SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Discourses on Modern and Contemporary Art of the Middle East

Module Code:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 2

The study and interpretation of art of modern and contemporary Middle East is a developing field, in terms of artistic production, exhibition, marketing and intellectual discourse. This module aims to address the major historical, conceptual, theoretical and aesthetic issues that inform the region’s modern and contemporary art paradigm. Arranged largely in chronological order, it will explore the art of the Middle East, with particular attention to Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt, by tracing the underpinning discourses that have shaped artistic practices and transformations in the region since the mid-20th century. It will examine how movements such as nativism, nationalism, and anti-colonialism, which were most effective in the political and cultural arenas, also affected art and artistic movements. The course will address key points about the problems of terminology: the problematic use of such terms as ‘Modern Islamic Art’ and the frequent application of the terms ‘Modern’ and ‘Contemporary’ without sufficient acknowledgement of their contextual connotation. It will examine the recent developments in art practice in the Middle East and its diaspora and their wider context, analysing the impact of globalisation and other transnational cultural and social links. Reflecting on recent exhibitions and curatorial projects, it aims to engage with new paradigms in contemporary art of the region, working through the issues of knowledge production and transfer, global versus regional perspectives and local identities, contemporaneity and specificity. These concepts will be examined by means of pictorial analysis and close interrogation of the works of key artists (working with different media from painting and sculpture to photography, video, performance and installation…) and analysis of movements such as Saqqa-khaneh (Iran), the Baghdad Modern Art Group (Iraq) and the Art and Freedom Group (Egypt).


  • This Module is capped at 30 places
  • Students enrol via the online Module Sign-Up system. Students are advised of the timing of this process via email by the Faculty Office.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Scope and syllabus

  1. The problem of terminology
  2. Contextualising Historiography (‘Modern’ and ‘Contemporary’ Art of the ME)
  3. Dichotomy of Past and Present
  4. Alternative Modernism: Avant-gardism vis-à-vis Cultural Resistance
  5. Representing visual materials
  6. Conceptualism and New Media
  7. Contemporaneity versus Specificity
  8. Global versus regional/local Discourses: Identity Politics
  9. Middle Eastern Diasporic Art
  10. Regional Artistic Events and Museum Infrastructure

Method of assessment

  • One 2,000 word essay (worth 60%)
  • One oral presentation (worth 30%)
  • Seminar participation (worth 10%)

Suggested reading

  • Ali, Wijdan (ed.), Contemporary Art from the Islamic World (London: Scorpion, 1989).
  • Babaie, Sussan, ‘Voices of Authority: Locating the “Modern” in “Islamic” Arts’, Getty Research Journal 3 (2011): 133–49.
  • Carswell, John, ‘The Lebanese Vision: A History of Painting’, Lebanon: The Artist’s View (London: British Lebanese Association, 1989).
  • Dabashi, Hamid, Islamic liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire (London: Routledge, 2007).
  • Daftari, Fereshteh, ‘Islamic or Not’, (ed.), Without Boundary. Seventeen Ways of Looking (exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) (New York: MoMA, 2006).
  • Daftari, Fereshteh, and Layla S. Diba, (eds.) Iran Modern (New York: Asia Society, 2013).
  • Exell, Karen, Wakefield Sarina, (eds.), Museums in Arabia: Transnational Practices and Regional Processes (London: Routledge, 2016).
  • Flood, Finbarr Barry, ‘From the Prophet to Postmodernism? New World Orders and the End of Islamic Art’, originally published in Elizabeth Mansfield, (ed.) Making Art History: A Changing Discipline and its Institutions (London: Routledge, 2007): 31-53.
  • Grigor, Talinn, Contemporary Iranian Art: From the Street to the Studio (London: Reaktion, 2014).
  • Gruber, Christiane and Haugbolle, Sune, Visual culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).
  • Howling, Frieda, Art in Lebanon, 1930–1975: The Development of Contemporary Art in Lebanon (Beirut: Lebanese American University, 2005).
  • Kane, Patrick, The Politics of Art in Modern Egypt: Aesthetics, Ideology and Nation-Building (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013).
  • Lenssen, Anneka and Rogers, Sarah A., ‘Articulating the Contemporary’, in Flood, Finbarr Barry and Necipo─člu, Gülru, (eds.) A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017).
  • O’Brien, Elaine, et al. (eds.), Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. An Introduction to Global Modernisms (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).
  • Keshmirshekan, Hamid, ‘Parameters of “Modern” and “Contemporary” Art from the Middle East:
  • An Alternative Art Historical Account’, in Julia Allerstorfer and Monika Leisch-Kiesl (eds), Global Art History, Transkulturelle Verortungen von Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft (Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2017).
  • ———, (ed.), Contemporary Art from the Middle East. Regional Interactions with Global Art Discourses (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015).
  • ———, Contemporary Iranian Art, New Perspectives (London: Saqi Books, 2013).
  • ——— , Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (New Brunswick N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2009).
  • Naef, Silvia, ‘Reexploring Islamic Art: Modern and Contemporary Creation in the Arab World and Its Relation to the Artistic Past’, Anthropology and Aesthetics 43 (Spring, 2003): 164-174 .
  • Rogers, Sarah, ‘Out of History: Postwar Art in Beirut’, Art Journal 66: 2 (Summer 2007): 9–20.
  • Sadria, Mojtaba (ed.), Multiple Modernities in Muslim Societies (Geneva: Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 2009).
  • Scheiwiller, Staci, ‘Is There Post-Islamic Art or Are We Post-Islamic Art? Time and the Condition of “Contemporary Islamic Art”’, in Lopes, Rui Oliveria; Lamoni, Giulia and Alves, Margarida Brito (eds.), Global Trends in Contemporary Islamic Art (Lisboa: CIEBA, 2015).
  • Shabout, Nada, Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007).
  • Winegar, Jessica, Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules