from the mid 1960s onwards, in a diffused manner, promulgated by different regional actors, to then be appropriated and spearheaded by Iraqis. The paper challenges traditional assumptions about pan-Arabism being embraced in the cultural domain during the early decades of twentieth century, and more importantly, about Iraq’s 1970s projects being the last gasp of that ideology in the visual arts. Instead, at least in the context of Iraq, the ideology could have thrived, both officially and at a wider popular level, if regional initiatives did not come to a sudden halt due to the Saddam Hussein government’s belligerent foreign policy, and the ruthless Iran-Iraq war.
  • The Emirates of Sharjah, one of the seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates, has emerged as a prominent cultural hub in the Arab region. Sharjah has strategically invested in the arts and culture sector, developing a comprehensive infrastructure that supports the creative industries. This has resulted in Sharjah being named by UNESCO as “Cultural Capital of the Arab World” in 1998, recognized by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as the “Capital of Islamic Culture” for 2014, and named the “World Book Capital” for 2019. Using a nation branding framework, this paper explores the public relations strategies and tactics that Sharjah Media Bureau has employed to position the Emirate as a cultural hub. It examines how Sharjah has leveraged traditional and digital media to communicate its cultural offerings to local and international audiences. The paper also analyzes the role of stakeholder engagement and cultural diplomacy in enhancing Sharjah's nation branding efforts. In particular, it looks at how Sharjah has collaborated with local and international stakeholders to promote the emirate's cultural heritage and artistic achievements. For example, the Sharjah Biennial, one of the largest contemporary art events in the region, has been a platform for showcasing the work of artists from around the world. The Sharjah Book Authority, established in 2014, has been instrumental in promoting literature and publishing in the region. Similarly, the Sharjah Art Foundation has been instrumental in nurturing local talent and promoting contemporary art through various programs and initiatives. Based on in-depth interviews, the paper will also examine the challenges that public relations practitioners faced in the process of promoting a cultural hub. These challenges include the need to engage with a diverse audience with different values and perspectives, In conclusion, this paper argues that Sharjah's success as a cultural hub in the Arab region is part of larger strategies of nation branding and a sound approach of cultural exchange and collaboration. By highlighting the case of Sharjah, this paper aims to contribute to the broader discussion on the roles of public relations in shaping a cultural hub’s image and enhancing its global reputation.