Gulf Canvases: May The Brushstrokes We Take, Light the Way

For decades in the Middle East, art has been frequently divorced from the public scene. But for the first time in a long while, the arts seem to be getting more eclectic and freer.

Over the past fifty years, art in the Gulf has witnessed an artistic revolution, starting in Kuwait. In the 1960s and 1970s, Kuwait was known for its liberal environment and support of the arts. Kuwait's Sultans were big patrons of the arts, and even hosted big names like Andy Warhol. In 1969, the Sultans opened The Sultan Gallery, which introduced Arab artists to international audiences.

However, the Gulf Wars took a toll on the society and economy of Kuwait, and the cosmopolitanism it once held so firmly found its way to Bahrain. Bahrain became the new cosmopolitan scene, and was referred to as the "new Beirut." (The so-called old Beirut was grappling with the country's civil war.) The Arts and Literature Club in Bahrain was founded in 1952. In the years following, Manama hosted an exhibition from art amateurs of this club. Finally, in 1983, 34 Bahraini artists approached the government and requested to establish the Bahrain Arts Society, a non-government organization that would support Bahrain cultural arts and sharing it regionally, which is still standing today. In the 21st century the art scene was to profoundly change, and almost underwent a reemergence from a quieter 1990s. For instance, while the United Arab Emirates had been hosting the Sharjah Biennial since 1993, it wasn't until 2003, when Hoor Al-Qasimi, the current President of Sharjah Art Foundation, reoriented the biennial by ushering in contemporary Gulf art.

Hoor's contributions have not only propelled the UAE into the art scene, but seduced neighboring Arab States to follow. This renewed interest in art led Kuwait in 2006 to reopen the Sultan Gallery, which had closed during the 1990 invasion of Iraq. But the UAE's 2008-2010 financial crisis tempered their ambitions and budgets, and pushed Qatar into the art scene's spotlight, highlighting its Islamic Museum of Art and Arab Museum of Modern Art. After seeing the UAE's success in the field, a number of major cities throughout the region followed and renovated their art facilities with special care so as to not to lose their more traditional aspects to modernity.

Even Saudi Arabia, who we love to frame in a narrow lens, has carved out its own niche in this artistic revolution.

While speaking with Rasha Al-Hoshan -- a board member of the Kingdom Holding Company, which is chaired by Prince AlWaleed, and the owner of her own design firm -- I asked her about the "Splendor of Islamic Art" traveling exhibit, which is a collaboration between Musee Du Louvre and Saudi Arabia.

"In an effort to raise awareness about the newly established Islamic Department, the Musee Du Louvre selected over one hundred pieces of its most spectacular Islamic Art Objects to tour the Middle East, where Prince AlWaleed donated $20 million to the galleries," she told me. "Out of this was born the 'Splendor of Islamic Art' exhibition. In all cases, the Supreme Commission for Tourism contacted me to work in coordination with a French Architect to deliver this project. It was my most proud day, to receive HRH Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz at the exhibit opening, who had honored me with a photograph, praise and a smile for my efforts. This stayed with me for a long time. It's something encouraging, to who I was then, a young Saudi working woman just starting her career."

Saudi Arabia has committed around $1.7 billion for the construction of 230 new museums. Jeddah already is showcasing contemporary art housed in Ayyam Gallery and Athr Gallery. Both traditional and liberal currents are in Saudi Arabia, and for the artwork that may not be able to be shown in Saudi Arabia, their work is exported and displayed internationally, and those Saudi Artists still live in peace in the Kingdom.

One brilliant example is Saudi doctor and artist Ahmed Matar. Matar has produced a number of controversial pieces and is the co-founder of Edge of Arabia, a non-profit social enterprise focused on Saudi art, which has served as a home for welcomed Saudi artists, like Manal AlDowayan, whose artwork focuses on societal issues.

I asked Rasha for her opinion on what sparked the Gulf region's interest in the arts. "Art has always been part of our culture. But I think everything from the global village to the revolution of social media is somewhat responsible for this sudden mushrooming of art galleries," she said.

"I also believe that the rise of Dubai provided the Gulf region with further inspiration as it succeeded in attracting visiting artists, performers, photographers, and academics to productively collide them in a dynamic discourse within a safe, stable, and rich environment, both cerebrally and financially."

The works produced by Gulf artists are unique, as they portray a narrative often underplayed in the casts of luxurious cities. Matar's "Evolution of a Man," for instance, shows X-rays of a gas pump evolving into a man shooting himself in the head with a gun. Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin often depicts patriarchal scenes and society's stereotypes of women. "I think my work is resisted because it is truthful," Amin said. "I am holding up a mirror and showing problems we have in our society, but it has to be said that I really love my country and my region. I love being an Arab and I believe that we will rise up again as a civilization. But that will never happen if we continue to hide our issues under the table."

Art in the Gulf has not only triggered a much-needed dialogue among the region's residents, but outside of the region as well.
Art humanizes the way media wrongly portrays the region, as luxury and skyscrapers are abundant, art has deepened the understanding that through it all, personal and societal anguishes occur. It shows the Gulf for what it is -- dynamic.

The Gulf has not only accommodated local artists, but artists from various Arab diasporas as well. Sara Shamma is an artist who had to leave Damascus in 2012, and her artwork tells the story of the Syrian diaspora and is shared in Dubai. If not for many Gulf art initiatives and safe hosting in their countries, these illustrated voices of what the people want to tell the world would go unseen.

Healthy bilateral dialogues are proactively being initiated through art, one example being in Qatar. "Here in Qatar Museums Authority, we have a dedicated department called 'Years of Culture,' which is a cultural office that celebrates the diplomatic relationship between Qatar and another country each year," Khawla Al Marri, a museums professional currently based in Doha, Qatar, told me. "We have celebrated Qatar-Japan, Qatar-UK, Qatar-Brazil and this year we will celebrate Qatar-Turkey. Throughout the year, we create different programs that introduces both cultures and also set up cultural talks."

Art has created a dialogue between many Arab nationalities and foreign countries, which have strengthened mutual understanding. The more society interacts with art, the more they are collecting greater tolerance, re-humanizing people, which even their own media and conflicts had inaccurately portrayed. From domestic Gulf projects, sharing art of unheard voices of Arab diasporas, to their international initiatives, these societies are learning about life through art, all reminding me of what Palestinian-American author Randa Jarrar wrote once,

"I saw us running barefoot, the skin of our feet collecting sand and rocks and cactus and seeds and grass until we had shoes, shoes made of everything we'd picked up as we ran."

Many in the Gulf have made a point of critically engaging children in art as well.

"Art education is found only in private schools in the gulf and not government schools," Khawla told me. "In Qatar, the government is keen to apply art education and museum education in all schools, which is why we increased our collaboration through various programs.... Museum education enhances children's communication skills, creativity and even critical thinking. We want children to explore beyond the walls of a classroom or a textbook. Through our programs, children then become better speakers and thinkers."

Meanwhile, in the greater Middle East, freedom of speech has faced and still faces number of hurdles, but art seems to have slipped by. Once deemed a threat because of its capacity to stir conversation, it is now more warmly welcomed. Forums and conferences are stimulating reflective dialogues, helping audiences navigate through art and appreciate it. The Middle East's cultural renaissance is in part due to various Arab states seeing their cities, art and architecture of centuries disappear in the matter of seconds. It is for this reason that Islamist extremist groups have made a concerted effort to damage and destroy ancient art in Iraq and Syria, as well as targeted artistic institutions, such as the attack on Tunisia's Bardo Museum. The value art and culture has in nation-building and social awareness is finally being recognized, which is among the reasons they have been targeted.

In both the Middle East and the Gulf, there is a need for a "universal language" of sorts -- one that encourages understanding and dialogue. This cultural renaissance is a sign that society is moving toward this ideal and actively contributing to the globalization of the region. Socio-political commentator and founder of Barjeel Art Foundation Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi articulated this perfectly, saying,

"Because art is a universal language, it is an essential part of the globalization of humanity."

Art in the Gulf is actively contributing to development in the region in ways that skyscrapers cannot. The Gulf and region alike does not live in the same world it had lived in five years ago. Visual language is what people desire and to share -- and today, art is not only endorsed by the top down, but in many cases, demanded from the ground up.