Outside Looking in: On Teaching Art History from the ‘Margins’

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Hala Auji (Art History, American University of Beirut, Lebanon)

Hala Auji. Photo by Ramzi Farhat.

What does it mean to teach art history, a discipline still rooted in eighteenth-century European Enlightenment ideals, in present-day Lebanon? As an art historian of the Middle East living and working in Beirut, teaching courses on the region has proven to be more challenging than one might imagine. Scholar Dina Ramadan recently posited a similar question in a pedagogical essay on teaching texts on modern Arab art in New York in which she explains how her courses raise problems related to her students’ positionality since they typically know very little about the Middle East.[1] Although teaching Arab art in Lebanon might seem to resolve the positionality conundrum, it comes with its own host of difficulties. In this essay, I ruminate on a few interrelated challenges when it comes to teaching art history from and about what is typically considered the ‘margins.’

Contending with the ‘Global Turn’

The first of these issues is the ‘Global Turn.’ Since the early 2000s, art historians have grappled with revising the field’s teleological ethnocentrism, which emerged from the ideas of eighteenth-century European philosophers, such as German scholars Johann Joachim Winkelmann and Emmanuel Kant (and their adherents). Informed by discourses on globalization in the social and political sciences, some art historians have attempted to lay the groundwork for non-hegemonic global histories by unveiling, translating, exhibiting and disseminating primary documents from global archives.[2] Writing and teaching a ‘Global Art History’ is certainly imperative today, particularly in Europe and North America, which are witnessing the troubling resurrection of white nationalism and other forms of extremism. The pivot to the global has rightly placed pressure on western-based art history programs and scholars to move beyond, and even upend, the field’s Eurocentrism.

However, pedagogically, there are significant conceptual and methodological problems with the global approach. For one thing, it presents a beguilingly contradictory set of frameworks. A major concern among scholarship is how to speak of global trends or practices without making “dangerous claims”[3] to a hegemonic universalism. Yet, this leads to concerns about what globality is if one can only consider questions of regional relativism or particularities. One alternative, which strives to eschew problematic binaries, is the turn to translocality. Art historians adopting this approach often consider transregional artist networks, while avoiding nationalist or western/universalist master narratives.[4] Although translocality provides a compelling alternative to the global vs. local binary, this approach requires a level of engagement with alternative methods, theories and materials that can be difficult to translate into classrooms in non-western settings.

Modernism and its Discontents

In one of my courses on twentieth century Middle Eastern art, in which texts ran the gamut of these questions and approaches, my students, who came from diverse disciplines, often struggled as we moved from one set of ideas to another. Many grappled with how to address local (Arab) notions of modernism. Is modernity singular? Or are there multiple, alternative, convergent, asynchronous and/or coeval modernities?[5] How do we avoid ahistorical readings of art while problematizing the colonial encounters that led to the assimilation of western-inspired methods and perceptions of modern art? Addressing similar challenges, art historian Prita Meier asks:

How can one produce post-colonial intellectual work without losing sight of the specific historical moment and location of the colonial encounter? Why is it particularly effective to employ the category of the modern to counter ethnocentric visions of world culture, when from a historical perspective, modernism as a conceptual apparatus for global engagement is created by an imperial culture, making colonization possible?[6]

For Meier, the category of global modernism reinforces both colonialist ethnocentric views and Eurocentrism. This is because modernity has long been a western imperialist yardstick of progress employed to evidence non-western societies’ ‘primitiveness,’ as seen in nineteenth-century World Fairs. According to Meier, the alternative would be a transcultural approach focusing on agent and actor networks or cultural flows,[7] rather than meta narratives of modernism and related discourses.

Yet, in practice, this de-colonialist framework proved difficult to model in my Beiruti classroom. Students struggled with studying twentieth century Arab art beyond modernism, colonialism, imperialism and/or orientalism. Some of their concerns were: How do we locate artists who were trained in Europe and practiced orientalist methods, such as Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910)? What about artists, such as Daoud Corm (1852–1930), who collaborated with imperialist/colonialist entities to benefit their own socioeconomic statuses? Students wondered whether they should dismiss these artists’ artworks as examples of cultural hegemony, particularly when such painters viewed European modernism as a universal ideal and/or reinforced problematic colonialist civilizational discourses. Concurrently, these students toiled with abandoning the binaries of east and west, and modern and traditional. After all, these orientalist views not only remain deeply ingrained in the contemporary art world, but also determine how many students from Arab communities perceive themselves. Indeed, we continue to be reminded that colonialism’s discourses and praxis are not safely tucked away in the past.

The Trouble with Sources

Perhaps the main challenge of teaching an alternative art history from the ‘margins’ is the lack of materials and sources. This is not just due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also because of a paucity in documents and research. A transcultural approach to regional art history requires, and even presupposes, the availability of actor-related sources. However, there is a dearth of primary and secondary sources on regional artistic production of the modern era.

As scholars working on Middle Eastern art history know, in the absence of national or public archives, one must create one’s own private cache of primary documents, often via complex interpersonal connections with artists, their families and/or estates. Although there has been a growing interest in archival practices amongst scholars,[8] artists and curators dealing with modern and contemporary art, this attention has not yet manifested into a plethora of accessible content. Concurrently, English translations of Arabic artists’ documents are few and far between.[9]

Relatedly, while secondary literature on art from the Arab world is on the rise, some of this scholarship is limited in its scope.[10] Due to the problems with primary documents mentioned above, scholars tend to focus on a handful of key artists (and periods), often depending on these practitioners’ popularity (e.g. on exhibition circuits)[11] or the availability of relevant resources. International exhibitions typically rely on private funding and/or collections, which, in turn, determine whose artworks are worthy of display and end up shaping the research interests of future scholars.[12] Significantly, global exhibitions are only accessible via photographs and virtual tours for many of my students whose Lebanese citizenship limits their international (and regional) mobility.

When it comes to images for use in courses and research, despite the large amount of regional art owned by collections in the UAE, Qatar and even Lebanon, few of these institutions make high quality reproductions of their works freely available. Some major collections, such as Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (Doha), make a selection from their permanent collection viewable via Google Arts & Culture. However, others, such as the Sursock Museum (Beirut), do not provide similar options. Certainly, this discrepancy in online access is often financially driven; collections in troubled countries such as Lebanon lack adequate state and private funding. Those of us who teach modern and contemporary art in economically and politically unstable countries are often limited to personal image libraries and whatever we can pull off of Google. Students have noted the absurdity that art produced in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt is frequently inaccessible (in physical and/or virtual form) to these countries’ publics.

The Politics of Positionality

Therefore, teaching Middle Eastern art history today from my and my students’ position in Lebanon means contending with a complex array of geo- and sociopolitical limitations. Considering these challenges in the context of the global pandemic, I am reminded of views on how vaccine inequity will result in a two-tiered world. As vaccinated populations, hailing from the wealthiest nations, ‘return to normalcy,’ residents of the world’s weakest nations will slip further into poverty and isolation. This divide is not simply one between ‘east and west’ or ‘north and south,’ but the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Academia is not exempt from this neoliberal world order. In a similar two-tiered system, be it in art history or the humanities writ large, only a few financially privileged groups, Arab or otherwise, have ample access to sources and proverbial ‘seats at the table.’

The irony, of course, is that resources from ‘marginal’ regions serve as reservoirs of ‘authenticity’ for humanities scholars and art historians working in western contexts. Concurrently, when members of underrepresented groups are invited into privileged circles, it is often as “spokespersons” or for purposes of “visibility” and diversity. These forms of engagement, aimed at serving western audiences and contexts, only add to the marginalized groups’ “burden of representation.”[13] A more constructive way forward is to support underrepresented groups in the ‘Global South’ in ways that serve their interests. This can include granting access to exclusive institutional resources, developing travel grants and prizes for students from these regions, securing funding for struggling institutions (e.g. to digitize their collections), offering gratis research workshops/training for students in the humanities, and even ensuring that key exhibitions ‘travel’ to typically overlooked cities and contexts.[14] Ultimately, it is imperative for art historians, and academics more broadly, to acknowledge and recognize the present-day struggles faced today by actors in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan and Lebanon (to name a few in the Arab world). While these places serve as important historical localities, educators and researchers need to remember that these countries and their societies are not, in fact, located in the past. Instead, like my students, communities in these sites still contend with colonialist practices and frequently find themselves in the uncanny position of being on the outside looking in.


[1] Dina Ramadan, “Teaching Modern Art: Situating Aesthetic Debates within Arab Intellectual History,” Review of Middle East Studies 54/1, 2020, 92-96.

[2] Such as Jill H. Casid and Aruna D’Souza, eds., Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014; James Elkins, ed., Is Art History Global? New York: Routledge, 2007.

[3] Avinom Shalem, “Dangerous Claims: On ‘Othering’ Islamic Art History and How It Operates within Global Art History,” Kritische Berichte: Zeitschrift für Kunst- und Kulturwissenschaften 40/2, 2012, 69-86.

[4] For example, Zeina Maasri, Cosmopolitan Radicalism: The Visual Politics of Beirut’s Global Sixties, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020; Monica Juneja, “Global Art History and the ‘Burden of Representation’,” in: Hans Belting, Jacob Birken, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel (eds.), Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture, Stuttgart: Hatje Cantz, 2011, 274-297; Prita Meier, “Authenticity and Its Modernist Discontents: The Colonial Encounter and African and Middle Eastern Art History,” The Arab Studies Journal 18/1, 2010, 12-45.

[5] Schmuel N. Eisenstadt, “Multiple Modernities,” Daedalus 129/1, 2000, 1-29; Keith Moxey, “Is Modernity Multiple?” Revista de História da Arte 10, 2021, 50-57.

[6] Meier, “Authenticity,” 15.

[7] These views are largely informed by Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, and Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Theory, Culture, and Society 7, 1990, 295-310.

[8] Initiatives include NYU Abu Dhabi’s alMawrid, the Arab Center for the Study of Art, dedicated to researching regional art and photography.

[9] A recent major work is Anneka Lenssen, Sarah Rogers and Nada Shabout, eds., Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, New York: MoMA, 2018.

[10] In some places, such as Germany, Arab art is typically approached from within the field of area studies, not art history.

[11] Figures with current international appeal include Etel Adnan (b. 1925), Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916–2017), Dia Azzawi (b. 1939) and Kamal Boullata (1942–2019), among others.

[12] One recent example is the US-based traveling exhibition “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s,” which relies on paintings from the Barjeel Art Foundation (UAE).

[13] Juneja, “Global Art History,” 274.

[14] For similar concerns at museums, see essays in this series by Roman Singendonk and Aisha Deemas.


Hala Auji (هلا عوجي) (2021/22 EUME Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien) is associate professor of art history at the American University of Beirut where she teaches courses on the art, architecture and material culture of the Middle East and Islamic world. Her work focuses on the visual dimensions of modernity in the eastern Mediterranean, including print culture, book history, museum practices and portraiture. She is the author of Printing Arab Modernity: Book Culture and the American Press in Nineteenth-Century Beirut (Brill, 2016; for a review, see here), and various other publications.


This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History, and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021

Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, 10.06.2021

Roman Singendonk, The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project, 24.06.2021

Amani Albedah, The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange, 01.07.2021

Abdulhadi Alajmi, History without Debate: A Reading of the Crisis in Arab Historiography, 15.07.2021


Citation: Hala Auji, Outside Looking in: On Teaching Art History from the ‘Margins’, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.07.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30359


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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1 Response

  1. yasmine nachabe taan says:

    Thanks Hala for a refreshing article. You brought up key pedagogical concerns for art historians today.

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