When Gallery Bawa launched in October 2020, it entered a rather shaky art market. Despite the numerous online auctions and virtual viewing rooms worldwide, major art fairs were still postponing or cancelling their events. In March, the Art Basel and UBS Art Market report noted that global sales of art and antiques dipped by 22 per cent in 2020, and didn’t expect a very hopeful 2021.
The Kuwait City digital gallery Bawa, however, has managed to defy the drop. Within its first year, founder Bandar Al-Wazzan says he has managed to make a profit. And that’s not all – for its final show of the year, the gallery is collaborating with one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest artists, Ahmed Mater, to present his first venture into digital art.
Bawa was born during the pandemic, though its beginnings go back earlier, when Al-Wazzan, aged 23, was a business student at Northeastern University in Boston. Visiting galleries in the US, particularly New York, he wondered why Gulf artists were so few and far between. “The question was always, ‘Why don’t I see artists close to where I’m from up on these walls?'," he says. “I started to become passionate about the business of art, about why some pieces sell for millions and others don’t.”
In the second half of 2019, Al Wazzan completed a six-month internship at Christie’s Dubai, where he became more interested in the art market and worked at his first auction, a fund-raising affair for the historic Al Balad district in Jeddah.
When he returned to Northeastern University to graduate, he set out to put together a group exhibition of Arab artists at the Lebanese American University, which has a centre in New York City. The pandemic upended these plans, and Al-Wazzan settled back in Kuwait City just as Covid-19 was at its peak last year. Looking back, he says he knew it was an ambitious pitch, especially for a young graduate who didn’t yet have the network to produce a show, but it did help cement his desire to work in art.
He spent the next few months researching the art market and the Gulf art scene and understanding the gallery model. By the time his digital gallery website went live in 2020, he had lined up the next few artists he wanted to showcase, primarily highlighting younger, emerging artists whose practices he admired.
So far, he has worked with artists such as Alymamah Rashed from Kuwait, presenting her series on the female body titled Muslima Cyborg, and Athoub Albusaily, an artist living in Abu Dhabi whose work Non-land examines the landscape of her native Kuwait through etchings and tracings on paper.
Bawa’s current show, titled Infinite Magnetism, is a generative artwork based on Mater’s well-known Magnetism from 2009. The original work features a solid cube magnet surrounded by iron shavings, forming an abstract miniature replica of pilgrims circling the Kaaba.
Months before Infinite Magnetism, Al-Wazzan and Mater had various discussions and both hoped to do more than simply sell new work online.
Al-Wazzan had come across the mechanical map of drawings of Hind Al Saad, a coder from Doha who could programme a drawing machine to produce illustrations based on a generative system.
In the end, the idea was that Infinite Magnetism would exist forever, creating endless iterations of Mater’s artwork, materialised as ink on paper mechanical drawings.
Al Saad wrote the code in a way that every drawing generated would have a similar outline to Magnetism: a black square in the middle with notches, similar to iron filings, radiating from the centre and arranging themselves randomly and uniquely each time.
There are currently 7,777,777 editions available, and in 10 years, the code will automatically increase it to 77,777,777. In another 10 years, another “7” will be added to the code and so on into perpetuity.
This experimental approach to working with artists is part of Bawa’s style. In April this year, Al-Wazzan's was among the first Gulf galleries to venture into NFTs with a solo by Saudi artist Ahaad Alamoudi, which the founder admits only sold one work out of six (“one more than we expected,” he says), but felt was an important step into the crypto art space. “It was very early for this kind of exhibition and [it] was more of a statement,” he explains, saying that he expects the work to sell in a few years.
Bawa also runs on a different kind of speed, averaging a show a month. In total, it has presented three “seasons” over the year, with four shows per season. In addition, it has its spontaneous “Mono” platform, where the gallery features one artwork for sale on no fixed schedule, announced only 24 hours prior on Bawa’s Instagram before it goes live on the website.
Al-Wazzan’s focus, he says, is speaking to artists directly about their practice and building a young collector base in the region. Most of Bawa is self-started and self-sustained, with the gallerist building and maintaining the website on his own. For every exhibition, Al-Wazzan films and posts a video interview with the artist, where he or she discusses his or her work.
“The gallery exists to let artists do what they want to do. My end goal is to fully represent an artist and allow them to do nothing but just create the art they want to create,” he says.
Aside from navigating the challenges of logistics and shipping, Al-Wazzan is also faced with a bigger task – fostering art patronage and support in a fairly nascent market such as Kuwait and parts of the Khaleeji scene. “It’s important to build a new collecting culture, to speak to people from the region who are interested in the artists and get them to relate to the work directly,” he says. When dealing with potential collectors, he often engages with them personally to understand their interest in the artist and the work.
Bawa’s aim, in the long term, goes back to its beginnings, when Al-Wazzan was still a student – to see more Khaleeji artists on the international art scene. “I’d like Bawa to be known for bringing new audiences around the world to these artists,” he says. “When people go to art fairs and see artists from Bahrain, Kuwait or the Gulf, I don’t want them to be shocked. It should just be a normal thing. It should just be part of the global art market.”
More information on Gallery Bawa is at gallerybawa.com