The 20th century witnessed a string of influential women who have impacted the world of Western art from Isabella Stewart Gardner and Gertrude Stein to Peggy Guggenheim and Elizabeth A. Sackler. Perhaps unknown to some even in the arts field, a mixture of native and expatriate women across the Arab Gulf States have also played a major role in nurturing the arts movement that is now flourishing and valued at over $100 million annually in Dubai alone according to one estimate. These pioneers have also spurred a generation of younger women from all walks of life that have contributed into making the art scene in the Gulf States what it is today.
Amongst the very first of these pioneers was Najat Sultan who along with her brother Ghazi moved from India to their native Kuwait and established the Sultan Gallery in 1969. Today, Farida Sultan, the last surviving sibling, runs the Sultan Gallery and continues to host groundbreaking shows. In 1983 Sheikha Hussah Al Sabah co-founded along with her husband Sheikh Nasser Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah to manage their valuable collection of Islamic art. Thirty years later Sheikha Hussah still plays an important role as the centre's director general. Part of the Dar Al Athar's collection was famously saved as a result of being on temporary loan to the Hermitage Museum in Russia during the 1990-1991 occupation of Kuwait. In 1992, immediately following the Gulf War Sheikha Hussah established Dar Al Funoon gallery for contemporary art that is today run by Lebanese Armenian Lucia Topalian. Kuwait's vibrant art scene today is enriched through the efforts of the young Sheikha Lulu who established the annual JAMM art auction in 2010.
The UAE was fortunate to have had multiple efforts by leading ladies to promote art. In Abu Dhabi Sheikha Salama founded an organization carrying her name in 2010 to support art, culture and education. Also in Abu Dhabi Hoda Al Khamis Khanoo started the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation in 1996 and is widely respected in the community for her non-profit work. Sharjah's Sheikha Hoor joined the then decade old Sharjah Biennial team in 2003, revamping it and launching the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2009 in order to commission and display cutting edge art both inside and outside the UAE. In 2008, Dubai's Sheikha Latifa, a respected artist whose own work was shown at the UAE Pavilion of the Venice 2011 art biennial established Tashkeel, a centre that provides studio facilities for fine art, photography, printmaking and textile printing amongst other services. Additionally, Rita Aoun-Abdo and Antonia Carver today lead the Gulf's two main art fairs, Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively while many of Dubai's galleries were either founded by or are managed by women.
For several decades, Dubai has welcomed expatriates who have played a role in building its art scene including the founding of Green Art Gallery by the late Syrian art pioneer Mayla Atassi in 1995, today the gallery is run by her daughter Yasmin. British expatriate Alison Collins established Dubai's Majlis Art Gallery back in 1988 although its roots are a decade older, today the gallery is co-managed by Gujarat native Minoti Shah. Way back in 1976 a group of expatriate women established the Dubai International Art Centre, perhaps the first of its kind in the UAE, which continues to be supported by the private sector. Dubai investment firm Abraaj Capital launched one of the largest art prizes in the world led by Indian art historian Savita Apte, which awards $100,000 annual grants to five artists to realize their projects.
In 1999 Princess Jawaher Bint Majed founded Al Mansouria, an organization based in Jeddah dedicated to promoting the art and culture of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. In 2011 Saudi's Mona Khazindar became the first woman to be appointed as director general of the Paris based Institut du Monde Arabe which was founded in 1986. Since 2002 Bahrain's Sheikha Mai, a published author has worked as Minister of Culture to highlight the island's 6,000 year old history by renovating buildings, holding art exhibitions and launching the popular annual Spring of Culture event despite criticism from certain conservative forces. Bahrain's two main art galleries are also headed by women with Bayan Al Barak Kanoo establishing Al Riwaq and Haifa Al Jishi founding Albareh Art Gallery both in 1998.
Voted as one of the most powerful women in the arts world, the chairwomen of Qatar's Museum Authority, Sheikha Al Mayassa has overseen the opening of Mathaf Museum of Modern Art in 2010 and the Museum of Islamic Art along with growing the collection of the yet to be launched Orientalist art museum in Doha.
In the Sultanate of Oman, Sayyida Susan Al Said, an American who married into the Omani royal family established Bait Muzna, one of the first galleries in the Sultanate back in 2000. A decade later Sayyida Ghalya opened a museum and art gallery bearing her name.
Women have been at the helm of the Gulf culture and art movement since at least the 1960s. Today a new generation of women in the Gulf, native, Arab and expatriate are putting this vibrant region on the world cultural map and have in turn become a force that cannot be ignored. The women behind the arts movement in the Gulf are playing a role that is not unlike that of Isabella d'Este or Marie de' Medici, the chief patrons of the Italian Renaissance era who commissioned, promoted and supported art that has left a lasting influence hundreds of years on. However, these women's accomplishments have not been honored accordingly in these Gulf States museums, media and state awards, prompting one UAE academic to establish a dedicated museum for women. As was the case with their counterparts in the West, there is no doubt that history will look back favourably at these trailblazing women of the Gulf arts world.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the printed issue of Canvas magazine in March 2013.