In recent years there has been a lot of hearsay about the boom of the arts in the Gulf region, and while this has been somewhat exceptional in some respects, it has also been plagued by a number of myths. The first one is that art as such didn’t exist in the Arabian Gulf and the second is that freedom for artists has increased exponentially.
The first myth is easily dispelled by the large number of prominent painters and artists in other formats hailing from the region, particularly from Kuwait and Bahrain, that have more or less kept with trends learnt from European art and that are displayed in prominent galleries and private collections all over the region.
The second myth is not as easily dispelled and behind it, there are different layers of multiplex realities lurking in a somewhat tense environment. The rise of the arts in the region coincides with the branding of certain cities and countries as global players in political and financial scenarios.
At the same time the coincidences aren’t always fortunate and in between this rise to prominence in global affairs (particularly of Qatar and United Arab Emirates) figures the last Gulf War, 9/11 and also Arab Spring. Those events are meaningful in the rise of the Gulf as an art hub because of the way in which art from the region came to understood elsewhere.
In many galleries and art circles in the West, art from the Middle East gained a whole new perspective after 9/11 and became a household item in auctions but perhaps all for the wrong reasons. It was expected from Arab artists to immediately reflect the new – turbulent – world order in their works and it was on this merit alone that many were judged.
A similar movement took place in 2011 after the Egyptian revolution when a certain cliché of “revolutionary works” was demanded by the market from Egyptian artists, as if the revolution were a finished product now handed to the artists for contemplation. While this brought to prominence some themes and artist, infinitely devalued the intrinsic value of art.
Whatever the critique called “Arab art”, it was nothing but a halal version of traditionalist art in which Arabian landscapes and horses, veiled women and Islamic-themed motifs made a spectacular come back out of the Golden Age of Islamic art, with flat and politically neutral messages that little had to do with the questions asked by society at the time.
While all this happened, galleries and auction houses opened by the dozens in the Gulf and took over Lebanon and Egypt as the regional epicenters of culture and art. Curators, art writers, magazines, exhibits and what not, fled to the affluent region and tried to create a radically chic art scene, fluently conversant with the West.
The problem here is that such growth was by no means natural and since there is an obvious lack of art schools, critics and especially a public art culture; it was not only that – ironically – it was all built on sand, but also in a more or less complete indifference to whatever artists in the region had been working on for decades.
Recently Qatar and the Emirate of Dubai have come under strong criticism because their art scene is something “glittering but empty” and with enormous financial resources, they have created institutions, world-class events and venues that while appealing to a global public, are not quite understood by the locals.
In spite of these great efforts – that sometimes have to do more with global branding than with an authentic interest in the arts – the Gulf leaders and art policy-makers have been oblivious to the fact that an art culture is created from bottom-up: It is artistic production and culture what generates successful institutions, rather than the other way around.
To have a culture of art is different than presenting art and the most obvious difficulty here is that the more time and resources have been invested to modernize the infrastructure, the more time, policy and efforts have been put into making it impossible for the society to modernize itself – an entire paradox.
Culture is not cultural production but the discussion about that same production. The leverage produced by art isn’t simply touristic or a financial asset; it is found rather in how art helps shaping the public sphere through education, criticism and educated conversations. That is the only way in which art becomes culture and not stay simply at the level of display.
While the citizens of the Gulf become more and more affluent, the restrictions imposed on society become more and more stringent: Censorship of movies, books, works of art and media are common; but this places the leadership in a very difficult position vis-à-vis their citizens:
The richer a nation is, also the more opportunities will be available to receive an education and it is at best naïve to think that in a part of the world where higher education isn’t precisely world-class, a large chunk of citizens will receive their education abroad and not return home challenged by influences, ideas and questions of the time in which they live.
While artists from the West flock to the Gulf in numbers to have their works exhibited and to occupy different chairs and residences; the local artists are often marginalized and sometimes are able to show their work to the public only overseas – as for example Saudi filmmakers and some painters from Kuwait and Bahrain.
If the local art scene will not nurture the local talent, it will have been a missed opportunity and if whatever art is exhibited, is not discussed in the open and permitted to challenge certain boundaries, the whole enterprise will collapse as a house of cards built on Arabian sand.
This week in Kuwait city, an exhibit of celebrated painter Shurooq Amin, “A Man’s World”, that offered a provocative and critical look inside the world of Middle Eastern men, or to be more specific, of Khaleeji men, was permanently shut down because of complaints received by the police about the work being pornographic and inappropriate.
While this was hardly the case, and the event provoked an uproar among certain liberal voices in the country, it is a troubling symptom of the mistaken direction in which censorship and art policies have taken in countries traditionally considered liberal such as Kuwait and Bahrain that are decades ahead of their neighbors in developing a rich cultural scene.
There’s no doubt that censorship in the region is no longer met with conformity, but that rather, the digital age has made it possible to by-pass censorship in many creative ways. People buy books from abroad, watch uncensored films on the Internet and are exposed to uncensored content everywhere.
A website or a TV channel that was censored can be simply hosted in another country without major hassle. There was a time when technology made it possible to control every aspect of life through surveillance, but at this point in time, to simply apply censorship laws arbitrarily can hardly contain the desire of an educated public to be exposed to the world.
The news of Shurooq Amin’s censorship incident spread quickly through social networks and a large number of Kuwaitis and people from elsewhere in the region and otherwise, expressed support for her cause. While there might be a question about some sensibilities being eroded, the challenge of and to authority must be met in a more graceful way.
Shutting down an art exhibit is not successful in imposing censorship as much as it is very successful in encouraging others who oppose censorship to become more and more vocal about it, and what began as a simple incident, could become a tipping point for people who think that so much more is being compromised here: Basic freedoms.
In a region where international art is being promoted at the expense of local talent, for whatever purpose it is – even if ideological, one can be sure that the arbitrariness will not remain unchallenged. Without the freedom to produce, present, discuss, the idea of the Gulf as an art hub is nothing but a wishful illusion.
One could not say that these incidents are everyday life in Kuwait or Bahrain – where they have also happened, but they do highlight clearly how countries constantly modernizing and becoming part of a highly global culture, cannot keep their societies from modernizing as well, and from accepting the challenge of something as simple as the questions posed by works of art.