It has not escaped the notice of art aficionados that many of the Middle East’s leading collectors of Contemporary works are female. Canvas Daily asks some of them how they view their role and what it says about the position of women in the region and the art world generally.
There’s no getting away from it. Throughout much of history, the collection and public presentation of art has been a male-dominated field. With a few notable exceptions – it was three women collectors who were instrumental in establishing the New York Museum of Modern Art, for example – it has almost always been men who have done the collecting, bestowed the patronage and created the institutions.
Women were rarely, if ever, invited to join the societies and boards that were instrumental in shaping the art world in Europe and North America, despite the fact that an interest in the arts was considered de rigueur for every accomplished young lady. But interest was more or less where it started and finished: she was not expected to do much more than visit exhibitions and perhaps do a little amateur painting herself.
In the West, that all changed during the first three decades of the 20th century. As women were able to expand their role into the public domain, so they became more active and influential in every aspect of the art world, too. Yet certain echelons remained overwhelmingly male preserves – the realm of collecting being one of them. Yet even in those hallowed precincts, certain women forced their way in and demanded to be accepted as “one of the boys.
Today’s independent female collectors can be said to be following in that tradition, yet the world today is a vastly different place to that inhabited by the ilk of Gertrude Stein. Can one really compare the two, especially if one throws into the mix the rapidly developing and changing context of today’s Middle East?
Dubai-based collector Mira Lozi is not surprised that women are now so prominent in the region’s art scene: “I think seeing women involved in art collecting is merely a reflection of woman and her role in the modern Middle East. Women are increasingly prominent as entrepreneurs, thought leaders, politicians. So why not a presence in the art world?
Indeed, but one might ask why particularly in the art world. Is there a reason why women have particularly come to the fore there? “At the end of the day, it’s all about passion, says Maya Rasamny, a collector who is co-chair of the Tate’s Middle East North African Acquisitions Committee (MENAC) and also sits on the selection committee for the ABRAJ Prize; “Anyone can have passion, and if you have it and know what you’re talking about, then people will respect you – regardless of gender.
But what about a “woman’s eye, those purportedly special qualities that might bring a different perspective to art and collecting than a man might manage. Myth or reality? Lozi again: “One can perhaps capture certain themes that are more important to a woman, the responsibility of motherhood, the challenges of being a wife, a daughter’s relationship to her parents. But these are not the only themes.
Of course women collectors can add a certain perspective to their collections, but it shouldn’t be promoted at the expense of male collectors. Sheikha Paula Al-Sabah, who describes herself as “an accidental collector, I began in the 1980s with a few works of art and it’s continued to grow and grow, is equally wary of attributing any significance to gender when it comes to collecting; “All collectors, regardless of gender, share a desire to collect works of art that symbolize something in their minds and give it meaning.
It could be heritage, wealth, passion, spirituality, knowledge, preservation and honor, among other associations. The motivation behind the collection varies according to the individual as opposed to their gender.
So should we even be labeling people “women collectors ? The region’s artists are often among the first to bridle when pigeonholed as “Middle Eastern, and so it’s no surprise that collectors are equally unimpressed by such epithets. “I don’t think it’s a valid distinction to make, says Al-Sabah. Lozi agrees: “I would argue the gender debate in art doesn’t merit any real distinction.
It would be fair to say that style, taste and creativity are prevalent across both genders, and not only in the art world – look at the fashion industry as well. Rasamny is more equivocal, saying “It doesn’t really bother me as a label and I’ve never felt that being a woman in the art world has been an issue at all. Why, then, are there still relatively few women artists from the region? It seems that it’s the education system and cultural traditions that may be holding girls back when it comes to taking decisions about their future.
Across the Middle East, girls are far more likely than boys to study art at school. Yet still the vast majority of professional artists from the region are male. What’s happening there? Al-Sabah sees it as something connected closely with perceptions of what is an appropriate career for a woman: “Being an artist should be as acceptable a choice for a woman as for a man. There needs to be a shift in mentality.
Lozi agrees, perceiving it as an issue that needs to be dealt with at the core of the education system: “Teaching children to think for themselves and arming them with positive knowledge, will encourage creativity and an appreciation of the creative world, including art. Education and art are joined at the hip, and the relationship should not be gender-specific.
Rasamny sees collectors as having a particular role to play in this respect: “I don’t believe that just buying art makes you a collector. You must share it, and in particular support educational programs. That is an area where being a woman can be useful, as women are already well-represented in the education sector.
Regarding women’s issues in a political sense, the consensus seems to be that these must take their place with all the other concerns pressing on the mind, eye and hand of the artist, regardless of gender. As Lozi affirms, “Such issues are relevant, of course, and the subject of disenfranchised women and abused women, for example, is very serious. But so are poverty and extremism, among others.
By the same token, women collectors are loath to show favoritism to women artists; “Gender is not a factor whatsoever, says Al-Sabah, when asked how she makes her choices. Rasamny agrees: “The key element is the message. A work of art must say something, and something more profound than simply the fact that it was produced by a man or a woman. Good art will always cross boundaries, whether sexual, political or religious.
Meanwhile, leading female artists from the region are respected and admired for their particular insights, as Lozi explains: “I admire the work of Shirin Neshat, for example, as she refers to the social, cultural and religious codes of Muslim societies and the complexity of certain oppositions, such as man and woman.
Overall though, today’s women collectors appear to eschew any politicized or self-aware posture based on their gender. They are simply collectors of art, and expect to be treated as no more and no less. If art teaches us anything, it is that creativity is crucial to the discovery of self.
For collectors, that tenet rings particularly true, but what must invariably start as a personal quest ultimately leads to a very different place and one with certain responsibilities. Al-Sabah is quite clear about what it all means: “The role of collectors is to act as custodians of their art collection, and to preserve and protect the works of art in order to pass them on to future generations.
In this sense, gender surely has been transcended by the very art itself.
This article is published in the Canvas Daily which reports on the activities of Art Dubai, March 17-20. A digital version is available at www.canvasonline.com.