The region's first academic centre for the study of Arab art opens in Abu Dhabi

'We need to set our own standards, our own historical narrative about this region from this region', says Salwa Mikdadi, a professor of art history at NYUAD

Ala Younis's famous research project, Plan for Greater Baghdad, shown here at the Venice Biennale in 2015, used a gymnasium designed by modernist architect Le Corbusier for Saddam Hussein to understand how monuments represent power. The work is now in the special collections of the Arab Centre for the Study of Art. Alessandra Chemollo
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After three years of hard work, the Arab Centre for the Study of Art has now launched at New York University Abu Dhabi.

The centre is devoted to the visual art of Western Asia and North Africa. Housed on the Saadiyat campus, it will support research in the form of publications, post-doctorate fellowships and symposiums, as well as house and digitise archives in Middle East and North Africa region art history. There is also set to be a programme of conferences, symposiums, workshops and an artist’s residency.

The centre is led by Salwa Mikdadi, a professor of art history at NYUAD and an authority in the field of Arab modern and contemporary art. She is joined by May Al Dabbagh, assistant professor of social research and public policy, and Shamoon Zamir, a literature professor and the head of the photography archive Akkasah.

“We need to set our own standards, our own historical narrative about this region from this region,” says Mikdadi. “We’re looking at revising the canon of art history for this region.”

Salwa Mikdadi

Associate Professor Practice of Art History

Academic centres function as ways of convening and distributing research on a given topic to a university’s students and those in the wider field. NYUAD has around 80 labs and research centres, ranging from the Centre for Prototype Climate Modeling to a project on Family Business Histories in the Mena region.

One benefit of centres is their potential for interdisciplinarity, which is particularly crucial for the study of Arab art. As part of its refinement of how Arab art history is written, the centre will seek to show how the Arab cultural context must be understood differently from that of other regions'.

The idea for the centre started in the US in the early 1980s. But the art world wasn't ready for it

“There are so many links between art and literature among other disciplines that may be lost upon those who are looking at this region in a very summary way, or always in reference to the west,” Mikdadi says. “We have a different context, different history, different modernism. It’s not parallel to modernism in the West. We have to look at it from the ground up.”

NYUAD, whose new vice-chancellor is an art historian, has been expanding its offerings in the visual arts. In addition to the centre, the university has just announced the country's first Master of Fine Arts. The two-year programme follows on from the Bachelor of Arts, which NYUAD has always offered.

How cultural communities form

The centre launches with a research aim overseen by Al Dabbagh, titled Haraka: Experimental Lab for Arab Art and Social Thought.

The idea is to create a framework for understanding how cultural communities form in the Mena region, and how information and skills are passed on. Oral interviews with artists, curators and other art professionals in the Gulf region will fill out a story of how art exists in a social context.

Ala Younis's 'This Land Speaks to You in Signs' (2018) is part of the special collections held by the Arab Centre for the Study of Art at NYUAD. Courtesy NYUAD

Another key aspect of the centre lies in archives, a problematic area for the study of Arab art for a number of reasons. Because of unrest in the region, many archives have been lost, and even what should have been public record – museum collections, for example – have slipped back into archival state, with information needing to be rediscovered.

Mikdadi has already pledged her archive to the centre, which contains many primary-source artist interviews that do not exist elsewhere; she has worked in the field since the 1980s and has assiduously preserved the material she has amassed over the years.

The centre also now administers Akkasah, a 33,000-strong photographic archive that was founded at NYUAD in 2014.

Mikdadi hopes the centre will attract other such archives. Working with the main NYU library in New York, they will then be able to render material online and share it for future scholarship.

But the largest contribution of this institutionalisation of resources will likely be long term. By being sited in Abu Dhabi, the centre will help train academics in the field of Arab art who arrive to the field speaking Arabic and with lived experience of the region’s culture.

Already, Mikdadi says, NYUAD undergraduate students who have taken her courses on Arab art have gone on to study for Master’s and PhDs, conducting research on topics such as how Art Dubai affected the prices of hurufiyya, or calligraphic work, in the late 2000s.

“The idea for the centre started in the US in the early 1980s,” she confesses. “But the art world wasn't ready for it or willing to acknowledge art of the Arab world. I am glad the centre found a home in the UAE at NYUAD.”