Making history: the arrival of modern art in the Gulf

Photo: John Varghese

The second half of the twentieth century was (to say the least) an interesting time for the Gulf – mostly because of oil, of course, with its many political, economic and social impacts. And art was included in those.

Several oilfields had been discovered in the 30s and earlier, but World War II and the residues of imperialism delayed serious exploitation. By the 1950s however a string of countries that were still technically dependent on Britain for their security began to see sizeable inflows of cash to match the sizeable outflows of oil – Saudi in the late 40s, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar in the 1950s, Abu Dhabi in the early 60s, Dubai and Oman later in the decade. And with wealth came social change, including a more internationalist approach that (selectively) took on board ideas, attitudes and even education from the partners in oil development – Britain, France, the States, the West generally.

One result was the notion that art didn’t have to be simply decorative or functional: that it was possible to explore ideas, feelings, and views of the world via the imagination, and the end result didn’t need to proclaim a purpose or a duty. People started making art, and especially what we know as ‘modern’ art.

But it wasn’t art in a vacuum: often it was a response to the way the world was changing. If the old certainties were being eroded by new ideas and new information, how should a sense of identity be maintained?

We’re seeing the results today – art that identifiable fits the concept of modern art, but does so with a genuine and equally identifiable ‘Arab’ sensibility and aesthetic.

Now that’s a broad-brush interpretation of what happened to art in the Gulf from the 1950s on. If you want a more nuanced view, here’s the late and much-missed Hassan Sharif, one of the iconic figures in Gulf art, writing in 2015 about Emirati visual arts in the 1980s: he talked about “a landscape of intertwined forms and ambiguous boundaries, nearly impossible to decipher and interpret … A new generation of Emirati artists had wholeheartedly taken up the risks associated with exploring radically new creative territory”. And the same applied elsewhere in the Gulf.

To see what he was talking about, you really should visit the exhibition that has just opened at The Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi. Under the title Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula, it features a genuinely impressive overview of the rise of contemporary art in the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman.

The exhibition is curated by the Omani art historian Aisha Stoby, who was probably the obvious choice. She has made the development of different art movements in the region her speciality – indeed the exhibition is reportedly based on her 2021 PhD thesis for SOAS, which carries the slightly lumpier but very explicit title Modern Art Movements in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (1953-2008). Dr Stoby also curated Oman’s pavilion at this year’s 2022 Venice Biennale, the country’s first.

Aisha Stoby is a knowledgable, enthusiastic and articulate speaker, incidentally, and is well worth catching – she’s often featured on panels in events like Abu Dhabi Art and SAF’s March Meeting. Despite her relative youth, she has lectured extensively around the subject, participating in and led panels, and generally almost single-handedly has demonstrated the richness and variety of art from the Gulf in this period of near-history. (In particular she’s highlighted what was once a little known Omani contemporary art scene of the 1990s and early noughties, especially the group that formed around Anwar Sonya and then Hassan Meer’s Circle shows. Both feature in Khaleej Modern.)

She has clearly curated the show as something of a corrective, both to give some exposure to an internationally neglected region and to challenge a traditional, probably European, understanding of what ‘modernism’ is and how it interpreted.

Khaleej Modern is also a perfect fit for The Art Gallery’s remit. Its basic mission is “to map new territories and ideas through presenting exhibitions by internationally established artists, curators, and scholars”; but what sets it apart from most other institutional exhibition spaces is its awareness of location. NYUAD in general sees itself as participating in a two-way community-building exercise; the Art Gallery’s contribution is to present exhibitions that are internationally significant, but which also “contribute to wider global understandings of visual art, as well as resonating strongly with regional audiences” as Executive Director of The NYUAD Art Gallery Maya Allison put it. There’s a strong sense that the gallery has a role in identifying, presenting and documenting the movements in modern art that come from (or pass through) the area it inhabits.

That has been most obvious with the 2017 show But We Cannot See Them, a survey of the avant-garde community which formed in the UAE in the 1980s. The exhibition was accompanied by a substantial sourcebook with the same name, a compilation of essays (including one by Stoby) and interviews with curators and artists – several of whom appear in the current show, of course. Hopefully there will be a similar volume for Khaleej Modern, which is clearly something of a companion show.

Elsewhere Allison describes the Khaleej Modern exhibition as “a kind of opening salvo and call to action, offering new vistas on art history and art practice in this region”. It doesn’t intend to be a definitive survey, which is just as well – there probably isn’t the physical space to do justice to the whole subject, and it would be sure to prompt arguments about who should and shouldn’t be included.

Instead it’s a (pretty extensive) taster: “this project sets us on a journey to explore the under-studied – and, for some people, unknown – emergence of modern art in the Arabian peninsula over the last century”. And Dr Stoby says she hopes that this exhibition will serve as “an invitation for art enthusiasts and fellow researchers to take part in conversations to provide future scholarship towards our global art histories”.

And the extent of the collaboration that has resulted in this show bodes well. There are 38 artists represented with just under 60 works, and they have been loaned by 24 different institutions, galleries, private collections and other sources – an impressive bit of curatorial detective work, even if the Barjeel Art Foundation (holder of the best collection in the region – possibly in the world – of modern pan-Arabic art) provided a substantial head start …

Khaleej Modern is divided into four sections to provide a reasonably logical narrative across different geographical locations – where individuals and groups of artists emerged and worked, though rarely across national boundaries. The first room has Pioneers, mainly Kuwaitis like Mojib Al Dosari and Khalifa Al Qattan and Saudi artists like Mohammed Rasim and the globe-trotting Munira Al Kazil. Then there’s Landscapes, referring not just to landscape painting but also to the development of the landscape itself — “it looks at the period following the discovery and culmination of oil, and how that affected the landscape,” said Stoby in an interview. The Manama Group feature strongly here, a group of artists that went on to become influential teachers and gallerists.

The third section, Self-Representation and Portraiture, explores some of the tension between the old and the new that emerged so forcefully in the second half of the 20th century. This was a time of artists’ collectives like the Saudi House of Fine Arts (established by Mohammed Al Saleem in 1979) and Qatar’s Art Society (formed a year later by Yousef Ahmed, Hassan Al Mulla and Muhammad Ali Abdullah).

The final section represents something of an arrival on the world stage via artists’ groups in the UAE and Oman. Hassan Sharif, who is central to the Emirati side, once remarked: “I didn’t only make art, but I made my audience too … I had to contextualise what I was doing”. Sharif co-founded the Emirates Fine Arts Society, ran a series of exhibitions that proved inspirational to others, and later formed The Five.

“I can’t overstate the importance of this kind of archiving and collecting in service of making visible what were previously little-known art histories,” said Allison. “Those who allow for access to their archives and collections, as they have for this exhibition, make possible the scholarship now being written about this art – shaping the map of art history.”

Khaleej Modern runs to 11 December.

The artists:

Abdul Karim Al Bosta Bahrain
Abdul Karim Al-Orrayed Bahrain
Abdul Qader Al Rais UAE
Abdulhalim Radwi Saudi Arabia
Abdullah Al Qassar Kuwait
Abdullah Al Saadi UAE
Abdullah Al Shaikh Saudi Arabia
Abdulrahman Alsoliman Saudi Arabia
Ahmed Qassim Al Sunni
Ali Mohamed Al Mahmeed Bahrain
Anwar Sonya Oman
Budoor Al Riyami Oman
Ebtisam Abdulaziz UAE
Hassan Meer Oman
Hassan Sharif UAE
Hussain Qassim Al Sunni
Ibrahim Ismail Kuwait
Issa Saqer Al Khalaf Kuwait
Khalid Albudoor UAE

Khalifa Qattan Kuwait
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim UAE
Mohammed Ahmed Rasim Saudi Arabia
Mohammed Al Saleem Saudi Arabia
Mohammed Kazem UAE
Mojib Al Dosari Kuwait
Moosa Omar Oman
Mounirah Mosly Saudi Arabia
Munira Al Kazi Kuwait
Najat Makki UAE
Nasser Al-Yousif Bahrain
Nujoom Alghanem UAE
Rashid Abdul Rahman Al Balushi
Rashid Al Oraifi Bahrain
Safeya Binzagr Saudi Arabia
Sami Mohammed Kuwait
Thuraya Al-Baqsami Kuwait
Yousef Ahmad Qatar
Yousef Khalil UAE

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