Transferring Knowledge? The Early History of Art Education for Arab Students in the USSR
Dr. Olga Nefedova

Tuesday 26 November 2019
Main Building | 6:30 PM

During recent decades, interest in different facets of contemporary Arab art has increased significantly. Although this interest has played a key role in bringing modern and contemporary Arab art into wider focus, significant gaps remains in the scholarly discussion. Speaking to one such absence, this presentation will analyse the new artistic practices and the art heritage of Arab artists who graduated from the USSR art instructions between 1959, when the first Arab art student arrived in the USSR, and 1979.

Beginning in the 1950s after WWII, improved political relations between the USSR and the Arab states contributed to dynamic growth in the cultural sector. In the fall of 1955, for the first time, a delegation of Soviet artists came to perform in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria, and the first exhibitions of Soviet art were organized in these countries. The 50s also saw a number of very successful exhibitions organized and staged in the USSR, which were dedicated to the contemporary art of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and other Arab countries. Cross-cultural activities like these exhibitions created mutual awareness of the relevant art world in various countries around the Mediterranean and the USSR, a process that led to the creation of exchange programs in music, cinema, fine art, performing art, etc. Eventually, such programs also extended into the arena of higher education. The pattern of government-sponsored international exchange that ultimately brought Arab students to the Soviet Union was a key component of an increasingly global post-war art world. After WWII, as the Arab bloc was emerging under the leadership of Egypt, the geopolitical region of the "Middle East" accrued strategic importance as a Cold War battleground. And one method of “soft power” tools was the education program for Arab art students in the USSR.

The study is based on the previously unpublished material from the archive of the institutes, the archive of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR, the archive of the Ministry of Higher and Specialized Secondary Education and the archive of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. The research was undertaken and written with the aid of artists and artists’ relatives, based on the materials gathered through meetings, interviews and correspondence with them. Information from large collections of press clippings from Soviet newspapers, journals and magazines of 1950-1980s was also considered.

The talk will be in English.

Olga Nefedova is an art historian and the former director of the Orientalist Museum in Doha, Qatar. She has worked for many years with private and government collections in the Far East, Middle East, and the Gulf countries (Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia). Her projects include the following international exhibitions and publications: The Art and Life of Jean-Baptiste Vanmour (1671–1737), A Journey into the World of the Ottomans, Bartholomäus Schachman (1559–1614): The Art of Travel, Heritage of Art Diplomacy: Memoirs of an Ambassador, and many others. She is one of the organizers of the series of international biannual conferences “Orientality” (Cambridge University, 2013) and editor of the journal Orientality. She is an associate professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow. Currently she is a researcher at the Orient-Institut, Beirut (Max Weber Foundation), and a member of the OIB research project “Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students in the Eastern Bloc (1950s to 1991).”