“100 Masterpieces of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art”… This is the title of the exhibition currently showing at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris, unveiling part of the Sooud Al-Qassemi collection. We meet the young collector behind the Barjeel Art Collection based in the United Arab Emirates.
The IMA exhibition presents modern and contemporary Arab works in two parts. The first, “Exhibiting”, is based on the curatorial model of the traditional exhibition; the second, “Curating”, offers a scenography inspired by a museum’s reserve collection. Here, we find figures from the international scene: Adel Abdessemed, Etel Adnan, Walead Beshty and also Hayv Kahraman. But we also discover modern artists less well-known by the French public, such as Ahmed Cherkaoui and Achraf Touloub. Let’s bear in mind that Sooud Al-Qassemi has already organised exhibitions in Singapore, London, Toronto, Teheran… and others opening shortly in Amman, Washington DC and Dubai. As well as launching the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates in February 2010, the energetic collector produces and presents a television programme (Art Plus, on AJ Plus Arabi).
How many works make up your collection?
The Barjeel Foundation conserves around 600 works – as well as artists’ editions –, mainly modern and contemporary works. Works date from 2015-2016 back to the 19th century. My idea, in setting up this foundation, was to promote and present Arab art everywhere in the world. I find that foundations and museums aren’t active enough. We’re the opposite of that, and we really want to exceed the current limits, even if it’s much more difficult at the moment with the situation in Syria and elsewhere. We want to show another face of the Arab world, not just a negative one. In the Arab world, many works have been destroyed, but many works have also been created. This is the cycle of life. And there’s very rich artistic life in the Arab world.
Was it in Paris that you discovered art?
I lived in Paris for four years, from 1994 to 1998. Of course I had a subscriber’s card that let me visit all the museums, and I loved Orsay! I went back to the Emirates and I tried to find out whether we also had such wealth in the Arab world. There were books, but I didn’t know how to find them. I started looking, and reflecting on art. My father was very sick and I couldn’t see my friends much as I had to stay near him. So we’d go to the museums and galleries in Sharjah and Dubai all the time. This was how everything started.
You bought your first work in 2002…
Yes, there was an exhibition on quite an important artist in Dubai, Abdul Qader Al Rais, and I went to meet him. He’s a wonderful person. I bought one of his works, more out of friendship than because I liked it… I was very young, 22 or 23 years old. I’d barely arrived back in the region. Today, the Barjeel Foundation conserves six of his works.
At the time, were you thinking about setting up a foundation?
In 2006, I opened a Facebook account, and I’d post pictures and information. People kept asking me where they could find all this. So I thought about opening a space. This took four years. I wrote to the government, proposing to occupy a space… I was given one in Sharjah, measuring 470 m2.
Do you still occupy the same space?
Yes, but it’s too small for us! This is why we organise exhibitions all over the world. It’s a learning process for me. When I started, we only had male artists, very few women, very little modern art – perhaps five works –, a lot of contemporary art. The collection grew and I’ve also learned a lot. We’re now more balanced in terms of gender, and modern art – dating from before 1980 – represents around one-fifth of our collection.
Can you tell us about your modern-art section?
We’re connected to the history of the Arab world, and the history of its modern art started in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, along with Morocco and Algeria. The foundation’s collection is naturally richer in works from these countries. But today, we also find modern-art works from the 1960s from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates. The Egyptians had the advantage of having art schools that opened in 1908. For us in the Gulf region, schools started opening 50 or 60 years later. And yet, many good works come from the Gulf, particularly Kuwait.
Kuwait is close to Bagdad in Iraq, a country that discovered petrol in the 1920s before the other Gulf countries. Therefore they had a generation of educated families before we did, people who travelled a lot and who were open to the world at that time. Incidentally, the Emirate artist Abdul Qader Al Rais who I mentioned before studied in Kuwait in the 1960s.
Do you need to do much research to find Arab masters? What’s your method for identifying artists?
I have a very big network… I call people, I ask questions, I travel a lot, I meet artists, researchers, academics, journalists. I’m a partner of a gallery in Dubai called Meem Gallery, which has the world’s largest collection of books on art from the Middle East – around 20,000 works. But social networks are very practical as well. And then I look at interviews on YouTube… I also have many advisers!
You have art historians working for you…
We commission historians and researchers to carry out investigations for us, for our publications. For example, we’ve published with Whitechapel Gallery in London a 250-page catalogue containing six essays, five original texts and one translation, with around one hundred pages of the book produced thanks to a grant. We’ve previously invited the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey (AMCA): twenty specialists came along with Masters or PhD students and stayed in the Emirates for one week, and we co-organised a conference with New York University Abu Dhabi. We sent them pictures of the collection by email first, asking them which works they wanted to see. During their visit, we also borrowed spaces in the Sharjah Art Museum for a show on which they worked for three days.
Do you have links with the Sharjah Biennale?
We are two independent organisations, but the Biennale lends us works. It sometimes lets us use its spaces, but once again, we’re completely independent.
Can you tell me about artists in exile?
Palestinian artists Shadi Alzaqzouq and Taysir Batniji, as well as Ali Cherri from Lebanon, are in Paris, for example. Many artists are leaving the Arab world. We’re up to perhaps the third generation of artists in exile. If we think about the 1940s, this was the first generation to move away from the Arab world, mainly Palestine, for example Ismail Shammout, who left in 1948. The third generation can’t even return to their countries, Syria, Palestine or Iraq… Their relationship with the Arab world crosses their works, it’s very sentimental. And it’s interesting for me to observe how they see the Arab world from the outside. But it also raises a problem for me as well, because after spending 30 years outside their country, are they still considered as Lebanese or Iraqis? For different reasons, the media doesn’t show Iraqi artists who live in Iraq, for example. I myself have looked for artists living in Iraq but I can’t find them easily and I’m still looking. Are there any there? And can they work freely? Sometimes they work very secretly, even in the Gulf, because their works contain political messages.
Do you think that art is more political today?
Not at all. Art, in the Arab world, has always been political. During the British occupation of Palestine for example, many works were colonial. Then, they became Arab nationalist, still political, then anti-Israel. Israel has been at war with Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. As a result, artists have created political works against Israel. There have been several political cycles in the Arab world’s art.
What themes recur in the artists’ work?
Today’s themes are quite different. Freedom of expression, human rights… A certain number of artists are doing works on surveillance, whether from cameras, soldiers, the government, drones… Others are working on anti-terrorism, the country’s melancholy. Before, Palestine was the constant theme; now, Syria is very important. But I also like to think that there’s no one theme, that there are a multitude of them…
How about the changes in Arab countries?
The Arab Spring was, in 2011, a big topic, but less so now, because people are tired and see the negative aspect of these events. There’s less hope.
How about feminist movements?
Many artists work on feminism. I think that it’s enough for one female artist to come to the front of the stage for it to be an event. In the Emirates, there’s Ebtisam AbdulAziz, who walks around the street in tight-fitting clothes; she doesn’t talk about feminism, but the fact that she goes out like that is already a message. There are also many women artists who create nudes, but I can’t reveal their names. Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan is more explicit. She’s done a few projects on this subject. One of them is on surnames: the artist asks why the custom is to use the father’s name rather than the mother’s. There’s another work on travel – in Saudi Arabia, women need permission to travel. So she took her travel permit and attached it to a bird and took it over the borders with her…
To go back to the exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe, “100 Masterpieces of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art”, how did you meet the curator Philippe Van Cauteren, director of the SMAK in Ghent, Belgium?
I knew Philippe Van Cauteren through his curating work, namely his curatorship of the Iraqi Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, in 2015. I also went to the SMAK and contacted him two and a half years ago. The exhibition was curated by Philippe Van Cauteren and Karim Sultan, who work at the Barjeel Foundation with me.
What’s new about this exhibition for the Barjeel Foundation?
First of all, the collection is being exhibited in one of my favourite cities, Paris. That’s very selfish of me! Paris, for me, is one of the most important cities, a magical city. But as far as what this exhibition will bring to the foundation, first of all, the Institut du Monde Arabe is very gratifying for us. And the IMA is celebrating its 30th birthday. I think that this is a beautiful bridge between the modern and the contemporary. In France, there are also elections on, and it’s important to show art from the Arab world in this atmosphere. We are also putting on three exhibitions at the moment in the United States (“Modern Art of the Middle East” at Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; “No to the Invasion: Break Downs and Side Effects” at the Hessel Museum of Art, New York; and the Katzen Arts Center at the American University, Washington DC), to show our collection during the Trump mandate… Thankfully, there’s no Donald Trump in France! It’s very important to show the culture and beauty of art from the Arab world at the moment.
“100 Masterpieces of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art. The Barjeel Collection”. Until 2 July, Institut du Monde Arabe, 1 rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard, place Mohammed V, Paris 75005. www.imarabe.org