Maliha Tabari on Creating Fresh Conversations around Middle Eastern Art


“We’ve never shied away from showing the truth”, says Maliha Tabari, Cromwell Place member, collector, artist and founder of Tabari Artspace. The gallery and Maliha played an integral role in bringing Middle Eastern art to the global sphere, honouring artists of the past while providing a platform for regional artists. Removing binary and generalised interpretations of “East” and “West”, Tabari Artspace exhibits and documents the diversity from the region across different times and contexts, reaching a global audience.

Here, we speak to Maliha Tabari about the shift in dialogue around Middle Eastern art, the power of digital content, and how art can create a sense of community in the times of a global crisis.

Before you started your platform in 2003, what was the global landscape like for Middle Eastern art?

I’ve been fortunate enough to develop quite a global perspective having lived in several different countries enriched with diverse cultures. Having spent my formative years with my parents in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan, the Middle East feels very much my home. I went on to the United States to study art, first at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and later at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. The more time I spent away from the Middle East, however, the more I came to appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of the region’s artists.

These international experiences in quite different environments worked together to help me to identify that, while rich with culture and with a thriving community of artists, the Middle East was lacking the platforms for exposure which were commonplace in the US.

Hazem Harb, The Silk Line of Identity, 2020. Currently on view on Tabari's website as part of the artists solo exhibition, 'Contemporary Heritage'. Image courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

This realisation spurred the idea for Tabari Artspace seventeen years ago. I wanted to create not only a gallery to showcase the compelling artists of the region but also to cultivate a community where those passionate about art could share ideas and connect.

More recently, I’m spending more time in Europe, especially Geneva and this has once more unleashed my sense of connection to and respect for the Middle East. I feel the uncertainly of the area lends itself to the creative charge which flows through our artists. The inhabitants of the Middle East are pushed to explore and are passionate; we can see this in the art which has spawned from post-civil-war Beirut for example.

"Our artists are documentarians of their environments"
Maliha Tabari Tabari Artspace

How has your programme changed since its inception?

The first few years were really about discovering our identity, there wasn’t a precedent in the region so we set about establishing a gallery space and identifying artists such as Farhad Moshiri to work with. I came to realise what really drove me was identifying and nurturing new artistic talents and thanks to my years spent in the Middle East I had an idea about the spaces artists occupied and what their work was about. I spent a lot of time during these formative years travelling across the region, frequenting artists’ studios and discovering artists such as Hussein Madi, Adam Henin and Adel el Siwi that we started to work with. This was a very special moment for us as we were working with the modern masters from Lebanon, Egypt and Syria that have since come to be internationally applauded.

A new generation of artists arose from here against an entirely new backdrop. While the modern masters were finding their place between the global modern movement and the local issues that surrounded them the new generation of contemporary artists were inspired and impacted by the likes of nakba, civil war as well as media discourses and they have also discovered new ways of working. Tagreed Darghouth reflects upon far-reaching issues such as cosmetic surgery and the prevalence of domestic migrant labour in Lebanon, while Mohammad Joha through collaged cloth looks back to a childhood in Gaza from where he is displaced. With the aim of exhibiting the diversity from the region across different times and contexts, our programming continues to honour the masters we built in the past. For example, our opening show for 2020 was famed Lebanese sculptor Alfred Basbous, while shining a light on the new and emerging talents that we continue to discover.

Samah Shihadi, Grape Leaves , 2018. Image courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

Your artists and programming tackle the ‘now’. How do you ensure Tabari Artspace keeps up with (or stays ahead of) changing technologies, discourses, global concerns and audiences?

Our artists are documentarians of their environments, and through their work, they offer us new, subjective ways of knowing topics such as migration and displacement or gender roles in particular societies. As such its not about trying to fit into a certain convention of contemporariness but rather shedding light upon the experiences of those who have previously had their stories authored by others or have been reframed by mass media and dominant discourses. For us, these narratives are most powerfully communicated through exceptional and impactful art.


What role does art play in times of a global, or personal crisis?

Art now, more than ever is playing a key role in keeping us inspired, engaged, and united with a sense of community. I feel lucky to be part of such a system that can be both uplifting and a space for escapism. Some of the most influential artworks have come out of moments of hardship or conflict, so I’m interested to see how the current moment will influence our creators. This has also been a time which I’m sure has induced much introspection for gallerists like myself. It’s through these moments of uncertainty and realisation that I’ve come to refine my ideas, spark new ones and accelerate once more.

We’ve never shied away from showing the truth or digging deeper
Maliha Tabari Tabari Artspace

Tabari puts a lot of focus on digital content, do you think this is an essential tool for connecting artists to a global audience?

I’m writing this now in April, amid the Coronavirus pandemic, when for better or worse we have had to all try to maximise our lives and interactions in the digital sphere. No-one was prepared to shift entirely into the digital sphere so quickly but, before this we were aware of the fact that audiences are increasingly seeking modes of engagement with art beyond the white cube space. 

We’ve never shied away from showing the truth or digging deeper and have been working to create digital content in unison with our artists that allows an intimate insight into their world through interviews, live streams on Instagram and their own content. We like to challenge our artists! In the contemporary period, creatives have been increasingly drawn to new media such as film and photography to capture their realities more closely and disseminate their art instantaneously. It feels natural to then develop a digital platform which allows them to engage with their audiences in the same way that they work.


Adel El Siwi, Days of Capricorns 1, 2015. Image courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

Tabari Artspace commissions academic texts on our artists. Please can you tell us how this idea came about, and how it has contributed to bridging the gap between Middle Eastern artists and the ‘western’ art world?

Rather than thinking within the East/West binary or interpretation, I’ve found that in recent years both artists and academics have begun to function in a much more interdisciplinary manner, the two realms share much mutual territory. Artists like Hazem Harb draw upon social research practices reviving archival materials to interrogate individual and collective histories and academics cast a fresh gaze on their works which often open up surprising ways of ‘knowing these works’. The relationship is reciprocal. Through his evocative words Anthony Downey has, for example, entered Khaled Zaki’s Resurrection series into a fresh discussion surrounding the socio-political issues faced by Egypt, rather than analysis for a western audience his text states a case for arts place and importance within a social system.

Zakaria Ramhani, Faces of your other 39, 2010. Image courtesy of Tabari Artspace. 

What drew you to Cromwell Place? 

We’ve been exhibiting in Europe for some time and we felt, due to the interest surrounding our artists from both European collectors and institutions, that the time was right to have a physical presence there. The Cromwell Place platform builds a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, and felt completely right for this expansion. I‘ve felt for some time that art appreciators are looking for something new, a way of interacting with art that offers flexibility, diversity and unexpected opportunities for engagement while for gallerists this pandemic has proven the format of the platform with its flexibility that ensures that there are no misplaced overheads.

Tabari Artspace will be exhibiting in Cromwell Place's inagural exhibition programme, with a solo show 'Samah Shihadi: Terra Un(firma)'. You can reserve free entry to this, and all Cromwell Place exhibitions, here. 


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