MENA Art Gallery – haven for Arab art

MENA Art Gallery: a haven for works by Arab artists.
MENA Art Gallery: a haven for works by Arab artists.

The MENA Art Gallery in downtown Berlin is the brainchild of Italian researcher Enrico De Angelis and Syrian visual artist Zena El Abdalla. One transliteration of the colloquial Arabic for 'port' is 'mena', reflecting the intention to provide a haven for works by Arab artists, as Rama Jarmakani reports

By Rama Jarmakani

A couple of years ago Enrico de Angelis was asked by about the possibility of acquiring works of art from the Middle East. Knowing he was well connected with the Arab cultural scene, buyers approached him looking for art created by Arab artists living both in the Middle East and in Europe. De Angelis realised that what was missing was a special platform, aimed at introducing works of art from the Middle East and North Africa into Europe.

At the same time, Middle Eastern artists, whether resident in their own countries or Europe, were asking why their works were not as accessible to the European public as they might. This prompted De Angelis to approach the Syrian artist Zena El Abdalla and the idea of the MENA Art Gallery was born. With a modest grant from International Media Support (IMS), El Abdalla and De Angelis began setting up the platform.

While the acronym MENA stands for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, 'mena' is also one of the transliterations of the Arabic word for 'port' or 'haven'. Soon the two friends began work on the project in earnest, sorting out legal arrangements, drafting contracts with artists and taking care of tax matters. It was very time-consuming, as El Abdalla explained in her interview with Al Muhajer News.

"The whole thing took around a year and a half to get off the ground – after all, breaking into the German market is not easy. It also took time to establish contact with artists and to convince them to work with us on this project. Today, we have nine artists on our roster. When it came to launching the MENA Art Gallery, we needed to find another sponsor to pay for the launch and the opening exhibition. In the end, we applied for funding from another non-profit organisation and won a fellowship grant. Our dream became reality: the platform was finally launched in Berlin on 16 June 2023."

Syrian Zeina Al-Abdullah and Italian Enrico De Angelis founded the “MENA” platform in Berlin as a virtual gallery (image: MENA Project)
الفنانة السورية زينة العبد الله والباحث الإيطالي إنريكو دي إنجيليس مؤسسا منصة "مينا" في برلين كصالة عرض افتراضية: تمويلٍ صغير من مؤسسة الدعم الإعلامي العالمي IMS International Media Support، بدأت زينة وإنريكو التحضيرات لمنصة "مينا" التي تعني "ميناء" بالعربية، أو MENA التي تشير إلى منطقة الشرق الأوسط وشمال إفريقيا بطريقة كتابتها الإنكليزية. بدأ الصديقان العمل على موقع المنصة نفسها، والترتيبات القانونية، وتصميم العقود مع الفنانين، وتنظيم الأمور الضريبية، التي أخذت وقتاً طويلًا بالتحضير، كما تشرح زينة وتقول: "استغرق الأمر نحو سنة ونصف، فدخول السوق الألمانية لم يكن أمرًا سهلًا ... ".

What makes the MENA Art Gallery unique?

The MENA Art Gallery presents permanent virtual exhibitions, alongside events that bring these works from the virtual world into reality on the ground, by exhibiting original works or prints in different Berlin galleries. This depends on the artist's preference, as well as the difficulties we sometimes encounter when moving original works across international borders. According to El Abdalla, the most important thing the platform offers is "the appreciation of the art, which derives from the work itself, not from the artist's political or academic background. The work speaks for itself, and that's all that matters".

During the same interview, El Abdalla added: "When I first arrived in Germany, I was expected to present myself as a suffering Syrian. It was also expected of me to produce work tackling themes about the Syrian revolution and hardship. I was thus limited to being a refugee. That's why we work with artists regardless of their background or political affiliation. Similarly, we do not force any of them to declare their ethnic origin or nationality. What interests us is the art, that's all." She continued: "At MENA Art Gallery, we know full well that such 'fashions' can help to secure more funding by linking artistic topics and exhibition themes with current affairs, but we try our best to avoid this trend, which can at times be very prevalent in European markets." 

Journalist Ammar Al-Ma'moun, who works with the platform to write copy that accompanies the artwork, reiterated this point in conversation with Al Muhajer News: "Like other projects, the Mena Art Gallery is based on the principle of involving the artist in question about the production and sale of their art. The stereotypical image in Europe of an artist at work in his studio is out of date. There is now a 'system' based on the contacts you have, and more importantly, on the aesthetics which dominate the art market. Migrants are frequently confronted with attempts to pigeonhole them as specimens to be viewed, rather than as artists with talent worthy of appreciation. This is something the MENA Art Gallery is actively seeking to overcome. Their aim is to present the artist as someone with an artistic narrative and not as someone who is the product of a political classification, be it 'migrant' or 'refugee' etc.."

MENA Art Gallery is a virtual space that also holds events and exhibitions on the ground (image: MENA Project)
عدا عن كونها صالة عرض افتراضية تقيم قاعة "مينا" فعاليات ومعارض على أرض الواقع للتعريف بالفن القادم من الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا: "أكثر ما يواجهه الفنان المهاجر من صعوبات هي مسألة اللغة، التي بالتالي تجعل عملية تشبيكه وتفاعله مع مؤسسات العرض صعبة، عدا عن صعوبة إيجاد صالة عرض تهتم بعملك الفني، وهي مشكلة عالمية بين الفنانين، وليس المهاجرين فقط ... ".

Syrian artist Abdul Razzak Shaballot said he enjoyed the same privileges as any other artist living in Berlin, which in recent years has become the cultural crossroads of Europe. For all that, he proclaimed the vital importance of initiatives like the MENA Art Gallery – through which he exhibits his work – because not only is the platform open to all artists, it also helps to market their work. 

In interview with Al Muhajer News, Shaballot went on to say: "Most artists don't know how to promote and sell their work. Artists like to focus on paint mediums and tools. We always hope some other dedicated person will take on the responsibility of promoting and selling our work. A platform like MENA Art Gallery understands Arab artists living in Berlin. It is aware of our circumstances and it knows precisely what art galleries want and don't want. The good thing about the MENA Art Gallery is its supportive spirit. They recognise that there are talented Arab artists out there. They take them under their wing, with the aim of making their art available to as wide an audience as possible and to secure sales. In essence, the platform provides connections between the artist and potential customers."

What does the platform offer?

One of the main objectives behind the MENA Art Gallery was to create a space made by artists for artists. No-one understands the suffering of an artist like a fellow artist, as El Abdalla explained to Al Muhajer News: "I came up against myriad problems when I tried to get my own work exhibited at a gallery once. They turned me down because I didn't have a fine arts degree. Other galleries demanded huge commissions, sometimes as much as 60%, as well as treating their artists in a callous, business-skewed way – as a commodity, a product. We have worked hard to avoid this scenario. Moreover, every artist who works with us is welcome to join, irrespective of the subject matter of their work, as long as the work itself has artistic merit."

People viewing works at the MENA Art Gallery in Berlin (image: MENA Project)
تعاني منصة "مينا" حاليًا من ضعف الإمكانيات لتحقيق أهدافها وتحقيق الاستدامة: تقول زينة: "أصبح لدينا اليوم 9 فنانين موجودين على المنصة، وعندما أردنا الانطلاق كان علينا البحث عن تمويل آخر، لتغطية تكاليف الانطلاق والعرض الأولي، فقمنا بالتقديم على تمويل من مؤسسة غير ربحية أخرى وحصلنا على منحة زمالة، ليصبح حلمنا حقيقة وافتتحت المنصة يوم 16 حزيران/يونيو 2023 في برلين".

El Abdalla added: "We are like a family here at MENA Art Gallery, and we can say this with confidence. That's why it has been easy to communicate with our artists, and that's what I have tried to emphasise from the outset. We worked on developing a familial relationship with them. For their part, the artists have been very understanding, especially during the long wait for our launch, as they were in a constant state of anticipation."

"MENA Art Gallery now boasts nine artists from a mix of countries, some of whom live in Europe and some in the Middle East. Among them, there are several artists who are well-regarded in the art world and have a solid professional track record. That said, the platform is open to everyone, and its priority is to support young talent. Hence the fact of having experienced artists alongside young artists helps move both the project and its artists forward. "

What really distinguishes this platform, however, is the level of commission, El Abdalla pointed out: "The artists get 65% of their sales, and the platform 35%. Since we are a non-profit organisation, the percentage we take is invested in developing our platform, improving our marketing and the future development of the project. Furthermore, we offer flexible contracts, which are not exclusive in any way, shape or form. Some artists may, after a while, decide to sell their own work, if they so wish. This is not something that is generally offered by conventional galleries, which regard selling art as a purely commercial venture.

Currently, 9 artists from several Arab countries are working with the MENA Art Gallery (image: MENA Project)
يعمل مع منصة "مينا" حاليًا 9 فنانين من عدة دول عربية - تقول زينة: "عندما وصلتُ إلى ألمانيا كان من المتوقع مني أن أعرف عن نفسي كسورية تعاني، وتوقع مني تقديم أعمال تتعلق بالثورة أو المعاناة، وتم حصري بصفة لاجئة، لذلك نحن نحاول العمل مع الفنانين بغض النظر عن خلفيته أو توجهه السياسي، كما لا نفرض على أحد ذكر خلفيته أو جنسيته، ما يهمنا هو العمل الفني فقط".

According to Ammar Al-Ma'moun, what makes this artistic platform stand out is the way it presents its artwork: "Every piece enjoys a relationship with the history of art, alongside the political and cultural context in which it exists. Mention should also be made of the platform's attempts to place the aesthetics in a context much bigger than that of first impressions or interpretations. This makes the artwork part of an aesthetic vision and texture that does not solely rely on the personal experience of the artist. The platform focuses on sensitising the public to the history of art, as well as to the current art market. Our aim is to position the artwork within a wider historical context, beyond simple personal impressions."

Shaballot contended that one of the main challenges that migrant artists face is the language barrier, which automatically limits their ability to develop contacts and to communicate with galleries. "There's also the difficulty of finding a gallery interested in our work in the first place. This seems to be a universal problem faced by all artists, not just the migrants in our midst. Most art galleries in Europe already have their own artists with whom they have exclusive contracts. It is not easy, therefore, to get to work with them, especially since our subject matter might not fit the current trend. In other words, to put it bluntly, we bring our own problems and issues that may either be painful or simply unwanted. This may, in turn, make our work almost impossible to promote and sell. And this is where the MENA Art Gallery can help to solve some of these problems."

Lack of resources could hinder progress

"The MENA Art Gallery is trying to develop novel marketing tactics through the introduction of an online 'store', selling merchandise such as bags, notebooks and mugs with images of artworks promoted by the platform. The aim is to advertise the artworks and to publicise them in cultural centres and public spaces. But the platform is still in its early days, especially on the marketing front, so we have some way to go."

The Berlin-based MENA Art Gallery attempt to alleviate some of the problems encountered by Arab artists working in Europe (image: MENA Project)
تحاول منصة "مينا" حل بعض الصعوبات التي يواجهها الفنانون أثناء العمل في أوروبا: تقدم المنصة معارض افتراضية دائمة للمهتمين، بالإضافة لفعاليات تنقل هذه الأعمال إلى الأرض، سواء بعرض الأعمال الأصلية في صالات برلين المختلفة، أو نسخ مطبوعة عنها، بحسب ما يرغب كل فنان، أو لصعوبة نقل الأعمال الأصلية أحيانًا، لكن أبرز ما تقدمه المنصة بحسب زينة هو "أن تقييم العمل فنيًا يأتي من العمل نفسه، لا من خلفية الفنان ولا توجهه السياسي او درجة تعليمه الأكاديمي، بل مجرد عمل يتكلم عن نفسه".

Shaballot alluded to this point in his interview with Al Muhajer News: "I'm very happy to be working with the team at MENA Art Gallery. They are truly wonderful, especially on a personal level. I genuinely hope that, by having my work featured on their platform, my paintings will reach a wider audience of collectors. I know that the team is doing their utmost to develop professional marketing operations. That said, given the limited resources currently available, there is a lack of marketing expertise, which the platform is working hard to address. I think this is largely due to the lack of resources and support necessary to recruit specialist marketing personnel."

It is a point conceded by El Abdalla, who says the project urgently needs to sharpen its capabilities when it comes to staging exhibitions on the ground, perhaps by acquiring a permanent space. She adds: "Financial backing is essential for transport working of art from the Middle East and for the payment of marketing and website management specialists. We need support in order to secure the project in the long term. We want the platform to go from strength to strength, so that it can help its artists without succumbing to political pressure."

Rama Jarmakani

© Al Muhajer News/ 2023

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton