Barjeel’s future: no short-term shows but a permanent exhibition at Sharjah Art Museum

The Sharjah Museums Authority has signed a five-year agreement with Barjeel Art Foundation that should see more exposure for BAF’s extensive collection of modern Arab art. There will be a long-term exhibition loan of “60 to 100 paintings and sculptures by key figures from the modern Arab art scene” that will open at the Sharjah Art Museum later this year.

The BAF portfolio is based on the personal collection of its founder, Sultan Soud al Qassimi. It’s now one of the best surveys of modern Arab art – it totals more than 1,200 pieces – and the Sharjah deal guarantees that at least some of it will continue to be publicly accessible.

That’s because Barjeel is taking a break from its exhibition schedule. The current Paul Guiragossian show in its usual home, the Maraya Art Centre gallery in Qasba, will be the last there; and the foundation will also be taking a two year break from what has in recent times been a positively hectic series of international exhibitions – 23 shows in nine countries during the past five years.

Barjeel regards this hiatus and the long-term Sharjah Art Museum deal as a second stage in its development, one that will provide a permanent display of modern Arab art history. Sharjah Art Museum is the UAE’s first public art museum (it opened as long ago as 1997) and the Barjeel deal will add a serious contemporary component to it.

The display will definitely include Al Qassimi’s most recent acquisition for Barjeel. The Wolf Howls: Memories of a Poet (above) is a 1968 painting by the noted Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi. Based on a poem by Muzaffar Al Nawab, it depicts a mother retrieving the corpse of her son who had been killed by the Baathists for communist activity.

The partnership makes perfect sense for both organisations …

Born in Baghdad in 1939, Dia Azzawi of the founding members of the ‘New Vision’ group of Iraqi artists, Dia Azzawi has frequently taken inspiration from political and social issues affecting his country and the region more generally. Barjeel has a number of his works in its collection.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi declared himself “delighted” to be working with the Sharjah Museums Authority. “This partnership makes perfect sense for both organisations as they are both dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the arts, especially works from the UAE and the wider region.

“The long-term hang at the end of 2018, as well as events planned for the future, will represent a coming together of each organisation’s collection of historically significant pieces, which share many similarities.”

In an interview, he described the move away from short-term shows as a strategic break – “we can figure out what we are doing to do in the next 10 years” while using “the money we would have spent on exhibitions to acquire new works that are rapidly disappearing from the market”. The Foundation is still maintaining some international connections, notably with the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; it’s funding a research fellowship there and is supporting a major 2019 exhibition there on the links between the Middle East and South Asia.

Barjeel and Sharjah Museums have collaborated before, on 2016’s The Short Century exhibition of BAF works at the Sharjah Art Museum. Eric Hobsbawn coined that phrase for western culture to mean the period between the end of the First World War and the fall of the fall of the Soviet Union; the BAF curators cleverly mapped a similar period on to the years from Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) or the fall of the Ottoman Empire (1920) to the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

The Short Century ran for eight months in 2016 and was very well received. Our own view was that the curation was excellent, with a selection of works that echoed the seismic changes in Arabic society and identity during the 20th Century – in particular, showing the development of genuinely regional styles within what started as a Western cultural idiom.

If that’s the standard of future shows, it bodes well.

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