Art isn’t immune to gender inequality. Various surveys and research on representation and sales in the market have proven this time and again, including a 2019 study by In Other Words art agency and Artnet News revealing that works by women accounted for only 2 per cent of worldwide auction sales over nearly a 10-year period.
Gallerist Oceane Sailly, who is also part of an international research group that studies inequity in the art world, is aware of this. “In the US, Germany, France and the UK, when we look at the main art fairs and museum collections, there is still a huge discrepancy in terms of representation,” she says.
Sailly also says that the pandemic has made matters worse, with many gallerists choosing to showcase more male artists to secure more income. “They’re considered safer and sell better,” she explains.
Still, in early 2021, Sailly went against the current and established Hunna, a contemporary art gallery representing female artists in the Gulf. The word is the Arabic feminine form of “they/them” and can be loosely interpreted as “the women”.
Last Thursday, Hunna opened its first physical exhibition since running virtually for the past year. Titled Pathways, the show features the works of four artists: Kuwaiti artist Alymamah Rashed; Emirati artist Alia Zaal; Eman Ali, who lives between Oman and London; and Syrian artist Talin Hazbar, who lives in the UAE.
The exhibition is on view at various sites in Raffles The Palm Dubai and runs until March 23.
The artists are among the nine names represented by Hunna. Others include Qamar Abdulmalik, Moza Almatrooshi, Aysha Almoayyed, Aidha Badr and Razan Al Sarraf. A 10th artist will be announced in February.
Sailly, who is from France, has worked in the region since 2015, primarily as a researcher on French cultural diplomacy in the Gulf. She lived in Kuwait for two years before moving to Abu Dhabi recently, and she is currently completing her PhD at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
To set up Hunna, she left her role at another gallery that she had established with her sister in France. At the time, she was living in Kuwait and was exposed to the art scene there.
Though she knew she wanted to highlight Gulf artists, she didn’t expect to focus solely on women. It was when she started compiling a list of whom she wanted to represent that she noticed a pattern.
“Some of the artists were already my close friends. I didn’t have some underlying idea to necessarily have all women artists, but once I started to do it, these were the names that came up,” she says.
The decision has brought a different dynamic to the way Hunna works. “The fact that they’re all female, we have created a safe space between us,” she says. “When we’re together, we can speak about anything we want.”
When it comes to women’s rights and roles in the region, the Gulf is still a way off compared to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa in areas such as workforce participation, for example.
For Sailly, the artists at Hunna are “bringing new perspectives in a world that’s shifting”. She says, “Through their artistic practices, they are addressing cultural, historical and social topics that have been long left out of the dominant narratives on the region.”
Indeed a number of the gallery’s artists address societal issues through multiple lenses, including gender. Zaal, for example, whose inventive portraits and self-portraits in Pathways are abstract representation of the individual. She does this by the blurring of features, as in a series of works where the artist paints a portrait based on a photograph of herself, then photographs the canvas, layering elements of both mediums.
In another work, installed in the Raffles The Palm Dubai’s library, Zaal has created a pixelated self-portrait accompanied by blocks or 3D pixels in various flesh tones, with two white and black cubes acting as her eyes. This erasure of self is not only an exploration in material, but also a deeper look at identity in the context of the emirates.
“As much as we care about who we are, our own names, we are also so homogenous in our dress and our beliefs. I wanted to show that by removing the subject from this portrait,” she says.
Meanwhile, Ali’s series Corridors of Power also examine the individual’s place within a society swiftly changing. Photographed inside the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Oman, the artist embeds herself quietly, sometimes almost invisibly, in the grand architectural scenes.
Her choice to tinge the images in purple highlights the “artificiality of the palace”, she says. “It’s made in this neo-Islamic architectural style that has no real identity. It could be anywhere.” It’s true that Ali has produced a non-place, a neon netherworld where individuality is overpowered by the state.
In Rashed’s body of work My Palm Fronds Breathe For You, hybrid creatures of human and palm tree contort themselves in strange configurations. The artist’s distinct style visualizes a personal, spiritual reckoning as the artist rediscovers aspects of her religion.
Both Ali’s and Rashed’s works are displayed in the hallways of the hotel lobby.
Finally, Hazbar’s Stones in Silence features two installations resulting from her years-long research on landscapes and the natural environment of the UAE. Using stones as her material, the artist has cleaved, carved and transformed them into art objects. Through her work, Hazbar reflects on local ecologies and the histories and myths tied to them.
Despite the works in Pathways, the exhibition struggles to shine within its setting at Raffles The Palm Dubai. Not only were a number of works hidden away, Hazbar’s, for example, others couldn’t stand out against the hotel’s opulent interiors.
Perhaps these are only growing pains. The gallery plans to exhibit two more shows this year and eventually establish a permanent space towards the end of 2022.
Its roster of artists remains Hunna's best quality, and not simply for their gender, but also the ideas the artists continually confront in their work.
This is what Sailly values the most. “Everyone is strongly opinionated, but also very supportive. It’s become a space I really want to protect,” she says.
Pathways is on view at Raffles The Palm Dubai until March 23. More information is available at hunna.art