Seen from a distance: Political contexts for middle eastern contemporary art

Research output: Book chapter/Published conference paperChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Art history provides an engaging means to visualize and explain changing social and political dynamics. The political climate of the contemporary Middle East is mirrored by innovative and antagonistic artworks. Surprisingly, these recent expressions of visual culture are under-represented in surveys of Islamic art at most universities. For much of the twentieth century, the study of Islamic art focused on art historical periods prior to the nineteenth century. Such approaches failed to emphasize (or even acknowledge) the importance of ongoing changes in politics, culture and society across the Middle East, and how these were represented and challenged further afield.This oversight has significant implications for Australians seeking to understand the cultural and political dynamism of this complex region. It is also part of the reason why Islamic art is rarely taught in Australian universities.Despite well-informed intentions, the act of explaining Islamic art risks the perpetuation of Orientalist perspectives. For example, the concept of historic 'golden eras' creates the assumption that more recent contributions are of lesser value. For Australians in particular, this has resulted in a problematic perception of 'irrelevance', which is unfortunate given Islamic artâ''s value for studying social and political change.A new overview of Islamic art driven by contemporary art would acknowledge the persistence of Orientalism, alleviate the primacy of the past, and assess politically-driven changes in curatorship since 2001. This approach draws on theoretical systems developed by recent Indigenous Australian art - which has also been considerably revised in the past 40 years - to engage international audiences with political and visual cultures once deemed 'distant and exotic'.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEmerging scholarship on the Middle East and Central Asia
Subtitle of host publicationMoving from the Periphery
EditorsKatlyn Quenzer, Maria Syed, Elisabeth Yarbakhsh
Place of PublicationCanberra
PublisherRowman & Littlefield Publishers
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9781498558433
ISBN (Print)9781498558426
Publication statusPublished - 2018
EventA New Agenda? Debating the Middle East and Central Asia
: Early Career Researcher Conference
- Australian National University, Canberra - Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Canberra, Australia
Duration: 03 Jul 201504 Jul 2015 (Conference information)


ConferenceA New Agenda? Debating the Middle East and Central Asia
OtherCAIS graduate research scholars were congratulated by attendees of their conference held on 3 and 4 July.

The conference - A New Agenda? Debating the Middle East and Central Asia brought together a number of young scholars presenting their high quality and contemporary research.

The opening address was given by Mr Ric Wells, Deputy Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Mr Wells stressed the importance of Australia's relationship with countries in the Middle East. He focused on recent events in the Middle East including the Arab Spring and the security challenges faced across the region.

The keynote speaker was Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, ARC Future Fellow, Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. His lecture was entitled: 'The Natural Order in the Middle East: Stumbling from one crisis to the next'. In this paper Prof. Akbarzadeh outlined the factors he believed had been at play as the hope of the Arab Spring turned to despair. The first factor he discussed was the nature of states in the region, the gap between the ruler and the ruled, and the absence of political and state legitimacy. The second factor focused on state rivalries, with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey each trying to claim a leading role, and taking advantage of state weakness in their neighbourhood. And the third factor was the role the United States played in regional politics over the last two decades.

Conference speakers included: Dr Farhang Morady, University of Westminster presenting on Iran–US relations and the Nuclear Framework Agreement; Haian Dukhan, University of St Andrews, presenting on Hafez al-Assad and the Arab tribes in Syria; Natalya Hillme, Humboldt University, presenting on regime stability in Central Asia'; Azamjon Isabaev, University of Hamburg discussed security in Central Asia and Harout Akdedian, University of Armidale presented his research on Islamic Radicalization in Syria.

CAIS scholars Shuhrat Baratov, Jessie Moritz, Dirk van der Kley and Elisabeth Yarbakhsh also presented papers on their research.

The conference attracted a substantial audience which included policy-makers from the Department of
Defence and DFAT as well as scholars from Australian universities and think-tanks.
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