Contextualising the Art Salon in the Arab Region

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”.Today, we put the spotlight on the conference “Contextualising the Art Salon in the Arab Region”, which is organized by Nadia von Maltzahn and Monique Bellan from the Orient Institut Beirut in collaboration with the Sursock Museum. The event, which is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, will take place on 27 and 28 October 2017 in Beirut.

You can find the program of the event here. You can download the abstracts here.

Monique Bellan joined the Orient-Institut Beirut in 2013 as a research associate. Previously she worked as an assistant at the Performing Arts Section of the Academy of Arts in Berlin and as a research associate at the research centre “Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits” at Freie Universität Berlin. There she obtained a doctorate in Middle Eastern Studies in 2012 with a thesis on contemporary Lebanese theatre. Nadia von Maltzahn joined the Orient-Institut Beirut as research associate in 2013. She is the author of The Syria-Iran Axis. Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East (I.B.Tauris, 2013, 2015), and holds a DPhil and MSt in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She received her BA Honours in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from King’s College Cambridge. In 2016-2017, she taught a course on “Cultural Policies in the Arab Region and Iran” at the Otto-Suhr Institut, Freie Universität Berlin. Her research interests include cultural policies and urban governance, artistic practices and circulation of knowledge.

Your conference will contextualize the art salon in the Arab region: Which questions do you want to raise and what kind of discussions do you want to encourage?

From right to left: Roger van Gindertael and William Townsend, President and Vice President of the Jury for the 5th Salon D’Automne, 1965-1966 at the Sursock Museum. Image Courtesy of the Nicolas Sursock Museum.

The aim of the conference is to explain the socio-political context and importance of the salon for the development of the modern art history of the Arab region. While art historians of the region have engaged with questions of modernity and exhibition practices, the question of the art salon has only been touched upon without placing it at the centre of attention. We would like to raise questions such as whether the art salon in the Arab region was considered just an import from Europe, a fringe phenomenon lacking the historical development of institutional patronage, or had a real impact on artistic practices. Who initiated salons in the region and who was invited – or allowed – to participate, and what does this tell us about the power dynamics at play? We are also interested in exploring critical artistic positions that challenged the salon-format, which was not only a way of exhibiting art but also – implicitly – of demonstrating political power. How did the role of the salon shift with the growth of alternative exhibition platforms throughout the region? Did salons have an impact on artistic canons in the individual countries, and how were they related to them? What did the participation of artists from the Arab region in European salons signify for the artists’ reception and identity? And what did the salon mean for the collection practices of institutions and individuals? These are some of the questions we would like to discuss in the conference. The conference will close with an interrogation of the open-call exhibition format, discussing the role and future of group exhibitions in a roundtable.

The conference and the planned publication are the follow-up to three panel discussions held in 2016 and 2017: Could you briefly summarize the main questions those dealt with? In your opinion: which aspects were not yet addressed sufficiently during these prior events?

The conference and planned publication are the result of a series of conversations and discussions at various forums. We first started discussing the salon through two panels at the annual conferences of the Italian Society of Middle Eastern Studies (Catania, 2016) and the Middle East Studies Association (Boston, 2016), which focused on migration of institutional patronage and its challenges. A third panel was held in the frame of the 32nd Salon d’Automne at Beirut’s Sursock Museum in January of this year, which had the same starting point as the first two panels, but the discussion turned more towards the future of the salon in view of the salon the museum had relaunched last autumn. The conference this October is bringing together all the speakers of the first three events, but widening the scope to include more countries and case studies. We will deal with collecting practices, which have not yet been addressed, as well as circulation of artists and artworks, going beyond the previous events. The conference places the Sursock Museum’s salon at the heart of the discussion, and takes advantage of the collaboration with the museum to bring together researchers, curators and practitioners. We have invited Eileen Cooper for instance, former Keeper of the Royal Academy in London and responsible for the RA’s most recent summer exhibition, connecting to one of the oldest continuously held traditional salon exhibitions. The final roundtable discussion mentioned above will focus on open-call exhibitions in Beirut, bringing together some of the key players involved in this exhibition form in Beirut today. The edited volume, which is planned for publication during the next bi-annual salon at the Sursock Museum, is structured a little differently from the conference. Stay tuned…

Nadia von Maltzahn and Monique Bellan at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston that they visited in November 2016 on the occasion of the second panel concerning the art salon. Picture: Private.

Based on the topics and questions that have been discussed in the research on art salons so far: How could transregional perspectives enrich the debate? How would you like to influence the debate in the future?

The starting point for our interest in the topic has been transregional, although placed within the colonial and post-colonial framework. Art salons emerged in Cairo, Tunis and Algiers in the late nineteenth century following the institutional model of the Paris salons, while in Lebanon and Syria it was not until after independence in the mid-1940s that the salon tradition reached its peak. Institutional forms of art clearly migrated from Europe to the Middle East in the late colonial and early post-colonial context, while artists, both European and Middle-Eastern, circulated between the two regions. In this project, we are focusing on the politics of taste making. More generally, we are interested in the translation and circulation of knowledge and practices, by taking into account the role of networks and the interconnectedness of developments that relate the different regions of the world to each other. We would like to direct the debate towards a broader understanding of artistic and institutional practices in diverse contexts, which often start as an adaptation – as is the case with the salon – but then develop into a story of their own.

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Citation: Contextualizing the Art Salon in the Arab Region – Interview with Monique Bellan and Nadia von Maltzahn in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.10.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7945.


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