Which label fits better: 'Arab art' or simply 'art'?

As young Middle East talent wins global acclaim,some chafe at stereotyping.

A remote hillside in the coastal region of Lattakia isn't the most conventional of art studios. Nor the most comfortable. As the midday heat shimmers and dust swirls, apprentices in surgical masks and straw hats take turns swinging hammers at a block of marble.

Sixteen artists have come from as far as Los Angeles and Seoul to participate in Syria's first international sculpture symposium.

"It's very rich [this experience]," says Léonard Rachita, a sculptor from Paris. "We meet another artist, another mentality. It's not just work. It's to experience a different [culture].... We sing and dance together, live together for one month. It becomes a part of you."

The convention symbolizes the growing interest in contemporary art from the Arab world which, in recent years, has started to carve out a distinct niche for itself in the global scene.

But with this spike in recognition, a young generation is now struggling to assert a singular identity that doesn't conform to Western stereotypes of art from the region. As the channels of globalization open commercial opportunities abroad, it's increasingly difficult for Arab artists not to conform to the expectations of those flocking to the gallery shows, biennales, websites, and organizations dedicated to art from the region.

"The challenge now is to break through geographic boundaries," says Lisa Ball-Lechgar, an art consultant who is profiling Cairo and Beirut for the European Cultural Foundation.

But painters and sculptors wear the label "Arab artist" reluctantly. The designation is applied indiscriminately to Iraqi exile art as well as representations of Lebanon's civil war. On one hand, artists see it as a badge of honor; on the other, they feel limited by it.

Gallery owners in Syria say that most Western visitors are shocked by the very idea of contemporary art in the Middle East - not to mention works that tackle sexual concepts and newer forms like video and installation art. The art world here is overlooked because of the region's political situation, says Darren Yeadon, a British sculptor at the symposium.

Those who do travel to Arab countries usually expect to find nothing more than traditional crafts. They are surprised to stumble, for example, on Samer Kozah's contemporary art gallery on Straight Street in Damascus. Alongside storefronts bulging with rugs, tiles, and copper plates, it's hard not to be caught off guard by the sight of an abstract bronze interpretation of a library: the work of sculptor Mustafa Ali, who is hosting the symposium.

Yet contemporary art in Syria dates back at least to the turn of the last century, when a Syrian traveled to Paris, returned with Western techniques, and opened a studio to teach painting. In the first half of the 20th century, Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, and Abstraction all took their turn in a sort of Cliffs Notes version of Western art history.

In the mid 20th century, as many Arab countries gained independence, intellectuals called for painters to create something regionally distinct, works that for better or worse could be labeled "Arab."

"Every part of [a painting] is Western. The idea of the canvas, the technique, the materials are all Western," says Issam Darwich, a painter and gallery owner in Damascus. Fueled by a postcolonial, nationalist drive, "the question [for artists here] was always: If someone sees my painting, how will they know I am Syrian?"

Exactly how to do that, while still creating art "that is true," according to Syrian painter and graphic designer Ahmad Moualla, is still a challenge for artists today.

Few artists or gallery owners dispute that there is an aesthetic that colors daily life here that could be called Arab. A cultural reverence for the swoops and swooshes of Arabic calligraphy - found in mundane advertising as well as framed Koranic verses hanging in homes - is one example. Other visual idiosyncrasies include an Islamic belief that God should not be represented as a human figure (a boon to abstract art), a tradition of Eastern Christian iconography, and legends and myths from the ruins of civilizations that passed through here.

But Mr. Moualla and Mr. Darwich criticize artists who draw too literally on these sources in the name of national or regional identity. Worse, others say, such efforts feed foreign stereotypes.

Market demands don't help. Mayssa Chehab is an art dealer in Damascus who sells a lot of Syrian work to foreigners. "You have to know very well what to pick," she says. What sells are usually paintings with an obvious Eastern flair: scenes of Bedouin life, Arabic letters, and long, dour female visages.

Some artists have turned defiant. "I hate the idea that my art would be [considered] Iraqi or Arab or even European," says Monkith Saaid, an Iraqi sculptor who has lived most of his life in Damascus but studied in the Netherlands. "The most essential thing is that I am an artist," he says.

Yet even Mr. Saaid's work is a product of place. Saaid's studio, in a suburb of Damascus, is peopled with weightless and soaring human forms in bronze - and when pushed he cannot deny that the theme of escape (from dictatorship, from poverty, from a region in turmoil) is intrinsic to some of his sculptures.

Buthayna Ali, an installation artist and a professor at the University of Damascus, is frank in her belief that an artist can't and shouldn't deny his or her local roots. "I am not against art with the name of 'Arab art' because the lives we are living are different from the lives of [artists in] other places."

These differences are exactly why Beirut gallery owner Saleh Barakat says it's time for Arab artists to forget the West and the prevailing feeling that real success comes only with international recognition. After nearly a decade of trying to sell the work of Arab artists in the US, Mr. Barakat is convinced that it takes another local person to fully appreciate a piece of art. "This is our art, it talks to us, and whether it is appreciated by the US, it doesn't change anything," he says.

The lack of art museums, critics, historians, and books to help foreign curators narrate shows by Arab artists compounds the situation.

Yet Ms. Ali, who has worked a lot with Bedouin images and scenery, says it's critical to instigate dialogue with the West. She did an installation of a nomadic tent, which was on display in Paris, where she studied. The tent's exterior was a strict, traditional replica and prompted many Parisian passersby to ask Ali whether all Arabs live in such nomadic dwellings. But inside, Ali editorialized with paintings and decorative twists.

What she offered viewers - other than a blunt "no, not all Arabs live in tents" - was a more detailed glimpse into the lives of those who still do.

International symposiums, on the rise in the Middle East since the first one hosted in Aswan, Egypt, a decade ago, can similarly break down misconceptions. Artists at the symposium here in Lattakia, readily admit that they've come not just as sculptors, but as cultural tourists. Most of them have never been to Syria.

Sculptor George Dan Istrate, from Romania, grows philosophical. "When you go deep into your own realities, you become international.... When you [try] to understand your own values, it will send you to other cultures."

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