Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi: New York 'breathed life' into me

In a candid interview, the Emirati art expert talks about his habit of cleaning plane bathrooms and how New York lifted him out of a time when his 'spirit was broken'

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi with Egyptian artist Ahmad Morsi at his home in New York City. Courtesy Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
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Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a columnist, researcher on Arab art and architecture, and the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, the foremost private collection of modern Arab art in the UAE. The UAE national is a highly regarded commentator on Arab art in particular and the rise of the Gulf cities.

He has also been instrumental in raising the visibility of Arab art abroad; before the collection was installed at the Sharjah Art Museum on long-term loan, a third of the Barjeel Art Foundation’s shows toured internationally, and the foundation has endowed a fellowship at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where he is a board member, to fund research into Arab art.

We speak to him about how travel has changed him... 

How often do you travel? I travel almost twice a month.

Where do you call home? Home is the Dubai-Sharjah conurbation. Conurbation – an extended urban area typically consisting of several towns merging into one. I wrote an article about it, and it's my only article that became its own Wikipedia entry.

Do you ever travel to see artworks or exhibitions? Yes. For example, I flew to Cairo for a day to see the exhibition of Egyptian surrealists that Sheikha Hoor [Al Qasimi] and the Sharjah Art Foundation curated. I went on the very last day, September 28, 2016.

What's your favourite city? I don't have an answer. I have favourite cities. New York at a certain point in my life.

You wrote that there was a pre-New York and a post-New York you. What did you mean? There was a period of time where my morale was battered and my ego was diminished, and my spirit was broken. It was a mixture of things. It was the disappointment of the Arab Spring. It was losing my closest friend, in 2013. There was a series of events that dealt blow after blow to my morale. And I went to New York and I felt uplifted, I felt revitalised.

I was invited by a university to give a class and a record number of people registered. I felt super inflated at that point in time. I made new friends, and discovered New York not in a hotel, but living in an apartment and washing and ironing my own clothes – it took me back twenty years to mid-1990s Paris, when I was very self-reliant, and very assured of myself, when I walked with my head held high. And I also discovered the gym. I was always skinny but I felt physically weak. But now I don’t feel physically weak – I don’t feel strong, but I don’t feel scrawny. I feel like I invested in my body and my mind. I needed New York. And they had no idea. It breathed life into me.

City or countryside as destination? Definitely city. There's no comparison for me. If you want to drive me up the wall, then send me to the countryside or an island! That's the worst thing you can do. The only island I'll visit is Britain.

At The Brooklyn museum:

Do you ever switch offIn May last year I deactivated my Twitter and my Facebook. Between them both I had over 650,000 followers. I deactivated them and saved about eight hours of my life. Which I turned into reading, exercise, family time. I used Instagram but that's just art and architecture. [Al Qassemi recently reinstated his Twitter account.]

What is the last place you went for a holiday? I don't take holidays. I've never taken a holiday. The last holiday I took was to South America a few years ago and that was to see different museums. We went from 7am till 11pm visiting museums and galleries. I don't know if that qualifies as a holiday. I don't have a memory in the last 20 years of my life of having taken one. What does holiday mean, exactly? It means that you go and sit on a beach?

I think so. Then no, no. If I'm not learning something, it's a waste of time.

When you travel, luxury or simplicity? Both.

Where are you going to next? I'll be in New Haven, I'm going back to school, doing a fellowship at Yale as a Greenberg World Fellow.

Al Qassemi with The National's editor-in-chief Mina Al Orabi at Yale: 

What do you hate about travel? I really don't hate anything. The only thing I don't like is not getting to see my mom. I see my mom every morning for 20 minute to 30 minutes, which is very lucky, I know a lot of people don't have this, so when I'm not here then I miss her.

And there are small things like when the data roaming doesn’t connect. I don’t like when the airplane bathrooms aren’t clean because I end up cleaning them myself. I don’t want anyone to think that I am dirty! You can’t step in and step out. Because the minute you step in, it’s you who did it. So I’m on the floor, wiping and cleaning, I’m the perfect passengers for the stewards. I should get free tickets because I clean the bathrooms every few flights.

At the Grand Canyon: 

Do you travel in kandoora or do you travel in jeans? Kandoora only in the Gulf. Kuwait, when I used to see my grandma, my uncles; Saudi Arabia; Oman, when I used work there in the early 2000s, kandoora all the time.

What do you love best about traveling? Trying all different kinds of food. There's a lot of options. And the museums.

At Sharjah Central Souq: 

What is your favourite museum in the world? I like modern art, so if you think about the modern art galleries of the Metropolitan Museum [in New York], I choose it every day over the MoMA, but I can't say about an entire museum. For example, the Louvre art section, I don't like, I prefer the Musee d'Orsay. I do love the Victoria & Albert [in London]. I have so many memories of going to that museum with my family. If I had to choose one museum, it would be that one. And the other museum that has had an influence on my life is the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. It's not my favourite, but it's affected my life.

At the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1996: 


Read more:

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi's mission to celebrate Sharjah's unsung architecture

The state of the art scene in Dubai

Travelling Life: Christina Lamb