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French Version

A fresh 'Canvas' for Arab artists

New magazine promoting Middle East art and culture hits news stands with a mission

"If a fraction of what is spent on weapons was used on artists it would make a huge difference to the way Arabs are perceived in the rest of world."

So says accomplished Lebanese painter, sculptor and writer Etel Adnan, 79, referring to modern Arab leaders in a recent interview in Canvas, the latest magazine from the Middle East to celebrate the region's art.

Adnan has a fair, if idealistic, point and it is one not lost on publisher and editor in chief of Canvas, Ali Khadra, hence his considerable investment in the magazine, an idea that became an obsession so encompassing it has consumed him for the last two years before finally coming to fruition last December.

"My goal is to show the world that there is more to the Arab world than people in the West and the rest of the world realise," he said during a recent trip to Beirut from Dubai where Canvas is based.

"I feel strongly that there is no better time than the present to bring the region's art and culture to the world's attention. We live in vulnerable and dangerous times, in which ethnicity, religion, politics and geography split societies with suspicion, rather than uniting people with understanding.

"This is, therefore, the perfect time to showcase all that is, has been for centuries, and continues to be, good about the region," Khadra said.

By that he is referring to the large amount of artists who have existed in the Middle East for at least two centuries in a modern sense and many more in terms of ancient art, as well as all those in the region today.

Canvas, which is a bi-monthly publication, is not alone in the niche market that exists for Arab art magazines. Bidoun, a quarterly cultural magazine that was created at the beginning of 2004 as a platform for ideas and an open forum for exchange, dialogue and opinions about arts and culture from the Middle East, features the latest art, architecture, film, music and fashion from the region and its diaspora.

But Bidoun, which is printed in Dubai and New York and distributed from London to Beirut, deals with a more contemporary and youth-based subject matter and audience than its newer competitor, and is far more unconventional in design.

Esquisse, a Lebanese magazine published in French in Beirut, also seeks to tackle the subject of Middle East art and culture but not exclusively so - it covers worldwide artistic subjects too and caters to a relatively narrow market locally, as French is spoken primarily only in Lebanon in the Levant.

Canvas, is a large, high-end full color glossy in the standard format. It features - each issue is set to follow this form according to Khadra - four profile/interviews of Arab artists living and working locally and internationally; an exclusive lengthy feature on a topical event, exhibition - issue one sees a story on the Al-Sabah Mughal jewelry collection currently in Madrid; an interview with an art patron, the first being the impressive British-Lebanese businessman Saeb Eigner; stories on at least two regional galleries and two regional museums. There is also a fully informative agenda of exhibitions and cultural events going on internationally with a Middle East angle - a feature which Khadra hopes to develop into a pull-out supplement, a helpful tool for any curious culture seeker. On top of that there is a section where galleries and painters can submit their listing for publication thus providing a valuable outlet for regional galleries and artists to promote themselves to a wider international audience.

There is no doubt that Khadra, a man with a deep commitment and passion for art whose day job is a high-level management position at Emirates-Abela Flight Catering, has put together a potentially vital resource for anyone interested in the field of Middle East art and culture. The first issue is not particularly daring in its design yet there is much white space and full-page spreads of artists' works allowing images to be fully appreciated. Canvas is neither heavily critical in any negative sense of the artists it features - which allows readers to judge works for themselves. Good art is of course a matter of personal opinion as much as any technical skill or talent of the artist.

Khadra does make a point with his cover, which sets out his agenda of positive understanding and cultural dialogue loud and clear. It features a segment of a painting made of saffron by renowned Emirati artist Abdel-Kadir al-Rais, with the words "Wahad Ahad" or "God is one."

"The three main religions of the Middle East all worship one god who they believe is the same god. The same applies to the monotheistic believers in the West," says Khadra. "We are not so different here and Arab art likewise has a long and rich history as does Western art."

"Wahad" also of course coincides nicely with the issue number one.

"Canvas - the name - in its broader meaning encapsulates exactly what this magazine sets out to offer - a blend of artistic and cultural features that crosses cultures and borders - like the one god."

Khadra is initially aiming his magazine at an older audience with disposable income that may be able to purchase Arab art and an academic audience, though all interested in art young and old should pay attention.

As such it pulls in high-end advertising (unlike Bidoun which is operated for now entirely without advertising income). And Khadra has already been in contact with a number of United Kingdom-based auction houses who will be supplying Canvas to their customers in the future, assuring its value for the collector's market.

The publisher has also received substantial orders from the United Nations in New York and diplomatic embassies around the globe after the magazine was brought to their attention.

With a solid team of expert contributing writers also on board, including the head curator of the National Trust in the U.K., Tim Knox; the curator of the Picasso Museum in Paris, Dominique Depuis-Labbe; and long-time Lebanese art and culture critic and essayist Joseph Tarrab, Canvas looks to have a winning formula. Add to that informative stories on young contemporary Arab artists like Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil and older established artists like Adnan and there is little doubt that Khadra can achieve his aim of promoting Middle East art, and a positive image of it, in the West.

Canvas, with its intelligent and accessible copy, makes a change from the mass of staid and banal society magazines that are so prevalent in the Middle East and Gulf today, and will provide a valid addition in a small market, operating if anything as partner rather than competitor to the likes of Bidoun and Esquisse.

Perhaps the last word on how much a magazine like Canvas is needed in the Middle East and the West at this time should go to Adnan.

"Culture commands respect. We should have cultural centers and programs. We need to produce our own culture and preserve our cultural heritage while creating something new. We don't need to buy people. We need to help the best among us and that will help our countries as a whole."

Which is exactly what Canvas is doing.

Beirut 13-02-2005
Ramsay Short
The Daily Star

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