Friday, September 16, 2022

Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula

How did art evolve in the Arabian Peninsula? What was the journey like? Who were the architects of this evolving art world? What started the different movements and where has it reached? This exhibition is a treatise, a study of these queries.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Preview of Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula. Thanks to Arte & Lusso, the online magazine and Slava Noor, the Editor of the magazine. I must say that this is definitely a landmark exhibition with some rare and never before seen works of prominent artists from the West Asian region. It surveys the emergence of modern art in the Arabian Gulf featuring 57 artworks from the early and mid-20th century through 2007. The exhibition includes works from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, a region collectively known in Arabic as the “Khaleej.”

The Exhibition that opened on 6 September at the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Art Gallery is definitely one of a kind in recent times that explores, examines and expands our horizons in relation to the visual arts of the Arabian Gulf. Dr. Aisha Stoby with Assistant curator, Tala Nassar from the NYUAD Art Gallery and the Chief Curator of NYUAD, Maya Allison have achieved formidable feet with this path-breaking exhibition. It is curated by Dr. Aisha Stoby, who helmed the inaugural Oman Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year.

The exhibition is based on Dr.Aisha Stoby’s Ph.D. research that commenced in 2015 as she traces and maps the evolution as well as the history of art through prominent pioneers and collectives, their definitive movements in the region’s visual art history basically the emergence of the art scene in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s extremely interesting to note that this young researcher and curator has already spent some valuable years in the study and outlining the development of almost a century. She points out the influx of teachers travelling to the region and students studying abroad which brought in a novel perception and consideration. Some of the works are on view for the first time.

Installation view of Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula. “Early Pioneers” and “The Landscape” sections. Photo: John Varghese

Maya Allison- Chief Curator of NYUAD Art Gallery, Dr.Aisha Stoby and Tala Nassar - Asst.Curator

Khaleej Modern documents the shift and journey of new art theories, diverse media and curatorial framework. The backdrop of the practice was changing socio-political tendencies and contexts, extreme industrial growth and modernization. The term “modern” however takes a different affinity from European Modernism in the context of the Arabian Gulf.

The layout of the exhibition is in four segments – Early Pioneers, Landscapes, Self-Representation and Portraiture, and The Conceptual Turn. Each section is crisp yet flows gradually into the next. It starts with the artists using traditional methods from the 1940s to 2007. It’s an ongoing conversation of tradition and modernity. It involves making art as well as contextualizing it. Dr. Stoby clarifies that ‘Pioneers’ are not only artists but also include founders, gallerists, mentors, teachers and collectives where these pioneers practiced.

The Four Segments:

Early Pioneers

This section has one of the oldest paintings in the exhibition obviously. It is a portrait by Mojid Al Dosari, one of the pioneers from Kuwait who went on to study at Al Mubarakiya School. Artists in this era include Ibrahim Ismail whose work is the chosen poster image that is quite experimental and encapsulates tradition and modernity beautifully. Another work portrays an atelier where the artist presents himself painting a model and one can see the European influence and a cosmopolitan outlook present there. Mohammed Racim, one of the Turkish artists who held an exhibition in Jeddah was believed to be funded by a local Bank in the early 1950s. His illustrative works are again a mix of both tradition and modernity. Munira Al Kazi is another notable and outstanding artist of this period. They were founders and initiators of the day.

Building of Ships by Ibrahim Ismail, 1966
Oil on canvas board, 30 x 40 cm, courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah


The focus in this segment is not just on the practice of architecture and landscape painting but on evolving and developing landscapes, particularly with the discovery of oil as a prominent resource. It is also about documentation, preservation, heritage and watching the shifts around them. The key artists are Ahmed Qassim Al Sunni, one of the first to receive an art scholarship from the Bahraini Government to study art in London. Along with artists like Nasser Al-Yousif and Abdul Karem Al Orrayed, Ahmed Sunni formed the “Manama Group” which met every Friday to paint the landscapes. Their style had a European influence but they focused on Bahraini landscapes. Ahmed Sunni was also the first to develop a school curriculum that became the basis of the art schools in Bahrain. Mohammed Saleem found an exhibition space where many of the artists from the exhibition had exhibited back in the day. He also coined the term “Horizonism” – taking colours and textures to emulate landscapes. Yousef Ahmad was responsible for the beginnings of the Mathaf Collection of modern art, among many other things. The other notable collective of the period is the “Three Friends” in which Yousef Ahmad was a prominent part. Many collectives and fine art societies blossomed strengthening the local art ecosystem during this period.

Old Architecture of Manama by Ahmed Qassim Al Sunni, 1960,
Oil and jute on wood, courtesy of Bahrain National Museum

Self-Representation and Portraiture

This segment is an ongoing conversation between concepts of the individual and the society, and tradition and modernity. Socio-political impact on the artistic output is strikingly visible. Along with the presence of many themes, it looks at different artistic mediums and how they were processed. A time that reflected both private and public spaces. Along with Mounirah Mosly, Safeya Binzagr pioneered in painting and exhibition. They had their one of a kind first public art exhibition in Saudi Arabia in 1968. Safeya Binzagr was the first woman in Saudi Arabia to have had a solo exhibition. Later she opened her own museum, again a first, Darat Safeya Binzagr. Her works dwell on traditions, intimate space and portraiture almost as an act of preservation. Mosly’s environment captured a constant flux of development and modernization. She also incorporated a range of materials in her diverse practice that was novel at the time. Thuraya Al Baqsami studied art in Russia and when she moved back, found that figurative painting had disappeared from the Kuwaiti art scenario. She was part of the GCC Art Friends’ Group that went against this wave. Her focus was on the lives and roles of Kuwaiti women. The Gulf War had a profound impact on the artist. Her work “Return from the village” is one that drew me in and I would have prolonged my stay in that village and would have loved to explore the place.

Al Zaboun by Safeya Binzagr, 1969
Acrylic and print on canvas, private collection

The Conceptual Turn

The final segment is not just a progression from one to another but it coincides with other dates, something that ran parallel; a period of introduction of new and different materials globally.

This section highlights the collectives “The Five” (modern and contemporary Emirati artists) and “The Circle” (a group of artists from Oman). Hassan Sharif is a major figure and there are references to his notorious One Day Exhibition held at his Mreijah Atelier in Sharjah. He is also the co-founder of Emirates Fine Arts Society. “Silsilat al Ramad”, the artists’ book by the short-lived Aqwas (“Arches” named after Sharif’s Arch-shaped works) Group that includes Hassan Sharif, Nujoom Alghanem, Khalid Albudoor and Yousef Khalil is on display. “My Mother’s Letters” by Abdullah Al Saadi is a work I was drawn to for its emotional element. This is a series of objects that his mother who couldn’t write left at his studio door to let him know that she had visited while he was away. The artist was a part of the group known as “The Five.” “The Circle” from Oman was founded by Hassan Meer whose installation “Under the Water” can be seen here. The collective focused on how to interpret spirituality using forms that one normally wouldn’t expect. Mohammed Kazem, Mousa Omar, Anwar Sonya, Budoor Al Riyami are other notable artists in this section. The artists were not only responsible for introducing and championing new artistic practices in the local communities but were also founding avenues through which this art could be studied, viewed and understood.

My Mother's Letters by Abdullah Al Saadi, 1998-2013
mixed media, courtesy of the artist

Khaleej Modern is a learning curve and a long overdue path-breaking exhibition for it could be a starting point to learn and have a deeper understanding of the times bygone in the art ecosystem of the Arabian Peninsula. Dr. Stoby anticipates that the exhibition will be a point to take forward the conversation in understanding the art scene and help in the wider reach and awareness of the times, the context and the changes – a reassessment and study of sorts. The people, the places, the process and even the patterns are a road map, a study of the past is essential to travel and evolve in the future.

Installation view of Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula.“The Conceptual Turn” section. Photo: John Varghese

Exhibition Dates: Sep 6 to Dec 11, 2022
Venue: NYUAD Art Gallery, Abu Dhabi
Time: 12 to 8 pm (Mondays closed)

photo: yours truly unless specified otherwise