Installation pieces as part of Ramadan at The Dubai Mall. The 'Art of Calligraphy' exhibition and event was also held at The Dubai Mall during Ramadan 2019. Photo supplied by Dubai Culture &

Islamic Lifestyle

Advice for new Islamic artists: Go social and display in public spaces for exposure

DUBAI - If full-time, professional Islamic artists still face challenges with the business aspect of selling their work, as we reported in November, how about the new and emerging artist? How can they break into the Islamic art market?

Many artists would normally think of galleries as their first point of call but they could be underestimating their opportunities if they limit their exposure to traditional, and brick-and-mortar art spaces, professional Islamic artists told Salaam Gateway.

“Gaining exposure should be your main focus,” said Tunisian abstract calligraphy artist Karim Jabbari.

Jabbari is one of the artists invited to Dubai this Ramadan to teach workshops and exhibit at the Dubai Mall. ‘Art of Calligraphy’ is a partnership between the giant retail space and the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority to promote the art form, and is part of the emirate’s strategy to boost diverse and globalised Islamic cultural offerings in the region and beyond.

Non-traditional arts spaces, such as the mall, is where the untapped business opportunity lies for Islamic artists, it seems.

“It helps bring awareness to [calligraphy], especially in the biggest mall in the world, where most of the people are visitors,” said Jabbari, who’s normally based between Canada and Tunisia.

Showing in public art events in commercial spaces would help artists who face the challenge to continuously promote their craft.

Another artist who’s done the same is Dubai-based Pakistani calligraphist Syed Raziuddin, who was recently part of the Artist Playground exhibition at Pullman Dubai Creek City Centre.

“Your work should be seen frequently so that it remains in the minds of people. In this region, we have a good mix of artists coming from different parts of the world, bringing different ideas, so if your work is not seen frequently, you are easily forgotten,” said Raziuddin .

Majid Alyousef, who was exhibiting alongside Raziuddin at Artist Playground, agrees that new artists can only make a proper living once they get their name out there.

“If the artist is well-known and has the right connections, then they can definitely make a living out of it,” said the Saudi national, who is also based in Dubai. “Otherwise, it is very challenging,” he added.

Exhibiting at a public space like a hotel lobby, has helped promote the two artists’ calligraphy works.

“It’s a great platform for regional artists to get exposure in and outside of the Middle East as well,” said Raziuddin.

“The main goal is to make art accessible for everyone,” Jabbari added. “By exhibiting in a public space, especially a wide-open space, you’re allowing the art to be showcased freely and not confined by the walls of a gallery. It also allows people to see and appreciate art in a comfortable setting – especially for those people who wouldn't normally make a trip to a gallery.”

A gallery, said Jabbari, gives more value to an artist’s work, but a mall receives more foot traffic. “People going to a gallery [can have] the intention to see and/or purchase fine art. Someone passing through a shopping centre or hotel lobby are there for other reasons.”

While exposure is the primary aim, Raziuddin believes that commercial opportunities can come from public spaces as well.

“You open a window for more opportunities if your work is seen by more people,” he said.

“In commercial spaces it can be picked up by visitors, and also by people in different businesses like design, media or the hotel industry. You can have an opportunity to expand with collaborative projects.”

Any participation, no matter how small, helps, said Irish contemporary artist Humaira Hussain, who has appeared in over 60 group and solo exhibitions.

“Honestly, an artist’s dream is to exhibit their art in prestigious galleries and museums. [But] any exposure of the art is vital for the artist,” she said.

“My advice to the young and emerging artist is to look for open calls and try to participate. A small inclusion in an art event will be a stepping stone to a solo exhibition, awards, and recognition.”

Have you walked away with your personalised #Karim_Jab portrait? Catch his Arabic calligraphy light performance on the last two days, this evening & tomorrow from 9pm to 1am, at #thedubaimall, opposite the Dubai Ice Rink.

— Dubai Culture (@DubaiCulture) May 17, 2019


Islamic artists also need to take their publicity into their own hands.

Sanaa Merchant – whose work ranges from modernism in abstract to calligraphy – relies heavily on the internet for exposure.

“Social presence is one of the most powerful tools today to be directly in touch with clients or potential customers,” said the Sharjah- and Dubai-based artist.

She has a decent following of around 5,000 on the visually-driven Instagram.

“However, artists need to think a lot more about how to market their work, and not to stick to one form [of digital media], but keep on experimenting with different forms,” said Merchant.

Hussain agrees.

“Digital media has such an impact on sales and recognition. I have been approached many times due to the promotions and inclusion in art exhibitions, as well as my online presence and promotion. Local and media coverage [also helps].”

Hussain has just under 3,000 followers on Instagram.

However, online exposure and social media activity shouldn’t distract from exhibitions, said Raziuddin.

“Social media is a way to interact with buyers through different galleries across the globe,” he said.

“Having said that, serious buyers still like seeing your work in person. So display as much as you can.”

He has 149 followers on Instagram.


Galleries are the professional artist’s point of call when the time comes to push for sales.

“[Selling] is definitely easier through a gallery,” said Jabbari. “The galleries handle all of the marketing of your work, they reach out to potential buyers, and work out everything on your behalf.”

If making a living out of art is the goal, then sales promotion is definitely key, according to calligraphist Alyousef.

“Galleries and museums are better for sure, [because] people who visit galleries may already have the thought of buying and may prepare for it, even if there is no specific item in mind,” said the Saudi.

“In a hotel, it is extremely rare to find residents who make a decision to spare a few thousand dollars while they are casually sitting in a lobby waiting for their taxi to arrive. But at a hotel, the awareness is [the result].”


Much like mainstream art, success in the Islamic art world does not happen overnight.

“It took me almost four to five years to break through the system and establish my credibility,” said Hussain. “A mentoring system could be helpful to the young and emerging artist. And guidance [would also] help.”

“It is really difficult to break into the prestigious galleries which are driven by links and the ‘who’s who’ of the art industry. But I take [the challenges] with a pinch of salt. I am more determined, believe in hard work, and being loyal to your art.”

The changing landscape of Islamic art can also offer hope to the many new emerging artists.

“Calligraphy has been a huge market worldwide, and with passing time, young artists are bringing in new fonts that appeal as ‘pop art’,” said Hussain. “Time has changed and we have other distractions, unlike our ancestors whose art cannot be matched.

“Art is now trendy, fast-paced and innovative. So the artist’s thinking process has changed – [Islamic] art can be used more widely in different forms.”

And to reach as wide a market as possible, Islamic artists should try to make their work “as universal as possible”, said Jabbari.

“Try to fine tune your unique style so that you can be recognised as someone who stands out. It's a matter of hard work and believing in yourself.”


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(Reporting by Rachel McArthur; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim

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