The Caspian Arts Foundation, set up in 2011, is a not-for-profit arts & education organisation.

LONDON - “Art encourages the ‘de-familiarization of the familiar,’ it has the power to unsettle presumptions, question norms and help people find ways to re-orient themselves. It is these powers that can break down the pre-existing barriers between cultures and attempt to bring them together as a homogenous whole.” This manifesto by the young Caspian Arts Foundation resonates deeply with all of us interested in art.

On the morning of January 23rd, around 80 people attended a panel discussion at Sotheby’s, organised by the Caspian Arts Foundation, to debate this topic and to examine ways in which the dynamics of private and public, particular and political, interact to define artistic expression in the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) region. As one panellist pointed out, many of these concerns are not limited to the region – they are universal. How we use art as creative output or as a tool to drive an agenda is something that is awakened in everyone at quite an early age. Children can say in drawings what they sometimes cannot verbalize, and adults are no different - though in a different context. Five eminent panellists, Dr Anthony Downey of the Sothebys Institute of Art; Mark Dunhill, Dean of Central St Martins UAL; Dr Alireza Nourizadeh of the Centre for Arab & Iranian Studies; Omar Al Qattan Founder of the Qattan Foundation & Mosaic Rooms, and Dr. Menis Yousry of the Essence Foundation, all contributed important points to the debate. Alia Al Senussi, a staunch supporter of the MENA art scene and a CAF committee member gave the introduction.

CAF’s founder, the quietly articulate Nina Mahdavi, has established an engaging charity whose aim it is to provide scholarships for students from the Middle East who wish to pursue their post-graduate studies in visual arts and fashion. Already the University for the Arts London is hosting a Masters scholarship in fine arts, film, photography, and fashion. More opportunities are sure to follow since education is undoubtedly top of the agenda in a region where resources are sometimes limited and support can be hard to come by.

The panel was followed by a private lunch for supporters, and benefactors of CAF, bringing together Middle Eastern art lovers and collectors, as well as CAF partners such as the Delfina Foundation. In the words of one guest, “eye-opening discussions are not always the preserve of conferences. They can happen quietly and unexpectedly over a lunch with interesting guests.”