The British Museum has emerged as one of the foremost sites for collecting and exhibiting Middle Eastern art in the UK – a position that will only be solidified further with their forthcoming exhibition in the autumn of around 150 contemporary Arab and Middle Eastern works, spread across several of the museum’s galleries.
Much of the museum's prominence is due to Venetia Porter, its curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle East art, and a tireless speaker, thinker, and exhibitor of the genre. The 150 works on paper that the museum will show are not loans: they have been acquired by the museum, principally by its Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art (CaMMEA) patrons group, which Porter set up after the success of her exhibition on calligraphy in 2006, Word into Art.
Porter has frequent presence in the Gulf. In 2012 she curated Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, a groundbreaking show on the aesthetic history of the Muslim pilgrimage that toured for half a decade after originating in London. In 2017, the exhibition arrived in Abu Dhabi, in a bespoke space set up near the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where it incorporated archeological materials and artefacts from the Sheikh Zayed Museum – a project which the British Museum was an early advisor on.
Porter grew up knowing the region well. She did her PhD on the architecture of medieval Yemen and has become a champion in the West of the contemporary Middle East field.
The support the British Museum has given to contemporary artists has also become an important part of her work. Porter has helped the British Museum collect mirror works by Monir Farmanfarmaian, who passed away last year, and wooden window screens commissioned from Saudi artist Ahmad Angawi for the museum's new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World, which Porter also curated.
The exhibition in the autumn will be accompanied by a major catalogue of the acquisitions and a conference. Among its subjects will be those of conflict and exile, two key areas for recent art of the region, explored by well-known artists such as Dia Azzawi, Hanaa Malallah, and Hayv Kahraman, as well as in the protest art that the museum has been collecting from Syrian artists affected by the country's civil war and more recently from Lebanon, and via the 2004 project 35 Years of Occupation, in which Israeli and Palestinian artists collaboratively made series of prints in Har-El print workshop in Jaffa. But the breadth of the collection will move the image of Arab art away from these usual subjects, introducing a public, still little familiar with art of the region, to the subject.