The birth of a movement: art in the Gulf

When did modern art appear in this region and why does so little of the world know about it? Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula, a landmark exhibition surveying the emergence of modern art in the Arabian Gulf, recently concluded at The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Executive Director of The Art Gallery and University Chief Curator Maya Allison co-curated the exhibition with Aisha Stoby; the experience changed how she thought about some of the key questions in art, and how the study of art from this region can change how we study art worldwide.

magpie: Why was Khaleej Modern an important exhibition for the region?

Maya Allison: It might sound obvious, but one thing that someone will learn very quickly if they leave Europe and North America for other parts of the world is that there are many other art narratives and art histories. And yet, a book on the world history of art won’t tell you much about art in this region. One might think there was not an art history here – in fact, several authors have even presumed that there wasn’t anything here until the last 20 years or so.

Of course, there was significant artistic activity in Kuwait starting in the 1930s and 1940s; and in Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in the decades that followed, with the UAE and Oman joining in the 1970s. In these places, the artists shared one thing: they had to not only make art, but build the means to see, study, and develop art.

For example, in the UAE, Hassan Sharif (1951-2016) wrote for newspapers; he translated philosophical texts into Arabic so that his peers and students could read different ways of thinking about art. He co-founded the Emirates Fine Arts Society in Sharjah, and ran a teaching studio. He and his artist community were creating a space for public dialogue.

A cluster of similar societies throughout the region opened around between the middle and end of the 20th century. That’s almost a hundred years of artistic history that hasn’t been systematically mapped.

So when I learned about Dr Aisha Stoby’s research about art community clusters throughout the Gulf for her dissertation, I knew it was a story that needed telling. Artists and art communities don’t develop in a vacuum; they develop in dialogue with an audience and peers. From her mapping, and with her, our curatorial team began deep dives into the different artists, and this led to Khaleej Modern.

magpie: So tell us more about the birth of modernism in this region.

MA: The exhibition gave us an opportunity to highlight the moment where clusters of artists started to self-identify as artists, creating art societies and writing their own art histories. This is a history of incredible agency, self-determination, and radicalism.

The emergence of modern art in the gulf is also the history of the emergence of nations that we know today

But what was there here before what we call ‘art’? We usually use the word ‘modernism’ in art history to refer to a moment where people move away from representation to a more self-reflective mode. In European history this coincided with the birth of photography – because if you can take a photograph, why would you need to paint it?

The idea of ‘modern’ painting being a break from ‘traditional’ painting only works in a place where painting was already understood as an art practice. It’s the word ‘art’ that trips us up. In the Gulf there was not the same history of painting. Here we have a different history of artistic practice, understood outside the world of art museums, outside of the high-low of fine art versus craft. You might see beautiful, intricate abstract painting murals inside homes in some parts of Saudi. And, of course, the many forms of poetry, music, and weaving from these parts.

So the emergence of modern art is not modernism in the sense of rebelling against representational painting; it’s a totally different moment. You could call painting on canvas a ‘new media’ practice in this period of mid-century Gulf.

This is intellectually challenging and important because it forces me as a curator and art historian to rethink how I understand art and what we even call art. And that’s not a small question. If you pull on that thread, you soon must ask: can we call something art without limiting it? Or, worse, am I colonising it through a European interpretive frame just by naming it ‘art’? I came to this question in the course of my work on the artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim for the Venice Biennale this year, particularly as I was writing the essay for the monograph. Then the Khaleej Modern exhibition only further deepened my concern about this issue.

magpie: What was what was the trigger for modernism in this region?

MA: One could look to the emergence of an oil-exporting economy as a trigger. Certainly, that coincides with the emergence of formalised schooling, which brings in educators from other parts, who in turn add art classes to the curriculum.

But for how and why someone becomes an artist, each story is different. Mojib Al Dosari (1922-1956) got a scholarship from Kuwait to go to Cairo in the 1940s where he started an arts newsletter that he sent back to Kuwait. In doing so he was beginning the process of recording and communicating artistic knowledge to his community. And that creates in people’s imagination the possibility that being an artist is a thing that you do.

His debut exhibition, at a Kuwait high school in 1943, is the first exhibition that we know of in the Gulf. This doesn’t sound particularly noteworthy until you realise that this would have been right at the beginning of this region’s formalised education system, and oil exporting, and the influx of societies for those infrastructures. Suddenly you’re seeing what a historian might think of as a kind of ‘modernity’, which can be understood as arising from exchange with an international perspective. And that’s a moment that happens in every region where there’s a shift to a new way of being through contact across cultures, whether that’s through war, industrialisation, or colonisation.

All of which means the emergence of modern art in the Gulf is also the history of the emergence of nations that we know today.

magpie: The exhibition also revealed a surprising number of female artists at this time …

MA: Yes, several young women artists were given scholarships to study art abroad. They subsequently returned to make art and teach art. One example that really upended what I thought I knew about Saudi art was in the 1960s: Mounirah Mosly (1942-2019) and Safeya Binzagr (born 1940) opened a two-woman exhibition in 1968, that was very well-received. Apparently, there was a public opening reception, one night for men, one night for women.

Their work includes figurative portraits of women in hijab, which also surprised me. Both had been sent abroad to study art, and continued to play a very active role in developing the study of art.

Another is the Saudi-Kuwaiti artist Munira Al-Kazi (born 1939). She was very cosmopolitan, born in India, lived in Spain and London and Kuwait, and in 1969 was part of the first exhibition to open at the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait, arguably the most important commercial art gallery in the Gulf, and possibly the first.

Her paintings were acquired by both the Tate and the MOMA, and then never shown; we speculate that this was because curators did not know how to contextualise the work. Our hope is that this exhibition will be part of remedying that lack of regional context in the study of modern art history.

An exhibition like this is what I love about working specifically in a university context: each project is an opportunity to embark on a journey of discovery and to reassess our assumptions, and to take the risk of venturing into new territories of learning.

Munira al Kazi, Untitled (Family) (1965)

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