Art Radar speaks with Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and curator Suheyla Takesh to learn the story behind the Barjeel Art Foundation’s most “iconic” masterpiece and one of the organisation’s most recent acquisitions.
AUTHOR: LISA POLLMAN OF ART RADAR
“Publicly accessible” collection examines socio-political themes amidst turbulent times.
After years of collecting art masterpieces, Emirati businessman Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi in 2010 founded the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation, an independent initiative with the goal of managing, preserving and exhibiting a wide array of modern and contemporary Arab artwork.
The Barjeel Art Foundation was founded in 2010 in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and consists of over 1,000 pieces of Arab art. According to the organisation’s website, the foundation seeks to provide a platform for dialogue, accessible to all:
The foundation’s guiding principle is to contribute to the intellectual development of the art scene in the Arab region by building a prominent, publicly accessible art collection in the UAE. Part of this objective involves developing a public platform to foster critical dialogue around contemporary art practices with a focus on artists with Arab heritage internationally. The foundation strives to create an open-ended enquiry that responds to and conveys the nuances inherent to Arab histories beyond borders of culture and geography.
Suheyla Takesh hails from Crimea and moved with her Palestinian father and Russian mother to the UAE at the age of 10. The curator joined the foundation in 2013. Art Radar caught up with Mr. Al Qassemi and Ms.Takesh to learn more about the foundation and the unique role that it plays in the Gulf States and throughout the Middle East.
When did you first become interested in art?
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi (SSAQ): In my early twenties I had an opportunity to spend a significant stretch of time in Paris – a city that is home to some of the world’s greatest museums and art galleries. While pursuing my undergraduate studies, I explored the city’s rich cultural scene, encountering the work of masters like Monet and Degas, and becoming increasingly interested in 20th century Impressionism. Upon my return to the United Arab Emirates, I began exploring the arts and the history of visual culture locally, and grew enthusiastic about supporting local and regional talents.
What was the impetus for beginning to collect modern/contemporary art?
SSAQ: I think of my interest in art as an extension of my interest in politics. The 20th century has seen some of the most dramatic developments on the world’s political stage – two world wars, the establishment and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Great Depression, and numerous others. In the Middle East, the 20th century was a very turbulent time too, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, with numerous revolutions and many countries gaining independence from Colonial powers, with the rise of nationalism and the advent of modernity. Such political events and developments were and still are being reflected in the arts coming out of the region. This is why I am most drawn to the work of modern and contemporary Arab artists.
What role, if any, do you see art playing in contemporary society?
SSAQ: Visual art is often a reflection of the world’s social, political, or religious developments. It can serve as a means for personal expression, or an instrument to bring about change – for instance, in the region’s recent history we have seen art become an integral part of the Arab Spring. In contemporary society, art can be used as a tool for both, documentation and commentary on current affairs.
In your collection, there are many poignant pieces. Is there one that stands apart from the others for you? Why?
SSAQ: It is very difficult to select a single work from such a large pool. However, one of the pieces that resonates strongly with me is an untitled painting by Emirati artist Abdul Qader al-Rais from the 1970s, which depicts a group of Palestinian refugee children standing still, looking straight at the viewers. Painted shortly after the exodus of 1967, it could refer to the hundreds of thousands of civilians that were displaced from their homes and plunged into a state of uncertainty. This was an event that drew a response from the art community of the entire region.
What countries are represented in the Foundation’s collection or is it more artist driven than nationality?
Suheyla Takesh (ST): The Foundation’s focus is on artists with Arab heritage internationally, however our acquisition process involves much more than simply considering an artist’s place of origin. The emphasis of the collection is on the region’s social and political history, seeking to map out its development through visual culture. This is why each piece is acquired strategically to represent a sliver of this history, and to become a component in the larger historic narrative of the region. At the moment we have work by artists from across the Arab World, including the Levant, the Gulf, parts of North Africa and West Asia. We also have work that was produced by artists in diaspora, in places like Europe, Australia and the Americas.
I would imagine that many of your pieces have interesting stories behind them. Any piece in particular that has an unusual history or provenance?
ST: Every piece in the collection, apart from embodying the region’s historic narratives, is also an object with its own history, sometimes traveling to us straight from the artist’s studio, and at other times passing through a number of previous owners and traveling through multiple countries before making its way to us. For instance, one of the most iconic paintings in the Barjeel collection – Kadhim Hayder’s 1965 work entitled Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing – has been out of public view for decades in a private collection, prior to being acquired by the Barjeel Art Foundation at Sotheby’s in November 2011. Since then, it was featured in two exhibition catalogues, had colour images of it re-printed by numerous magazines and newspapers, and appeared on large-scale posters on the walls of the London underground. Thinking of this piece makes me wonder how many other works of art are being written out of the region’s modern art history because they are inaccessible to the public and to the academic community.
On the Foundation’s website, I see there is also a Private Collection. What artists and countries make up this collection? How is it different from the Foundation’s collection?
ST: The “Private Collection” section on our website showcases works that are part of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi’s personal collection. These works fall outside the Foundation’s curatorial mission, and are not considered to be part of Barjeel Art Foundation’s collection. It is a selection of works that Mr. Al Qassemi has purchased based on his personal preferences and tastes. They are occasionally put on display in his private residence, but are not used in the Foundation’s exhibitions. This selection includes talented artists from across the world, such as Vanessa Hodgkinson from the UK, Rana Begum from Bangladesh and Ismail Gulgee from Pakistan.
Is there a specific criteria that is employed when purchasing artwork for the Foundation or your Private Collection? Do you do a lot of research before investing in a piece?
ST: When purchasing work for the Foundation, a considerable amount of time goes into research and finding the right pieces for the collection. Much less so with the private collection, where purchases happen on the basis of personal preference, rather than a need to respond to a specific curatorial mission. Artworks for the Foundation’s collection are sometimes acquired from auction houses both locally and abroad, from commercial galleries, private owners and artist studios. At times we are made aware of artists or artworks by word of mouth, often we meet with the artist directly to learn more about their work and inquire about available pieces. The Internet has also become a powerful tool, especially when it comes to younger artists, who post a lot of their work online and are accessible through social media channels.
What’s your newest addition to the collection? Why was it selected?
ST: One of our newest acquisitions is a piece by the late Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout, entitled Madonna of the Oranges. Shammout’s work is currently very difficult to come by on the market, and we were fortunate to find a strong piece that is also representative of his oeuvre. The painting depicts an orange-picking scene, with a lady holding a child in the work’s foreground. The orange is a symbol that, along with the olive tree, is often associated with Palestine’s history of agriculture, and is often used as a symbol of lost Palestinian lands, particularly in the city of Jaffa, which is home to numerous orange plantations. The female figure too, is often used to symbolise fertility and the connection to land. This piece was selected for the collection due to both, its significance in referencing an aspect of the region’s history, as well as due to its aesthetic merits.
For those not familiar with the contemporary art scene in the UAE, how is it different from the other Gulf States and farther afield in the Middle East? Similar?
SSAQ: The UAE’s contemporary art scene has transformed dramatically in the past decade. It is now the home of Art Dubai – one of the region’s largest and most dynamic art fairs, and the Sharjah Art Biennial. The UAE is increasingly investing in art education, with art programs being taught at an undergraduate level at the University of Sharjah, Zayed University and the New York University in Abu Dhabi, among others. It has also been investing in the building of large-scale museums, such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim, which are planned to open on Saadiyat Island. Art initiatives and platforms in other Gulf States have been developing as well, although with less momentum than those in the UAE. Doha is home to Mathaf, which houses one of the largest collections of Arab art in the region. It has also brought the Virginia Commonwealth University to the region, which offers degrees in art. Kuwait too has a number of initiatives, many of which are privately owned and managed, to support the arts.
In your opinion, do you feel that the Gulf States have an important role to play as a new hub of art and culture in the Region due to the challenges faced in the last few years? If so, how?
SSAQ: The Gulf States have managed to maintain a degree of safety that many other countries in the region do not experience at the moment. A number of regional museums and cultural sites have being raided in the past few years, artifacts were destroyed, and the documentation of visual culture has become a more pressing necessity. The Gulf States are certainly playing an important role in both preserving and promoting regional art and culture, with new museums and universities opening up, with international art and culture conferences being held, and artist residency programs being established.
Regarding your recent trip to Los Angeles and in particular, your visit to the Broad Museum. What did you see there that was of particular interest?
SSAQ: I was impressed by the architecture of the building, which was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and of course the collection itself. The location, next to the Walt Disney Concert Hall was also remarkable. Perhaps my favourite aspect was the transparent glass-panel presentation of the storage facilities and the working environment of the museum administration, which gave me a sense of approachability not evident in other museums.