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Arab Center for the Study of Art Opens

NYUAD is set to open the first university center for the study of Arab art. The Gazelle spoke to Professor Salwa Mikdadi who is in charge of the project to find out more.

Nov 21, 2020

On Nov. 1, funding for the Arab Center for the Study of Art was officially granted. Salwa Mikdadi, associate professor of Practice of Art History and principal investigator for the center, shared that the proposal was first introduced in 2016, whereupon a rigorous process of internal and external peer-reviewing led to its approval. An official public launch campaign is planned for Dec. 1.
“It is now, as far as I know, the only university center for the study of art of Western Asia and North Africa,” said Mikdadi.
“The idea has been germinating for a really long time … I was particularly keen on establishing such a similar center in the United States in the 1980s,” Mikdadi explained, adding that it wasn’t possible at the time to get funding for the project. Along with her colleagues in the U.S., she established an institution primarily for Arab art from Western Asia and North Africa. Upon moving to the UAE and joining NYU Abu Dhabi — after that institution folded in 2006 — Mikdadi realized that NYUAD’s location provided a great opportunity to establish such a center.
She felt that the historiography and cultural study of the region were not supported by enough research to keep up with the growing interest, especially in the art market, for Arab art. Recognizing these gaps in research, she decided to draft a proposal for a center for “archiving primary documents on modern and contemporary art of this region.”
“There wasn’t a focus or center that concerns the visual art production and how the region itself has responded,” she said.
Makdadi asked Shamoon Zamir, professor of Literature and Visual Studies, and May Al-Dabbagh, professor of Social Research and Public Policy, to join as co-principal investigators to facilitate interdisciplinarity in the research.
According to Makdadi, the center aims to make a key intervention: “The founding principle of the center is to have a dialogue … to widen the canon and at the same time to decolonize the existing cultural histories and social theories in relation to this region,” she said. “The center will be leading both the research and the pedagogy beyond the established canons of Art History, by investigating the histories of art of the region, from the region.”
She explained that even in naming the center, placing the word “Arab” at the start was an intentional choice to reflect its regional centering.
Currently, there are three focal points of the center listed as three projects: Mawrid, which aims to develop new frameworks of research and pedagogy for studying visual arts in Western Asia and North Africa; Haraka: Experimental Lab for Arab Art and Social Thought, which bridges gaps between art and social science; and the incorporation of Akkasah center for photography to investigate histories of photography in the region.
An important role of the center is to create a digitized archive of primary documents that will be gathered from artists, art collectors and art institutions to be shared with scholars across the world. In doing so, Makdadi outlined several challenges, “At this time, it is exceedingly difficult, particularly more so with the pandemic, to do field research … to source material.” Time becomes of the essence, she explained, as many of these primary documents are prone to getting lost to calamities, natural or manmade, citing losses in Syria as an example: “We’re trying to salvage whatever we can … and then digitize it.”
Talking about the importance of such an institute for the students, she said, “students can immediately contribute to the research … and they can also benefit from the growing archive of primary and contemporary sources … Together, the three clusters [Mawrid, Haraka, Akkasah] will generate new interdisciplinary courses in social science and art history.”
Angad Johar is Senior News Editor. Email him at
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