First published on THE MANTLE
[Installation view, "Soft Power"]
The discussion about whether art in the Gulf is to be considered “meaningful” as art is not just endless but plagued with a number of crucial misunderstandings that apply to other aspects of the general picture about the Gulf region. It is said often that there is no real art from the Gulf region, and that the art movement is mainly comprised by cultural underpinnings imported with the aim to brand cities for investors and tourism; while there is a degree of truth to that, the birth of a small home-grown artistic scene dates back to the middle of past century particularly inSaudi Arabia and especially Bahrain (See Robert Kluijver’s essay in the Gulf Art Guide about Saudi Arabia and mine about Bahrain in the same publication) with painters, more or less in the tradition of Arab Modernism and Expressionism, some of which are still active today.
Although the identity of Arab art was shaped to a greater degree by the pictorial tradition of Egypt and Lebanon (an identity formed in the course of the Arab El-Nahda – awakening – in the 19th century rather than by Islamic art sensu stricto; considerations at the heart of Nada Shabout’s 2007 book “Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics”), visual culture wasn’t exactly forbidden in the Gulf, while its progress was steadily slow. The genre of abstract painting has been always popular not only because of the traditional religious taboo on representation of images, but also because of increasing censorship; nevertheless the Shiite traditions at home in Bahrain and Oman present a different picture. The lack of an institutional museum culture makes these efforts seem now scattered and difficult to categorize within an art history.
But art history itself and the increasing thematic and technical globalization of the art scene in the West and elsewhere does not make it any easier for the Gulf to develop artistic movements or tools of art history in the traditional sense. Donald Preziosi argued a few years ago that more than recording trajectories – long abandoned by art historians since the collapse of metaphysics and the grand historical narratives – art history is the Latin of modernity, and that the most observable result of art history is actually modernity itself. The availability of modern technologies and new media has made the world of art more democratic but also more homogeneous, so that local narratives become more than often embedded in global vocabularies.
An example of this is the exhibition “Soft Power” that inaugurated a new gallery slash art space in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, last October. Alaan Art Space, one of the few curated venues in the region – the proliferation of commercial galleries is a different topic altogether to which specialized magazines have devoted enough space – opened its doors in October with this exhibition featuring the work of three Saudi artists, Sarah Abu Abdallah, Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali and Manal Al Dowayan (whose solo exhibition, “A Journey of Belonging” opened on January 15th, at Athr Gallery in another Saudi city, Jeddah); seeking to explore in nuanced ways the position of women in contemporary society using non-traditional formats, seeking to overturn traditional narratives not only narratively, but aesthetically as well.
[Sarah Abu Abdallah's "Recommence"]
In October, arts magazine REORIENT spoke with Neama Alsudairy, the founding director of Alaan, about the role of the gallery and their inaugural exhibition, and their multi-layered role as both commercial gallery, non-profit and educational space. After the introduction of the collective “Edge of Arabia” in 2003, contemporary Saudi art has captured international attention and more women have come forward not only as artists but as first-rate cultural entrepreneurs, replicating a trend that is now well-established in Kuwait and Bahrain. While strong art institutions grow parallel and quite independently of home-grown artists, together with the visibility of contemporary art from the Middle East, often anchored in sharp socio-political contexts, there is a growing need and demand in this home-grown scene for higher-quality curatorship, publications and criticism. We spoke about this in the end of last year with Sara Raza, the curator at Alaan.
The Mantle: Why is it important to have a curated art space in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region? Recently, for example, I recall reading an editor of Canvas Magazine complaining that there were so many exhibits in the region that weren’t properly curated and that greatly lessened the value of certain pieces, while at the same time, being a curator is becoming a sort of handyman-do-everything-job. How do you reflect on the importance of curators in developing an authentic art scene in the Gulf outside the museum scene?
Sara Raza: Curatorial shows give a lot of premise to artworks and exhibitions allowing them to be properly contextualized. In the context of contemporary art from the Gulf, where everything is very new and art histories are also new, it requires a curatorial responsibility. That the curator is a handyman is a misconception and a funny one at that; curators should be art historians by discipline and this is very different from let’s say, being art dealers. A curator’s relationship with an artist is that of reciprocal exchange of ideas from the conceptual to the realization.
TM: The greatest challenge in Gulf art (and Arab art in general) seems to me not only the lack of art spaces and trained curators (there’s somehow progress in both fronts, of which Alaan is a proof) but that there are hardly any critics and writers approaching regional art beyond merely descriptive approaches. It is hard to think that art can really mature without critics, although art criticism in general is also undergoing profound transformation in the global scene. Where do you think we’re going with this in the Middle East?
SR: This needs to be approached and introduced within fine art curriculum at university level. There are certain journals dedicated to the Middle East but the practice of art criticism is still not on par with Europe and North America. There are definitely efforts underway and Alaan Art Space does want to host education programs. Also Maraya Art Center and the UAE National Pavilion are implementing educational programs.
TM: We’re living in a time in which there’s a certain decline of fine arts in favor of performance and digital media, and here we can recall Arthur Danto’s prediction about the end of art: “Art will have a future; it’s only that our art will not.” He was probably referring to the tradition of Western painting and art history. In the Middle East and especially in the Gulf, contemporary art is taking on a very similar path in which figurative and fine arts are a bit left behind, also for the kind of choices that galleries are making (and probably the market overall); where do we go from here?
SR: Perhaps this is a rather subjective point of view and perhaps it is not even exclusive to the Middle East but can be applied to various geographies. This is perhaps not the end of art, but the beginning of a new chapter. With the advent of new media art (video) and performance in the 1960s and 70s, artists found new artistic vocabularies to articulate their ideas. This is not necessarily a purely market-based trend, and as artists have evolved, so have collectors’ tastes and galleries’ remits. This is an evolution that is based therefore on more than one factor.
A lot of challenges remain for artists and independent cultural institutions in the Gulf region, and there is an obvious imbalance between the institutions and the local artists, also in broader contexts that significantly affect the commissions and the reception of works of art; nevertheless as time goes by, interest in the arts grows driven not only by commercial motivations, artists receive attention from abroad – as for example in the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia, established independently by a Dutch collector in Amsterdam – and new initiatives emerge that place regional art from the Gulf, and the larger Middle East, in more ubiquitous positions, under ever more rigorous standards.
[Sarah Abu Abdallah's "Untitled 3" from the series "Misfits"]
Photography courtesy of Alaan Art Space.