It all began when a Lebanese man called Ali Khadra ditched his job in airline catering to follow his passion for art. In 2004, after more than 12 years in the hospitality industry he founded boutique-publishing house Mixed Media Publishing. With it came Canvas Magazine, the first contemporary arts and culture magazine from the Middle East.
Khadra’s timing was shrewd. The Middle East is steeped in age-long culture and unique artistic practices, but it is only in the last decade that the region has seen a colossal boom in contemporary art. Galleries, art projects, fairs and hidden talents have popped up at an alarming speed – in just five years Art Dubai has become one of the biggest art fairs in the world.
And, when the world of contemporary art meets with the region’s complex web of politics, religion and identity, there’s a lot of ground to cover.
“We live in vulnerable times, in which ethnicity, religion, politics and geography split societies with suspicion rather than uniting people with understanding. By bringing Middle Eastern and Arabian art and culture to the world’s attention, Canvas is able to showcase all that is good about the region, and has been so for centuries,” said Khadra.
It is no wonder that hot on the heals of Canvas came a series of glossy, design-focused art magazines from the Arab world. The immaculately designed Brownbook launched in Dubai in 2006 and markets itself as the “‘must-have’ lifestyle guide for switched-on urbanites”. World famous designer Karl Lagerfield described it as “the next generation in Middle Eastern magazines”. Brownbook covers arts, culture, design, lifestyle, fashion and travel and has an interesting objective: “Living in a region steeped in well-worn cliches, Brownbook takes on the task of reintroducing the Middle East to itself. Seeking out people, places and narratives from Tehran to Casablanca we look at the real style of life and tell stories that would otherwise remain unheard.”
Breaking stereotypes seems to be an important motive for most of the magazines I spoke to. Reem Khalid, editorial assistant for Oasis Magazine, said: “Showcasing talents within the region allows us to give them a voice and to provide a much needed platform to shatter and overcome stereotypes and above all it is important to encourage other creatives and the upcoming generation to produce and to never give up on their dreams.”
Oasis Magazine launched in Saudi Arabia in 2007. It aims to be seen as a celebration of the “modern, progressive and young MENA generation that is establishing new ideas and excelling at them.”
Khalid does admit that there were some initial setbacks – securing the required licensing proved difficult, as did finding a printing press that could produce the quality of magazine they wanted. But he added that it has now “become much easier to navigate the publishing world in the Middle East”.
Perhaps aware of the difficulties associated with launching a luxury magazine in the region, a group of Middle Eastern art enthusiasts in New York launched Bidoun. It’s an American publication with an Arabian focus, and an almanac for anyone looking for critical analysis of the region’s art scene. Bidoun has won numerous prizes for its original journalism and slick design and the brand now extends itself to international exhibitions, books, talks, tours and performances.
With headquarters in both Dubai and Lebanon, Soura Magazine is the Middle East’s first photography magazine. This year it celebrated its 5th anniversary by launching a beautifully curated hardback book showcasing the best in established and emerging talent from the Middle East and North Africa.
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By Monique Rivalland