Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation, built on more than 1,000 modern and contemporary Arab artworks from the private collection of its founder Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, will launch its first exhibition in North America on Saturday.
The venue is fitting. Home Ground: Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation will open at Toronto’s renowned Aga Khan Museum, whose mission is to foster a greater appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilisations have made to world heritage.
Sheikh Sultan will give a talk at the launch ceremony, highlighting the global importance of modern and contemporary artworks from the Arab world.
As well as regular exhibitions at the foundation’s gallery in Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan and his team have collaborated with several overseas organisations, including the Singapore Art Museum in 2013. The not-for-profit organisation also collaborated with Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum in 2012, the Contemporary Art Platform in Kuwait this year, as well as the UAE’s National Pavilion at the ongoing Venice Biennale.
“Collaborating with international museums is one of the best ways to open up the collection to international audiences,” says Sheikh Sultan. “I believe that art can counter some of the negative stereotypes that have sadly been associated with the region. We must continue to build cultural bridges with the rest of the world, and the Aga Khan Museum and the city of Toronto itself are ideal platforms to do this.”
Through its presentation of work – a range of photographs, installations, sculpture and paintings – by 12 artists from the Middle East and North Africa, the exhibition will address pertinent issues at the heart of art in the region: the idea of home, the ever-fluid notion of identity, and how private life is shaped by current political events.
Of course, with so many cultures and nations spread across the region, to present an overarching definition of contemporary art practices from the Arab world is impossible, but themes related to migration and forced movement of people due to political strife or unrest are particularly common.
Suheyla Takesh, the exhibition’s curator and Barjeel’s resident collection coordinator, stresses on the importance of the theme.
“In today’s globalising world, this is a subject that people from nearly anywhere can feel a connection to and relate to,” she says. “Canada, in particular, is a very cosmopolitan place and has for a long time been home to a large number of immigrants, refugees and other international nomads, many of whom happen to be from the Arab world.”
The artists featuring in the show come from diverse backgrounds. Manal Al Dowayan from Saudi Arabia created Suspended Together in 2012, showing porcelain doves printed with the travel documents of hundreds of Saudi women who are not allowed to travel without a male guardian.
Egyptian Australian Raafat Ishak presents an extremely complex work titled Responses to an Immigration Request from One Hundred and Ninety-Four Governments. Triggered by the Australian government’s 2001 policy to direct immigrants to detention centres on surrounding islands, the artist drafted and sent a letter to many countries requesting citizenship. The governments’ responses, or lack of responses, were then documented as stylised flags with Arabic script on medium-density fibreboard.
Sheikh Sultan says: "Home Ground is an attempt to narrate, through art, the personal stories of the Arab world." Ishak's work is "a selfless attempt to highlight the plight of 21st century immigrants into Australia".
The intimacy of the personal stories in the exhibition, he explains, also gives viewers accessible entry points.
The exhibition's earliest work, from 1989, is by a rarely seen Israeli-Palestinian artist who died before he turned 30. Sheikh Sultan says Asim Abu Shakra's cacti paintings are "slowly acquiring a status not unlike that of Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers series".
Abu Shakra uses the cactus as a symbol for the identity of Palestinians who continue to live within the confines of a Jewish state.
“Abu Shakra was a Palestinian Arab who spoke Hebrew fluently and lived and studied in Tel Aviv,” says Sheikh Sultan.
“He never left his homeland, and yet he never truly belonged where he lived. He and the other artists in this exhibition have, through the medium of art, marked their own home ground.”
Other pieces include a video by Youssef Nabil about his emigration from Egypt, and two sculptural works by exiled Palestinian Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum.