A new modern art museum for Sharjah?

A new museum of contemporary Arab art could be coming to Sharjah, a move that will further enhance the Emirate’s credentials both as a powerhouse of modern art and a guardian of Arabic culture.

The Barjeel Museum for Modern Arab Art is intended to be a permanent showcase for the Barjeel Art Foundation’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary art from across the Arab world. As yet the museum exists only as the brief for a design competition, but the land is available and a strong design will help the Barjeel’s founder Sultan Soud al Qassimi to tap various local sources of finance.

The Barjeel Art Foundation has more than 1,200 works in its collection, one of the best surveys of modern Arab art currently available. This is based on the personal collection of Sultan Soud al Qassimi, who last year closed the Foundation’s exhibition gallery in its usual home, the Maraya Art Centre in Al Qasba.

At the same time he signed a five-year agreement with the Sharjah Museums Authority for a long-term exhibition of work from the collection – A Century In Flux, featuring key modernist paintings, sculptures and mixed media covering a century of artistic production in the Arab region and its diaspora. This show (which is really rather good, and merits repeated visits) opened last May and runs to Spring 2023.

The Barjeel Museum for Modern Arab Art will be in Al Tarfa, a developing neighbourhood along the E311 highway on the eastern side of Sharjah City. It’s well away from the Art Area of Sharjah Art Foundation and the museums, but it’s close to the universities (and the airport, and right next to an ADNOC services with a MacDonald’s).

Dia Azzawi, The Wolf Howls: Memories of a Poet (1968). From the Barjeel Art Foundation collection

Right now the museum is no more than a call for entries for the Rifat Chadirji Prize, named for the Iraqi architect and educator and established in 2017 as part of the Tamayouz Excellence Award programme of championing regional architecture.

So there’s no guarantee that the winning design will get built. But the plot has been allocated to Barjeel by the government of Sharjah, the Barjeel Art Foundation is Tamayouz’s partner in this year’s prize, and Sultan Soud al Qassimi is keen to have both a permanent home for the Foundation’s collection and a centre for modern Arabic art. “I started collecting art in 2002 with the intention of making the works available to the public in one way or another,” he said in an interview. “The idea of establishing a building to house the Barjeel collection is something I have been considering for the past decade.”

And at the same time “it’s important for participants to keep in mind that this is a structure that would potentially house a collection of art from across the Arab world”.

The submission deadline for the prize is 1 October and results will be announced in November. Assuming the design is practical and acceptable, the detailed planning could start early next year; so there’s a good chance that the museum would open in 2021 (as the Louvre demonstrated, there could be a lot of security and environmental testing to get right before a museum in this country can throw open its doors. On the other hand, the Jameel seems to have managed to open on time …)

Etel Adnan, Beloved Bodies II (2014). From the Barjeel Art Foundation collection

Crucially, though, there isn’t actually any cash yet. “I hope that I will be able to raise funds from the UAE and elsewhere to construct the museum,” said Al Qassimi. But “a strong design will only add weight to the project and allow us to build a better case for its realisation.”

The strength of the design obviously depends on its functioning effectively as a museum, but it also has to work as an icon in its own right. The requirements for the design (the brief is here, and this is our listing on the Opportunities page) are quite clear. “Participants are asked to design an architectural and cultural landmark that hosts the Barjeel collection and represents modern art, architecture and design in the Arab world” but at the same time “the design is required to contextualise Sharjah’s history and cultural identity in a contemporary manner …”

The last one is interesting, in that there’s an explicit concern that the building should be “relevant to contemporary architectural discourse whilst being informed by local cultural heritage and environmental conditions”. So it has to be modern, and by implication it has to be internationally significant and a potential prizewinner in itself; but it also has to reflect its historical and geographical location. No decorative barjeels, then. And let’s hope there aren’t any knee-jerk references to sand dunes either.

“I am hoping for a modern design that takes into consideration environmental concerns,” said Sultan Soud Al Qassemi. “I would also like to see something more on a human scale that still has the ability to stand out.”

Submissions to the Rifat Chadirji Prize cost a modest £75 each (there’s an early bird discount too). The winner gets a trophy designed by noted contemporary Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi, $5,000 in cash, and flights and accommodation for a trip to the 2019 Awards Ceremony in December. There are also prizes for second and third place, as well as a People’s Choice award.

Sharjah already has the Sharjah Art Foundation and its Sharjah Biennial. The Sharjah Art Museum is the UAE’s first public art museum (it opened as long ago as 1997) and the last few months have seen the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial and the preliminary groundwork for the Sharjah Architecture Triennial due later this year.

Above: Bassel Safadi, War Trilogy – Black (2015). From the Barjeel Art Foundation collection

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