Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

West Asia: Postmodernism, the Diaspora, and Women Artists

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

For western Asia, postmodernism applies to the post-1980 period that witnessed a shift from more individualistic art, with one or two points of reference, to forms of expression with multiple references that do not necessarily converge into a single dominant aesthetic. Each country in the region entered this period from its own unique path of development, with divergent and at times conflicting views on the meaning of postmodernism. The diverse ethnic and religious cultures that exist in the region and within each country (such as in Iraq or Israel) provide artists with a complex and rich palette of references. For example, Israeli artists from diverse cultural backgrounds cross boundaries and fuse elements from Islamic and Jewish art (1983.199).

The short history of postmodern art in the Arabian Peninsula represents a frantic attempt to salvage an indigenous culture that experienced an almost instant transformation from nomadic life to a modern consumer society.


Cited Works of Art or Images (9)

  • Chafic Abboud: Lebanon
  • Abdelrahim Sharif: Composition
  • Yousef Ahmad: Composition
  • Khalil Rabah: Grafting
  • Faisal Samra: Text Body
  • Marwan Qassab Bachi: Al Wakef
  • Mona Hatoum: Light Sentence
  • Saloua Raouda Choucair: Poem II
  • Zaha Hadid: Project Architect


Abstract art is the preferred vehicle for expressing personal experiences within a collective sensibility that is unique to the environment. The short history of postmodern art in the Arabian Peninsula represents a frantic attempt to salvage an indigenous culture that experienced an almost instant transformation from nomadic life to a modern consumer society. Within this context, art vacillates between abstraction and realistic representations of local culture. Iridescent colors derived from traditional textiles or the desert landscape define the visual representations that meld with Western aesthetics and techniques (Abdel Rahim Sharif, Composition; Yussef Ahmad, Composition). Arabic script embedded in mixed-media formats has found a flourishing market in the Gulf (Faisal Samra, Text Body). Kuwait, a country with only a recent history in modern art, saw one of its artists established on the international scene defining art beyond traditional concepts and local influences (1996.264.3). In the 1970s, Israeli artists were the first in the region to use Conceptual art to express political themes. In the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the first Palestinian intifada, Israeli artists have interrogated identity politics, the boundaries of cultures, and for the first time are exploring, with Palestinian artists from the West Bank and inside Israel, the dilemmas faced by both peoples.

Pluralism characterizes the postmodern period, and in art the references are not exclusively Western. Artists use innovative techniques and materials, including electronic technology, video, photography, installation, performance, and sculpture. In contrast to the earlier romanticized imagery of the environment or cultural representations, artists in the last decades of the twentieth century confronted the historical and political forces that bind the cultures of the region, such as globalization and the consequences of decades of civil war. Their themes draw attention to social inequities, human rights violations, environmental and economic issues, neocolonial interests in the region, and repressive regimes. The sophisticated multilayered approach to art and the critical exploration of controversial issues often censored in the Arab media contribute to the popularity of this genre of art among the younger generation (Walid Ra'ad, My Neck Is Thinner Than a Hair 1/100; Khalil Rabah, Grafting).

Ongoing conflict and violence mark the twentieth-century history of many countries in the region. Exile and dislocation are consequently common experiences among artists. The majority of the artists working outside their countries of origin are Lebanese, Palestinian, and more recently Iraqi. Among the post-World War II immigrants, several had distinguished careers and contributed to art in their adopted countries (Chafic Abboud, Lebanon; Mona Hatoum, Light Sentence; Marwan Qassab Bachi, Al-Wakef). Initially, many artists in the diaspora considered their exile temporary and insisted they would return home once conditions were favorable. However, since the 1990s, artists have become less troubled by issues of locality and work freely between two and sometimes three cultures. Diaspora artists are setting the trend for contemporary art in the region; those whose work is acknowledged by Western art institutions are celebrated at home. The work of these transnational artists, along with a renewed Western interest in the region and in Islamic culture, have helped draw international attention to contemporary art. Arab artists, for example, are participating in international exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale and documenta in Germany. Whether working in the diaspora or in their respective countries, artists are forging a new consciousness that is both universal and humane.

Women Artists
The status of women differs from country to country and cannot be generalized for the entire region, which contains a population of over 300 million, half of whom are women. In Muslim countries, the status of women depends on the constitutional and legal role of Islamic law, on economic and educational progress, as well as political stability and security. It also depends on variables such as social traditions that are often alien to Islamic precepts. With the exception of the segregation of exhibition visitors in Saudi Arabia, women have long had equal opportunities to study and exhibit their work. Almost 80 percent of the art galleries and art institutions in the Arab countries of western Asia are founded or run by women (Fahrelnissa Zeid, Divine Protection). And since the 1980s more female than male artists have received international recognition in art and architecture (Zaha Hadid). Women artists were among the first to introduce abstraction to Lebanon (Saloua Raouda Choucair, Poem II) and to challenge the Western conception of the Orient and its preoccupation with the veil.

Salwa Mikdadi
Independent Curator

Lebanon, 1978
Chafic Abboud (Lebanese, 1926–2004)
Oil on canvas; 160 x 160 cm
Collection of the Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar

At the age of nineteen, Chafic Abboud dropped his engineering studies to dedicate himself to art. He studied drawing at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts in Beirut, then left for Paris in 1953 and became an accomplished abstract painter as a student at the École des Beaux-Arts and through his work in the studios of painters such as Léger, Friesz, Metzinger, and Lhote.

Abboud spent a significant part of his life in Paris and belonged to a generation of Lebanese artists, many in the diaspora, who moved away from established genres to innovation based on learned technique. Abboud's early work was as grounded in traditional figurative detail and later developed, into abstractions of color and form. He portrayed universal rhythm and movement through geometric forms and radiant colors. As a result, light consistently emerges as a translucent, opaque, or radiant element in his compositions.

Composition, 1995
Abdel Rahim Sharif (Bahraini, born 1954)
Oil on canvas; 133 x 168 cm
Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Arab Art, Doha, Qatar

Sharif studied in France and New York. He began exhibiting in 1964 and continued with numerous solo and group shows throughout the Arab world, the United States, and Europe. His abstract paintings are often composed of bright colors creating intense light and form. Sharif belongs to the second generation of modern Bahraini artists, who departed from the earlier illustrative realistic style typical of the first generation.

Composition, 1967
Yussef Ahmad (Qatari, born 1955)
Mixed media on canvas; 135 x 232 cm
Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Arab Art, Doha, Qatar

A member of the first generation of modern artists in Qatar, a young, oil-rich country of sparse population, Yussef Ahmad received a Master's degree in fine arts from Mills College in California in 1982. His paintings are often collages or mixed-media works in which Arabic calligraphy meets colors and textures derived from natural elements. Lines are elongated across the canvas or wood, and letters and patterns are layered with architectural shapes. Ahmad has exhibited throughout the United States, Europe, and the Arab world, and is the director of the new Arab Art Museum in Doha.

Grafting, 1995
Khalil Rabah (Palestinian, born 1961)
Olive trees, earth, threads
Commissioned for the exhibition Dialogues of Peace
Ariana Park, Geneva, Switzerland
© Khalil Rabah

After studying architecture and fine arts at Texas University, installation, performance, and video artist Khalil Rabah returned to live and work in Palestine. His work often employs symbols of Palestinian identity, including olive trees or olive oil, stones, tar, soil, and embroidery threads and fabrics. Belonging to a new generation of Arab installation artists, Rabah's images and physical references form a commentary on exile, displacement, and uprootedness. By deconstructing and interrupting the physicality of objects, bodies, and space, he works to create new identities and meanings. The olive tree, an ancient symbol of peace, consistently appears in his work, forcing the viewer into a direct encounter with an indigenous icon. Its texture, skin, fragrance, and tactility transform the trunk, wood, sand, dust, leaves, and branches into territorial commentaries of cultural significance. In Grafting, Rabah transplanted an olive tree from the West Bank to the UN headquarters in Geneva. The work expl Text Body, 2002
Faisal Samra (Saudi Arabian, born Bahrain, 1956)
Mixed media and wire mesh; 90 x 50 x 25 cm
Courtesy of Mrs. Paulla Al-Subah
© Faisal Samra

A painter, sculptor, and installation artist, Faisal Samra graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1980. Samra was first known for his abstract paintings using a variety of mediums such as leather, henna, dyes, and vellum. By the 1990s, he had combined painting and sculpture by stretching fabrics on thin wire mesh. Both the objects and painting often include images that evoke body parts or shapes in nature. His mixed-media pieces dissect everyday items or representations to create new perspectives on myth and truth.

Al-Wakef, 1970
Marwan Qassab Bachi (Syrian, born 1934)
Oil on canvas; 162 x 114 cm
The Khalid Shoman Private Collection

Born in Damascus, Bachi moved to Berlin in 1957, where he worked in a leather factory and studied drawing at the Akademie der Künste. In 1980, he became a professor at the Akademie. Working in Germany at a time of a revived abstract art movement and emerging social realism in painting, Bachi carved out a personal style in which figures and forms disintegrate and re-form as internal reflections. Since the mid-1990s, he has reestablished links with Arab artists and devoted his summers to teaching art to young Arab artists at the Darat al Funun in Jordan. Bachi's emotional and pensive paintings, sketches, and etchings move beyond portraits into images of figures and faces, beyond individuals into a commentary on humanity.

Light Sentence, 1992
Mona Hatoum (Palestinian, born Lebanon, 1952)
Wire mesh lockers, slow-moving motorized light bulb; 198 x 185 x 490 cm
Courtesy of the artist
© Mona Hatoum

A sculptor and performance artist, Mona Hatoum moved to London in 1975; she was unable to return to Lebanon, her native country, due to the outbreak of civil war. Hatoum became widely known for a series of performance and video works that challenged taboos by focusing on the demystification of the body and its hidden functions. In the 1990s, her work expanded into large-scale installations that engaged the viewer in paradoxical emotions of desire and revulsion, fear and fascination. Hatoum formulated a language based on Minimalist sculpture and Conceptual art in which domestic items like chairs, beds, cots, and kitchen utensils are transformed into unfamiliar and threatening objects. Her work explores notions of exile and dislocation, of power and powerlessness, and of individual strength and vulnerability in the face of violence and fragmentation. In the interactive installation Light Sentence, the room becomes a reverential space for viewing coordinates of lines, spatial density, and restless patt Poem II, 1963–65
Saloua Raouda Choucair (Lebanese, born 1916)
Mahogany; 39 x 19 x 17.5 cm
Collection Saloua Raouda Choucair

Choucair began painting under the tutelage of leading Lebanese landscape artists Mustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi. She studied at the American University in Beirut and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1948 until 1952. Choucair charted her own course of study and exploration with self-confidence and an acutely inquisitive mind. She studied sculpture and lithography and was influenced by artists such as Fernand Léger, Jean Dewasne, and Edgard Pillet. She was the first Lebanese artist to explore abstraction from within her Islamic culture before adopting the Western interpretation. Choucair's contribution lies in her study of Islamic aesthetics through modular sculpture and abstract paintings, which are based on the essence of form—the curve and the straight line, two elements of Islamic design. Regarded as a pioneer sculptor in Lebanon and the Arab world, Choucair's natural talent for mathematics and physics is apparent in her complex sculptural compositions executed in stone, wood, me Project Architect
Zaha Hadid (Iraqi, born 1950)
The Richard and Lois Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

Hadid's illustrious career in architecture began after studying mathematics at the American University in Beirut. She attended the Architectural Association in London, where she eventually taught and later led her own studio until 1987. Hadid's architectural projects are allied with her theoretical and academic pursuits, which focus on deconstruction, Suprematism, and the influences of Arabic calligraphy. Hadid achieved wide recognition in 1983, with a winning entry for the Peak Club in Hong Kong. Her designs for buildings span the globe, from the opera house in Rome to the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati. Her paintings and drawings have been shown internationally, and she was awarded the Pritzker in 2004, the first time this prestigious prize in the field of architecture has been bestowed on a woman.