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She's the voice for N African and Middle Eastern art

Ms Feriani likes artists who depict historic moments in their work to stir discussion. PHOTO: NYTIMES


GALLERIST Selma Feriani's debut at Art Basel Miami Beach is likely to garner attention because, in an America-centric gathering of gallerists, she will be exhibiting the work of Saudi Arabian female artist Maha Malluh, who takes a critical look at the impact of globalisation and consumerism on everyday life in the Middle East.

The exhibition will feature new pieces from the artist, who, by reassembling items once important in popular customs - such as cassette tapes of religious lectures from the 1980s and enamelled dishes used in the region's nomadic food tradition - makes a social commentary on the contemporary throwaway culture and the loss of traditions.

Noah Horowitz, Art Basel's director of the Americas and the chief of the Miami Beach fair, said: "We are conscious in our shows to bring in other voices, and whereas a majority of galleries and artists that will be on view in Miami are from the Americas, clearly an exhibitor from Tunisia working with a Saudi artist is really interesting."

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It is the perfect show for Ms Feriani, 38, to introduce her Tunis-based gallery to a new audience in Miami Beach: In addition to offering the opportunity to work with female artists, the event is also a showcase of art with political or social context - two particular draws for her. (Her gallery has been active at the Art Basel fairs in Switzerland and Hong Kong in the past few years.)

Born in Tunisia, she has become a global leader in the promotion of Middle Eastern and North African contemporary artists; she also works with institutions on shows featuring artists she represents.

She said: "I like artists who actually work on historic moments, coming up with things that we are hiding, we are not allowed to talk about. Artists are able to put these subjects in front of the public and give them the opportunity to discuss it and criticise it."

Collectors like Adel Hamida, a Tunisian dentist, wrote in an e-mail that he is drawn by her approach to "the triangular relationship among the gallery, the artist and the collector".

He said Ms Feriani "helps me to understand the artists' way of thinking and the different techniques they use to reach their idea".

Ms Feriani said that without a contemporary art museum in Tunisia, and with many collectors interested only in more commercial decorative art, she understands the importance of working closely with collectors and art enthusiasts on education and engagement.

She has also helped build a community and offer artist residencies and free studio spaces.

She does not work exclusively with female artists, but wants to offer them a platform: "Female artists have less chance to show their work than male artists in collections and in museum and gallery shows. Women artists come up with a critical but poetic interpretation of things. They have their own twists in presenting things and engaging, but also translating a situation into an artwork."

This philosophy was what attracted artist Malluh to work with Ms Feriani. The artist said in an e-mail: "She is a capable and experienced gallerist with a strong sense of knowing which type of art will appeal to her clients. I am fortunate to work with her."

Alia al-Senussi, a Libyan-American academic, consultant and Art Basel representative, described Ms Feriani as a pioneer in promoting art from the Middle East. She "understands the art world, but also understands the region and has a wonderful eye".

That eye for compelling art was developed over the decades, thanks in large part to Ms Feriani's mother, Essia Hamdi, a gallerist who runs Le Violon Bleu in Tunisia. Ms Feriani said: "She was the one who really put me on this journey, taking me almost everywhere with her." By "everywhere", she meant visits to artists' studios, exhibition openings and art auctions while she was growing up.

After obtaining a degree in finance and working in asset management in Scotland and England, Ms Feriani began collecting art from the Middle East and North Africa, but soon realised that the artists that she had grown up seeing were under-represented outside the region.

In 2009, she set up her gallery in London, with few contacts outside the world of banking and finance. "It was very difficult to bring an artist to show here from the Middle East," she said, given the lack of interest and money. In 2013, she moved back to Tunisia and opened a gallery on the outskirts of Tunis.

"The idea for me to open the space in Tunisia was to follow the artists, so I can take their practice forward and make the work universal," she said. "I want to be a reference there for promoting artists from our region and together take the art scene in Tunis to another level." NYTIMES