Middle East Institute Gallery's Inaugural Exhibition Showcases Work By Arab Artists

BY Ayesha Sohail Shehmir Shaikh / Sep 29 2019 / 11:02 AM

Washington DC’s Middle East Institute has launched the only gallery dedicated to contemporary Middle Eastern art citywide

 Middle East Institute Gallery's Inaugural Exhibition Showcases Work By Arab Artists
Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects
Anas Albraehe. Untitled, from the series Dream Catcher. 2018. Oil on canvas. 100x80 cm

Dedicated to the study of the Middle East, Washington-based Middle East Institute (MEI) recently announced the launch of the MEI Art Gallery, a 1,200-square-foot space that will focus on contemporary Middle Eastern art spanning Morocco to Afghanistan, making it the only gallery in Washington DC devoted to contemporary Middle Eastern art.

To celebrate the opening on 14 September, the inaugural exhibition entitled Arabicity|Ourouba, inspired by an exhibition presented during last year’s Beirut Art Fair, is presenting works by 17 Arab artists showcasing two decades of contemporary art from the Middle Eastern region.

Curated by London-based independent guest curator and writer Rose Issa, the exhibition highlights the underlying themes of Arab identity, displacement, war, reconstruction, memory and resilience. “No matter the destructive wish of politicians, invaders or arm dealers, life goes on— people, as well as artists, are resilient and talents exist, despite restrictions and limitations,” says Issa. “Talents can flourish with humour despite dark times and hardship.”


Abdul Rahman Katanani. Girl with Kite. 2019. Corrugated metal

Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects

The exhibition showcases how artists from the Middle East navigate political and social issues in their work. “The artists address issues of displacement, surveillance, war and life under occupation, but also express the incredible resilience of the people of the region, all with such humanity, sensitivity, thoughtfulness and ingenuity of those issues,” says Lyne Sneige, Director of the Arts and Culture Centre at MEI.

“In many of the works that are on display, there is this play on the reality of one’s condition as well as the ability to propel oneself to imagine something better. The works very much reflect the aspirations of the youth of this region who are striving for equity, social justice, freedom and a better life for themselves and their communities.”

An example is a work entitled Girl With Kite (2019) by Palestinian artist Abdul Rahman Katanani who lives in the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. The work comprises corrugated metal, a material found in the camp symbolising  captivity. Katanani has juxtaposed freedom with imprisonment to express the region’s resilience and determination in the face of oppression.


Ayman Baalbaki. Al Mulatham. 2011. Acrylic on fabric laid on canvas, 200x150cm

Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects

Another work on show is a photograph entitled Saida (2000) by Morocco-born artist Hassan Hajjaj, which seeks to re-contextualise traditional perceptions of women through the portrayal of a Middle Eastern woman’s whimsical, yet ambivalent gaze. Other featured artists include Adel Abidin, Chant Avedissian, Ayman Baalbaki and Said Baalbaki, to name a few.

“The exhibition reflects on the geo-political and socio-political issues in the region and brings together works that are both poignant and very colourful,” says Sneige.


Hassan Hajjaj. Saida in Blue. 2000. Digital C-type print with wood and recycled tire frame. 50x40cm

Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects

The non-commercial gallery seeks to reinforce the long-standing mission of the institute to promote American understanding of the region.  “It is very important for us at MEI to start a different conversation about the region and to sustain that conversation through our work in the gallery and the programmes that we will develop,” says Sneige.

Since launching in 1946, MEI has aimed to nurture cross-cultural dialogue between the US and the Middle East by challenging stereotypes through education, professional development services and an arts and culture programme. “I do hope the support of the media will help to focus the attention of the public towards the beauty, the real concerns and the injustice that the region is submitted to rather than on the negative narratives,” shares Issa. “Eliminating a bit of ignorance is welcomed.”


Batoul Shimi. Arab World Under Pressure. 2012. Aluminum pressure cooker. Installation view at Rose Issa Projects, London

Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects

In the coming months, the MEI Art Gallery will be home to a range of panel talks and showcase renowned documentaries by Arab filmmakers, exploring the region’s political realities and progression in the art world.

“For the future, we have plans for a wide range of shows that will all be accompanied by similar programming around timely and important conversations,” says Sneige.


Chant Avedissian. Mrs Souad Labib, from the Icons of the Nile series. 1991–2004. Pigment and gum arabic on recycled cardboard. 50x70cm

Courtesy of the artist, Rose Issa Projects, and a private collection, London

“We want to keep drawing new audiences to our space, which we hope will become a hub for the community in Washington DC and beyond.” The MEI Art gallery will host up to five exhibitions yearly and all programmes will be open to the public, free of cost.

“There are hardly any venues in the US that give visibility to artists from the Middle East,” says Issa. “So in some ways, the MEI Art Gallery is a drop in the ocean, but it is a drop that can have a huge impact. A traditional Persian proverb describes how drop by drop, a sea is built—we are at the beginning of something with tremendous potential.” mei.edu 

Arabicity|Ourouba will be on show until 22 November at MEI Art Gallery at 1763 N Street NW, Washington, D.C.

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