Just deserts?

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 40

Just deserts?

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 40

Just deserts?

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 40

The Barjeel Foundation is keen to reveal the rich contemporary art of the Middle East. And Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi feels the world is ready to take notice, as he explains to Anna Brady

"I'm not interested in buying works to lock up in my own home. I want to expose the artists to the outside world."

No stereotypical Arab prince, collector and journalist Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi has arrived alone at the Whitechapel Gallery in jeans and a crisp shirt, without the entourage one might expect for a member of one of the UAE's ruling families. The east London gallery is in the midst of a year-long series of exhibitions of highlights from the Barjeel Art Foundation, curated by Omar Kholeif before his departure to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

The largest single, historical presentation of Arab art in the UK, the Whitechapel shows feature 100 works by 60 artists dating from 1900 to the present, from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere. The four chronological shows explore different themes: the first concentrates on the establishment of a discernible modernist Arab aesthetic in the first part of the 20th century; the second, on figurative works between 1968 and 1987; the third on photography and video works of the 1990s, and the current display (until January 8) on uses of different media by artists to engage with their home cities.

Across this century of work, observes Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick, certain "formal echoes in palette, calligraphic script, architectural and decorative features and imagery" can be detected. This is art "not necessarily about, but undisputedly from, the context of the Arab world".

Modern and contemporary art from the region is a largely untapped seam. The Barjeel Art Foundation, established by Sultan in 2010 and formed of his personal collection of art from the Arab world, is his means of pulling this work from the peripheries into the central story of 20th and 21st century art history. Its approach is manifold, combining an online catalog, a publicly accessible collection in Sharjah, loan exhibitions at global institutions, and an active publishing wing and events program to educate and inspire debate.

Sultan himself speaks quickly, with impassioned urgency. An earnest provocateur, his aim is "to disseminate and showcase Middle Eastern art as widely as possible". He's perhaps more widely known as a journalist, a bold commentator on Middle Eastern social and political affairs who is never shy of controversy: he tweeted updates and opinion throughout the Arab Spring to his Twitter following of nearly half a million. His taste in art is equally politically engaged, reflecting this 'region in flux' from the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 to the 2014 IS takeover of areas of Iraq and Syria.

It was on returning to the UAE in the mid-1990s, after studying art history in Paris, that Sultan attempted to learn about the region's
own modern art history. With the internet in its infancy and few public collections, this proved almost impossible. He educated himself, visiting what few exhibitions were offered by the Emirates' "floundering art movement", often hotel-lobby affairs. In 2002, he bought his first piece, an architectural work by Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais.

In 2007, Sultan opened the Meem Gallery in Dubai, which focused on Arab and Iranian art. Over the next couple of years, Sultan started sharing images of interesting artworks on Twitter, and people began to ask where they could see them. So, in 2010, the Foundation was born, and the government of the UAE granted Barjeel a permanent, if modest, exhibition space in Sharjah.

This is a hub for Middle Easterners to discover the art of their own region, but Sultan has global ambitions for the collection. He plans to mount a serious challenge to the tendency in Western curating to focus on Europe and North America to the exclusion of the rest of the globe. This, he suspects, is more due to financial and logistical obstacles than ingrained cultural bias:

"I don't blame curators. Artworks from Africa, Asia and the Middle East have not been as accessible. The texts on them are often in their local languages or out of print. And there is often not the budget for curators to travel as far afield as these regions."

However Sultan has seen a "marked shift" in the past 10 to 15 years, and the email from Omar Kholeif, then curator at the Whitechapel, asking if he would collaborate, felt like a vindication: "Being a modest collection, you don't dream of approaching major institutions. It was the best email I opened in my life."

London institutions, he thinks, have a "more global, forward-looking outlook". We meet the morning after the opening of the Tate Modern's Switch House extension, and he is heartened by the increased representation of African, Asian and Middle Eastern artists in the new galleries.

"When I started in 2010, there were hardly any Middle Eastern artists in museums. Visiting the new Tate extension, I counted ten,
I think, including Kader Attia, Ibrahim El-Salahi and Parviz Tanavoli. It's amazing."

Observing the art produced in the region over the past century, Sultan notes that it is "often a reaction to local events, either micro-local or regional." Some older artists, such as Talal Moualla from Syria, whose work had never previously been politically engaged, have recently produced work in reaction to the region's conflict. "Whenever there is a major event, such as the Arab Spring in 2011, artists across the region react to it."

Though the Whitechapel catalog starts with European-style landscapes and portraits from the start of the 20th century, it gives way in the 1950s and '60s to artists like Iraqi Jewad Selim introducing matchstick men with stylised oval faces. These two decades were the region's avant-garde equivalent to 1920s Paris, as artists responded to (and encouraged) a surge of national pride and anti-colonialist feeling by "rejecting Western notions of art and infusing their work with motifs from their own visual culture".

Religious motifs are also commonly used to comment on political issues; however, such visual keys presume the viewer has an understanding of Middle Eastern history, hence the importance of skilful curating and education.

Although the Barjeel collection initially was dominated by contemporary male artists, which were more "accessible", Sultan has since redressed the balance with more modern and female artists, such as the Egyptian painter and activist Inji Efflatoun, whose often discomfiting works feature in the collection.

"Women have been very active socially and in all forms of art in the Middle East, throughout the 20th century and today," says Sultan, himself from a "family of strong women".

Sultan travels widely, acquiring works from auctions, private collections and directly from artists, favoring those who focus
on documentation and who refer to other artists. The "scholar artists" he picks out are Kader Attia, whose Untitled (Ghardaïa) (2009), a model of the Algerian town made from couscous, is displayed in the Tate's extension, and Ali Cherri, a Lebanese video and visual artist born in 1976.

The work of such "scholar artists", he thinks, has "substance and context", enough academic weight and historical gravitas to appeal to curators at an international level. For 2017, parts of the collection have been requested for exhibitions at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the Katzen Arts Center at the American University, Washington D.C., and one other "major American Ivy League university", opportunities to influence the curators of tomorrow.

For now, securing a larger museum space in Sharjah is Sultan's primary aim. He has just been granted land by the government
on which to build it, he hopes "in the next five to ten years".

However, first he must save the funds, which means a vexing bar on spending. "It's difficult because there are certain artworks that will never again be available – not because I'm addicted to buying art."

With that, he's off to a meeting at the British Museum, before flying back to the UAE, an inquiring man with a seemingly unquenchable appetite for, above all, cross-cultural communication.

Anna Brady is writes for publications including The Art Newspaper, Apollo – The International Art Magazine and Antiques Trade Gazette.

The Barjeel Art Foundation exhibition Imperfect Chronology: Mapping the Contemporary II is showing from 23 August 2016 until 8 January 2017 at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1; whitechapelgallery.org

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