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British Museum announces new funding to collect contemporary Middle Eastern Art

The British Museum has been collecting modern and contemporary art from the Middle East since the 1980s. To date, this collection contains works by over 200 established and emerging artists from across the region, many of which featured in the influential exhibition Word into Art in 2006 (which travelled to Dubai in 2008).

The Museum has been a pioneer in the acquisition of this material and now, in its fourth decade of collecting, houses the pre-eminent collection of art from this region in the UK.  Modern artworks in the British Museum collection are principally works on paper, and are selected to complement the historical collections because they ‘speak of their time’. The collection of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art, therefore, represents social and historical realities of the modern Middle East. 

The Museum has been fortunate in its efforts to develop and expand this collection with assistance from generous individuals and foundations. Most recently, in early 2011, Maryam and Edward Eisler provided significant funding to help us expand our activities in this area. This adds to the generosity of the Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art (CaMMEA) acquisition group, which was formed in 2009. Since its inception, this group of individuals has established an annual fund which has allowed the Museum to acquire modern and contemporary artworks by more than 50 artists from the Middle Eastern region as a whole, while some members of the group have also chosen to make additional and substantial anonymous donations. This funding allows the Museum to respond quickly to the contemporary art market and to be strategic in its collecting policy.
The Eisler fund is enabling the acquisition of important works by Iranian artists, which include the modernist Nicky Nodjoumi, calligraphic scrolls by Golnaz Fathi, a photographic work by Sadegh Tirafkan and plans for an acquisition of a rare work by Charles Hossein Zenderoudi are in the pipeline. These works will complement the existing works by Iranian artists in the British Museum collection, including those featured in Word into Art, as well as those acquired through the CaMMEA acquisition group, such as Bita Ghezeyalagh, Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh,Y.Z.Kami and Timo Nasseri. The Eisler donation has also sponsored a one year curatorial position to work with the senior curator on researching, administering and developing the modern and contemporary collection at the British Museum, and has also provided for a report being commissioned from curator and writer Vali Mahlouji to create a strategy for collecting Iranian art for the future.

Outside Iran, the Museum continues to collect works by artists from across the Middle East. Since Word into Art, the CaMMEA acquisition group and other private donations have also allowed the Museum to continue to expand our collection of Arab, Turkish and Central Asian art. Over the last two years, we have acquired works by Ahmed Moustafa, Huda Lutfi (Egypt); Marwan Kassab Bachi and Monif Ajjaj (Syria); Jean-Marc Nahas, Mounira Al-Solh (Lebanon) and Kholoud Sharafi (UAE), to name a few. We also have acquired a number of works by Palestinian artists, such as Steve Sabella and Suleiman Mansour, alongside 35 Years of Occupation, a collection of 35 prints by a collective of Palestinian and Israeli artists. Recent acquisitions also include drawings by Hajra Waheed and Imran Mudassar, two artists of South Asian origin, as well as a series of photographs by American-born John Jurayj (a first-generation Lebanese artist based in New York) and a set of paper sculptures by Michael Rakowitz (an American artist of Iraqi origin).

In the same timeframe, over a dozen artworks have been donated to the collection by donors, collectors and artists, and these include an important selection of works by the well known Turkish Modernist, Burhan Dogancay, a large painting by Mehrdad Shoghi (Iran), a photographic triptych by Lalla Essaydi (Morocco), two photographs by Rula Halawani and Yazan Khalili (Palestine), a sculpture by Mona Saudi (Jordan) and works on paper by Fathi Hassan (Sudan/Egypt), Adel Siwi (Egypt) and Sabhan Adam (Syria).

This kind of collecting is of critical importance to the Museum as we seek to ensure that the collections continue to reflect world cultures both ancient and modern. It is extremely important to place the Museum’s Middle Eastern collections in context and to show the influences of historical traditions on the emerging artistic trends of today. The Museum is in a unique position to place contemporary Middle Eastern art in the broader context of ancient and modern global culture, and is an invaluable resource for students seeking first-hand study of artworks as part of their research
“The reach of a global institution such as the British Museum will be a useful tool in ensuring that their collection will include a broad cross section of Middle Eastern artists, who are today poised to conquer previously unchartered territory" Maryam Eisler said. "My hope is that through our joint efforts great Iranian contemporary art will become readily accessible to a wider Western audience.

The launch of the CaMMEA acquisition group also encouraged the Art Fund to support a collection of Middle Eastern photography, which is a joint project with the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), now nearing completion. The Art Fund have contributed a large sum to assist both museums to collect photographic works and this shared collection will be displayed in Light from the Middle East, a major exhibition at the V&A opening at the end of 2012, alongside other photographic works from both museums.  The Museum will continue to work closely with institutions such as the V&A and Tate in order to consolidate interest in this area, create complimentary collections and host joint events.  

Examples of contemporary works from the British Museum collection will be displayed during the forthcoming major exhibition ‘Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam’, such as a drawing from the Kurdish artist Walid Siti’s White Cube series, a photogram entitled Road to Mecca by Maha Malluh, and a series of photo-gravures by Ahmed Mater, both Saudi Arabian artists. These works will be displayed alongside historical material to show how artists today are inspired by the Hajj. . Other examples from the collection can be seen in the current display of modern Syrian art in the John Addis Islamic Gallery, which includes pieces by five Syrian artists from the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of this century. These are shown alongside pieces by the famous Syrian Modernist poet Adonis and four artists’ books by fellow Arab artists, which are directly inspired by Adonis’ poetry. This display showcases a number of recent acquisitions, such as a donation made to the museum in 2010 and two works purchased through the CaMMEA acquisition group.

The Museum’s collection of Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art is accessible through our collections online database or is available to view by appointment through the Middle East study room.

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