Faced with a pandemic and a cultural reckoning around race and inequality, the art world is navigating a challenging era.
In the region, the Beirut blast brought its own devastation, claiming lives and livelihoods, as well as heritage and art spaces in the Lebanese capital. Despite all of this, artists, institutions and galleries have remained resilient, adapting to our new reality with online initiatives and creating art to address issues, as well as raise awareness or funds for frontline workers, social justice groups and charities.
Here, we look at Arab artists who have pursued major projects despite the difficulties of the year or have received notable awards that honour their work.
The talented singer-songwriter has put Libya on the regional pop music map. Fulfilling the promise of last year's impressive track Istanbul, Bahat (full name Bahjat Alturjman) released his career-best single Halba in April. The breezy synth-pop tune is a revelation in that it shows how good the Libyan dialect sounds in pop music form. It is both strident and elastic. It can be elongated to stretch out a note or clipped to sharp staccato to provide an extra surge of rhythm. No wonder it was immediately placed in Spotify's influential regional playlist Arab X – a guaranteed way to spread the word about the talented independent artist.
Farah Al Qasimi
In her vibrant, and sometimes fantastical, photographs, Abu Dhabi-born Al Qasimi reflects on everyday life and consumer culture in the Gulf. In January, as part of a project for the Public Art Fund, she transformed 100 public bus shelters in New York City to art installations, covering them in 17 images of immigrant communities in Queens and Brooklyn.
Where last year he went on his first overseas tour to the UK, Somali rapper and Dubai resident Freek notched another milestone, thanks to his video for the hit single Wala Kilma. Shot from a rundown Soviet-era aircraft in the middle of the Umm Al Quwain desert, the video continues to soar, having achieved more than a million streams on YouTube, a landmark achievement for the independent artist.
While the pandemic severely curtailed her international touring plans, the Egyptian soprano still managed to make her mark on the classical music scene. This year, she signed up to major label Warner Classics, as well releasing her well-received debut album El Nour. The record has her taking on an eclectic collection of traditional songs from French, Spanish and Egyptian composers.
His fusion of pop art with Middle Eastern references makes his work some of the most recognisable. The Moroccan artist, who often creates from his studio in London, photographed singer Billie Eilish for Vogue this year. He has also leaned into fashion, and this month launched a '90s hip-hop-inspired eyewear collection.
While the fierce Moroccan rapper's music may deal with local concerns, Khtek's voice has been heard far and wide with the artist listed as part of the BBC's 100 Women of 2020. Khtek (real name Houda Abouz) has carved out a space for female talents in Morocco's hip-hop scene over her four-year career. In January, she appeared on the boisterous track Hors Serie on which she more than held her own alongside Moroccan hip-hop leaders ElGrandeToto, Don Bigg and Draganov.
The singer has often spoken about his affection for Beirut, but he has never expressed it as clearly as with his affecting online concert dedicated to his native Lebanon. Blending performance with documentary-style images of the extensive destruction in Beirut in the wake of the port explosion, as well as interviews with survivors, September's I Love Beirut concert remains a stirring tribute to a resilient city picking itself up from the wreckage.
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim
One of the most prominent artists in the Emirates and a member of the avant-garde group that forged the country's contemporary art scene, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim will represent the UAE at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. His work builds on his connection to the local landscape in his home of Khor Fakkan, resulting in totemic sculptures and paintings made of organic materials.
The French-Algerian artist, whose work looks at power structures and disenfranchised communities, won this year's Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize for his exhibition Free Trade. Bourouissa's subjects are often those who live on the margins of society – young men of colour in Paris's suburbs, or banlieues, which reflects his own experience with discrimination.
Munira Al Sayegh
Emirati writer and curator Munira Al Sayegh, from Abu Dhabi, has curated exhibitions for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Art Dubai and UAE Unlimited. This year, she and fellow writer Gaith Abdulla founded 101, an online platform for emerging artists in the UAE to sell artworks directly to collectors, eschewing the traditional gallery model.
Known for her psychedelic images of young women, Nour Flayhan takes her inspiration from childhood memories of summers in Lebanon. Her work gained attention on social media after the October 17 protests in Beirut last year, with illustrations of the faces of Lebanese people who took to the streets. After the Beirut blast in August, the illustrator joined other artists in raising funds for charities in Lebanon by accepting commissions for her work.
Syrian-American Omar Offendum released an album in September that marked his importance in the Middle Eastern hip-hop canon. Lost in Translation is a bilingual love letter to the region in terms of beats and words. Buttressing Offendum's Arabic and English lyrics is the production work from compatriot Thanks Joey. The producer and audio engineer embellishes his swaggering beats with samples taken from classic Syrian films.
A principal name in the world of couture, Lebanese designer Rami Kadi took another impressive stride in his career this year by becoming the UN Goodwill Ambassador for sustainable fashion in west Asia, for his long-time ethical-fashion advocacy. In his spring / summer 2020 collection, he created a dress made entirely out of plastic recovered from the ocean; even the sequins were made from reused plastic, Kadi told The National. He was also the first designer in the region to launch a virtual fashion show, before they became necessary owing to the pandemic.
One of the world's biggest pop producers and new UAE resident RedOne had another stellar year at home and abroad. When it comes to the latter, the Moroccan-Swedish pop-meister (real name Nadir Khayat) had another track, Kings & Queens, which he co-produced for singer Ava Max, top the US charts. Meanwhile in the UAE, he produced and duetted with Emirati singer Ahlam on Together, this year's official anthem for Dubai's entertainment and shopping destination Global Village.
A year ago American-Egyptian actress Sandra Saad announced she would be voicing Ms Marvel in the Marvel's Avengers video game. With the release of the video game in September, fans finally got to see the elastic-limbed superhero in action outside the comic books for the first time. And though she shares a storyline with better-known Marvel characters such as Iron Man and Thor, Saad not only manages to ensure that the character gets noticed, but also delivers a show-stealing performance.
Shaima Al Tamimi
Weaving her documentary photography with her own personal history, Yemeni-Kenyan photographer Shaima Al Tamimi, who also grew up in Abu Dhabi, explores issues of migration and identity in her work. This year, she received the Photography and Social Justice Fellowship from the Magnum Foundation.
It is a rare feat for a rapper to top Eminem in any hip-hop list. This is what Algeria's Soolking did in May when streaming service Deezer named him the most streamed artist in Africa on its platform. The Guerilla and Dalida rapper beat Eminem and Drake, who secured third and fourth place respectively.
Sultan Bin Fahad
Saudi Prince Sultan bin Fahad broke into the art scene last year with his sprawling exhibition The Red Palace, shown in Riyadh and Jeddah, which featured objects collected by the artist from the kingdom's flea markets. The show travelled to Abu Dhabi's Cultural Foundation this year, and in November, bin Fahad staged his first solo exhibition in Europe, held in Rome, titled Frequency.
Known for exploring music history and creating experimental instruments, the Beirut-born sound artist and composer was recently awarded the 2022 Suzanne Deal Booth / Flag Art Foundation prize, one of the largest art prizes in the US. In addition to the cash prize, Atoui – who was at the centre of a major solo exhibition at the Sharjah Art Foundation this year – will present a show at The Contemporary Austin, in Texas, in spring 2022.
World-famous Lebanese fashion designer Zuhair Murad was directly affected by the Beirut port explosion in August. His 11-storey Gemmayze studio was severely damaged by the blast. "My heart is broken. Can't stop crying. The efforts of years went in a moment," he wrote on his social media channels, posting pictures of the devastated site. The next day, Murad received the first copy of a book written by author and fashion critic Alexander Fury that celebrates Murad's work.
The book, Murad told The National in November, gave him the morale boost he needed, imbuing him with "a new spirit and outlook". In the weeks after the blast, the designer ran a fundraising campaign through the design of a T-shirt that had the words: Rise from the Ashes, featuring Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Celine Dion.