Inside NYUAD Art Gallery's long overdue exhibition highlighting the region's art pioneers

Curated by Dr Aisha Stoby, Khaleej Modern examines the early evolution of visual art movements in the Arabian Peninsula

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In Mohammed Kazem’s Studio, patches of molten red are juxtaposed with vicious strokes of black and jaundice yellow. The painting, now hung at The NYUAD Art Gallery for the Khaleej Modern exhibition, is a restless and anxious depiction of the Emirati artist’s atelier. Kazem has portrayed his studio in other works before. But while the other depictions evoke dreamy musings, this one envelops the viewer with vertiginous force.

'Studio' by Mohammed Kazem, one of the UAE's foremost contemporary artists and a member of the group informally referred to as The Five.

Created in 1986, the painting is a gritty look at the workspace of one of the UAE’s foremost contemporary artists and a member of a tight-knit group informally referred to as The Five. It also represents the earlier aesthetic concerns of the artist before he moved on to more conceptual pieces.

Across the space from Kazem’s Studio is a painting of a completely different timbre.

Old Architecture of Manama by Ahmed Qassim Al Sunni is one of the oldest works in the collection of the Bahrain National Museum. Al Sunni was one of the first artists to receive an art scholarship from the Bahraini government when he travelled to London in 1952 to study.

The artist was part of a group unofficially known as the Manama Group who painted Bahraini scenes with styles reminiscent of European landscape artists. The group intensively painted landscapes they knew were going to change, which they tried to preserve within their art.

'Old Architecture of Manama' by Ahmed Qassim Al Sunni demonstrates the intensive landscape practices of the group unofficially known as the Manama Group. Ruel Pableo / The National

The work displayed at Khaleej Modern is an example of this approach. Painted in 1960, Old Architecture of Manama depicts a traditional house with a diminutive wind tower, mashrabiyas, and protruding wooden sticks.

A few steps from Al Sunni’s work the concept of landscape art is dismantled and re-examined in letterform. While not exactly calligraphy, the works by Mohammed Al Saleem, Yousef Ahmad and Abdul Karim Al Bosta employ techniques in Arabic calligraphy to evoke the expansiveness and features of landscape art.

Al Saleem’s Abstract Figure is perhaps the most mesmerising of the bunch. Created in 1997 — the year of his death — the painting by the pioneering Saudi artist borrows hues from the dawn sky to surround Arabic letterforms with concentric lines. The work is typical of his “Horizonism” style, which merges abstract and figurative approaches to replace desert aspects with forms reminiscent of Arabic calligraphy.

'Abstract Figure' by Mohammed Al Saleem, who established the Saudi House of Fine Arts in 1979. Ruel Pableo / The National

Not yet halfway into the exhibition, and I am already blown away by the breadth and diversity of the works. An exhibition like Khaleej Modern has long been overdue, and it is frankly surprising that there hasn’t yet been a survey of the development of visual art in the peninsula.

That’s what makes Khaleej Modern particularly important.

The exhibition, which runs until December 11, is based on the dissertation of its curator, Aisha Stoby. It examines the evolution of visual art movements from the 20th century through to 2008 as the discovery of oil began to transform the region.

Stoby researched the topic while working on her thesis at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. For the past few years, she has been working with NYUAD Art Gallery to source many of the paintings that were featured in her thesis.

Curator Aisha Stoby has been working with a team from NYUAD The Art Gallery for years to source the paintings featured in Khaleej Modern. Ruel Pableo / The National

“My PhD was a very isolating experience,” she says. “There was a lot of travel, a lot of meetings, but essentially it was just me. This exhibition has been very different, because I’ve had a team to help track down and secure works. I was invited five years ago to start thinking about this exhibition, but the last two years have been an intense investigative process and bringing together these works.”

Even with a team backing her up, sourcing many of the works featured in Khaleej Modern was challenging, which perhaps explains why there has never been an exhibition quite like Khaleej Modern before.

The oldest work featured in the exhibition was also one of the hardest to acquire, Stoby says.

A Portrait of Tawfiq Ahmed Al-Jarrah was created in 1948 by Mojib Al Dosari, who was an alumnus of the Al Mubarakiya School in Kuwait. The school offered one of the first art classes in the region and while studying there, Al Dosari participated in its first public art exhibition in 1943.

After continuing his studies in Egypt, Al Dosari returned to Al Mubarakiya School as a teacher and supported its visual arts programme. He was also one of the first recognised visual artists in the Gulf.

“We chased something like 12 leads to secure the painting,” Stoby says.

'Portrait of Tawfiq Ahmed Al-Jarrah' by one of the region's earliest pioneers, Mojib Al Dosari. Ruel Pableo / The National

Another challenging set of works to acquire were those by the Saudi artist Mohammed Ahmed Rasim. Little is known about Rasim’s artistic practice. He is said to have been behind the first art exhibition in Saudi Arabia in 1950 and some even consider him the kingdom’s first visual artist. He lived until 1974. The collection exhibited at Khaleej Modern is undated but show the artist’s ability to depict landscapes as well as his propensity for watercolours and pens.

While the first two galleries in the exhibition show the foundation of visual art in the region, the works around the midway point become a lot more introspective and reflect on evolving social landscapes. More pieces by female artists appear, such as by Kuwaiti artist Thuraya Al-Baqsami, who repeatedly confronts the Gulf War.

One captivating work is Safeya Binzagr’s Al Zaboun. Created in 1969, the self portrait by the Saudi artist shows her wearing a white headscarf along with the Hijazi costume of a zaboun, or coat. It is perhaps Binzagr’s most famous work. The artist held her first solo exhibition at the Dar Al Hanan School in Jeddah in 1970 — the first by a woman in the country. Three decades later, she opened her own museum — the first artist in Saudi Arabia to do so ― named Darat Safeya Binzagr.

'Al Zaboun' is a self-portrait by the Saudi artist, Safeya Binzagr, who in 1970 became the first woman to hold a solo exhibition in Saudi Arabia. Ruel Pableo / The National

In the final stretch of the exhibition works begin to gradually emerge from the canvas into the conceptual.

More pieces from The Five are represented here. The group, made up of Kazem, Hassan Sharif, Abdullah Al Saadi, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim and Hussain Sharif, were given their moniker while participating at an exhibition in Germany titled "5 UAE" in 2002. The artists, who worked across a range of mediums, are well represented in Khaleej Modern because they were among the pioneers of contemporary art in the UAE.

Notable works include Hassan Sharif’s Bakh Bakh a painted surface of three colours concealed by a cloth on the bottom half. While in the past viewers were invited to lower the fabric to view the hues, the cloth is off limits in Khaleej Modern. A handmade catalogue by Ibrahim is also displayed. Play in the Clay + Just Lines, the work shows how the artist is informed by the mountainous landscape of his home town of Khor Fakkan in his work.

Then there is Ebtisam Abdulaziz’s Autobiography. Created in 2007, it is indicative of how Abdulaziz combined her education in mathematics with her artistic sensibility. The artist studied painting under Kazem at Hassan Sharif’s Dubai studio, a space associated with The Five, before teaching alongside her mentors and becoming the atelier’s manager.

In Autobiography, which is considered one of her finest works, Abdulaziz shows her affinity for conceptual, performance-based works. Through video and photographs, the work depicts her wearing a full bodysuit imprinted with her ATM transaction records going about her day in Sharjah.

Photographs from Ebtisam Abdulaziz's 'Autobiography'. Ruel Pableo / The National

The exhibition ends on a memorable note with several strong works by Omani artists. In Anwar Sonya’s 2005 work Fatma, a video is projected on to several sheets of fabric hung in series. Viewers are invited to walk between the fabrics and experience the projection through multiple vantage points.

The video shows a woman, named Fatma, as her coffee cup is being read. The eponymous subject of the work, Stoby says, was helping to found a performing arts centre in the UAE at the time she was being filmed for the project.

Fatma narrated to Sonya all the things she wanted to do with her life and what the centre was going to accomplish. The work is haunting and rousing, considering that Fatma died merely a month after the video was shot, and embodies a vivid merger of technology and spirituality in art.

The final piece in the exhibition is perhaps the most visceral.

'Under the Water' by Hassan Meer, the Omani video artist who helped pioneer modern arts in his country. Ruel Pableo / The National

Under the Water by Hassan Meer features a video projection at the bottom of a rectangular pool of water showing the Omani artist drowning. A box television is set facing the pool and shows scenes by a harbour. The sounds of gulls and breaking waves are a stark contrast to the ones Meer makes as he thrashes about in the water.

After studying under Sonya, Meer joined his mentor and the artist Saleem Sakhi in organising the famous 2001 exhibition, The Circle. The three artists and the community of talents that grew around them had a seminal effect on the progress of contemporary art in Oman.

“This exhibition had a number of works that people who know the artwork from the region will have seen pictures of but may never have seen in person,” says Maya Allison, executive director of The NYUAD Art Gallery. “And then there are other works by artists they may not even know. It is a chance for all of us to learn about the history of our region together."

“This is the kind of exhibition that our gallery really likes to work in, which is to map histories and go into territories of art history that still need to be further developed and studied with the hope that in the long run, this will become the beginning of a period of scholarship about this region,” she says.

No matter how well versed you are in the Gulf’s art history and development, you’ll find yourself taken aback — whether it is to finally see a work in person that you’ve only read about, such as Binzagr’s Al Zaboun or Sharif’s Bakh Bakh, or to come face to face with the level of cross-cultural exchange that existed between regional artists.

The dismantling and re-examination of what constitutes modern art is a fairly recent undertaking. As we move away from western-centric definitions, Khaleej Modern is an important exhibition to help enrich our understanding of how visual arts evolved in the region and appreciate the cultural boom we enjoy today.

Scroll through more images of art on show at Khaleej Modern below

Updated: September 09, 2022, 6:02 PM