Mathqaf’s co-founders sat down with the Emirati founder of Barjeel Art Foundation and lecturer, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, to talk about his philosophy of collecting, establishing Barjeel Art Foundation, cultural diplomacy, and teaching modern and contemporary Arab art.
Mathqaf: How and why did you start collecting?
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi: I started collecting about 20 years ago, when I started visiting exhibitions with my late father and my mom in Dubai and Sharjah, and I came across a couple of Palestinian artists which prompted my interest in Arab art. After meeting an Emirati artist, I felt that I had more interest in buying works. It was a personal initiative.
M: Collecting is a popular activity in the Gulf and throughout the Arab region, but collecting art is historically less widespread. In terms of collectors, did you have any role models? Were you, for instance, aware of Sheikh Hassan’s collection in Doha? Or what Wijdan Ali was doing in Jordan?
SSQ: Like many other collectors, especially at the turn of the century, my collection was very haphazard and erratic. I was buying European, Pakistani, Arab, Hindi and Iranian art. It took me a few years to shift direction and decide to buy only art from the Arab world, even though many of my favourite artists are Pakistani and Iranian. However, I thought that we lacked sufficient representation from the Arab world. So, eventually, I made sure that my collection became a collection of modern Arab art because I felt that there was not much Arab art available for people to see. I was familiar with Sheikh Hassan Al Thani. His work had been exhibited in Sharjah in 2002, I visited this exhibition – it was one of my earliest major exposures to modern Arab art.
M: In one of your previous interviews you mentioned that you don’t acquire artworks that are pretty or aesthetically appealing, but work that is politically meaningful. Has this always been the case for you when it comes to collecting?
SSQ: Well, just like us as people, our collecting philosophies also change as we evolve. It took me four or five years to realise that paintings of landscapes may be quite nice to look at, but they are not always the learning tools that I would like to share. In addition to that, the collection was also shifting between contemporary and modern. At some point, the collection was in fact more contemporary, and heavily male-focused. Now it is much more gender balanced. Why wasn’t I buying art from female artists in the beginning? I’m sure there are many reasons. One being that female artists were not represented by galleries as much as men. It takes a while to uncover the layers and network to find this art. I also struggled to find art from Yemen and Libya – both of these countries were underrepresented. Finding art from Syria was also a struggle, although there are several very important and renowned Syrian artists. To overcome these challenges, a collector has to build and create networks, and it takes time.
M: To build on the point of gender equality, indeed, we have noticed that you advocate equal gender representation, but are also aware of other minorities in the Arab world, such as Jews, Christians, Shiites, and so on. Could you elaborate on this matter further?
SSQ: This collection has a political focus and a political goal. I don’t want to sugarcoat this for you, it is all very political. The fundamental political aim is that this collection should be seen, it should be displayed and shown to the public, it should be on loan, and it should travel, not only in the UAE or the Arab world, but around the world. This is the objective I actively work to pursue, and in my active pursuit of this goal, I want to make sure that minorities who have existed, and many of whom continue to exist in the Arab world, are being represented. The Arab world lost, in many cases, the vibrant Jewish community and the Greek community, but it doesn’t mean that their art is lost. On the contrary, their art exists, and it’s there. We try to make sure to show art by these minorities.
I also want to clarify that when I show Arab art, I am very conscious of the fact that many of these artists are not ethnically Arab, but they come from one of the Arab states.
M: Collecting has obviously been with you for a while now and over the years, we, humans, grow and evolve. We are wondering, how has this collection shaped you?
SSQ: That’s a very good question because you would think that I am the active actor in this collection and that I am the one who is giving shape to this collection. But actually, this collection is directing me. My life has been so impacted by this collection. It is not a passive relationship, but this collection is pushing me into directions I never thought about. For instance, I never thought I would go into academia, but the collection pushed me into that. I never thought that I would be publishing books and writing essays on Middle Eastern art, since my background is in finance and banking. Yet, I was so immersed in this collection that it just pushed me into a new direction, and, actually, completely changed my life.
M: Your collection started as a personal initiative, but then expanded and turned into a major collection of modern and contemporary Arab art. Did you have this intention when you first started to collect over 20 years ago?
SSQ: When I started buying I had no idea this collection would grow to what it is today. Initially, the collection was much more personal and I stored it in my house. At some point my friends started to ask me where they could see the artworks, and I invited them to my house. A little bit later, I wrote a letter to the government asking them for a space. In 2009 I got a space, about 400 square metres, but only about 200 square meters for exhibiting. We opened in February 2010 and I decided to call the collection Barjeel, which means a ‘wind tower’. It is an architectural term from Farsi, and the origin of the word is بادگیر, which translates to ‘wind tower.’ It symbolises being welcomed and people opening their homes. I didn’t want to name the collection after myself, because I don’t like associating the work with myself. I think that this art is much larger than a single person. There’s something I learned from a visit to an artspace in Brazil: they had this concept of “a private collection for the public good”. I really believe this collection belongs to the public. I know this might sound strange, but I feel that this collection does not belong to me. Sometimes people tell me that this is your collection, and I say, this is Barjeel’s collection. So, in my mind, I always disassociate the collection’s ownership from myself.
M: Barjeel opened in 2010, which was an exciting year due to the Arab cultural efflorescence. Before that, there weren’t many institutions apart from Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts (established in 1980) in Amman, Doha’s Mathaf in the 1990’s and its reopening in 2010, Sursock (opening in 1961) in Beirut, and Amman’s Darat al-Funun (opening in 1993). In spite of the fact that these institutions are slightly different, they played a major role in shaping the discourse around modern and contemporary Arab art. Accordingly, were you aware that there is this lack or room for new institutions to emerge?
SSQ: I knew the founder of Mathaf, Sheikh Hassan Al Thani, since the mid-2000s. I visited his house, which was converted into a museum showing many of the masterpieces that you see on display today at Mathaf. By that time, I was familiar with the fact that I am visiting a private residence, where he receives people and shows them art. Evidently, I realized the fact that you’re going into a private residence to visit art, clearly question marks arise. I thought to myself “why is this not in a public institution?”. Fortunately, Sheikh Hassan is a pioneer in collecting Arab art, and has founded Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. This only reinforced the idea of having a public display of Arab art. Thus, we opened Barjeel in the same year as Mathaf, Mathaf opened in December 2010, and we opened in February 2010.
M: Do you conceptualise Barjeel as a pan-Arabic project? Inasmuch as this collection within the region is quite rare. Historically, modern art museums would be focused on the national art of the country.
SSQ: Most national collections in the Arab world are strictly collections of the artists who come from that country. Although, there are a few exceptions. If you are looking at Tunisia, Morocco, or Egypt, most of their collections consist of artists from that country. Egypt has Western art as well, but I am talking in terms of the Arab world. The exception is Lebanon. While it has in its national collection, Lebanon has a few work by Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi artists. Similarly, Qatar has 9000 works in Mathaf spanning the entire area of the Arab world and beyond.
As for me, I do see this as a pan-Arab project. I even wrote about it and other similar projects, like the one of Dr. Ramsi Dalloul, who is a Palestinian-Lebanese collector with a collection of over three and a half thousand works. Whereas we are at about 1200 artworks or 1300 now. Concurrently, the 1960’s and 1970’s in the Arab world had a number of pan-Arab cultural projects. The two most renowned ones were the Baghdad Biennial and Rabat Biennial. Similarly, Damascus had a major Arab Art exhibition that was supposed to be replicated. These examples were products of the pan-nationalist era of the 1960s, which slowly died by the 1970s and 1980s. As such, I feel that had the Arab world had such pioneers of collecting modern Arab art like Sheikh Hassan and Dr. Ramsi Dalloul at that time, the pan-Arab cultural project would not have faded so easily.
I am trying to resuscitate this idea of a pan-Arab cultural project, but do it right this time. Admittedly, Arabs did not claim ownership of their errors, but rather the triumphs. In my view, if I am going to claim the triumphs, I also have to claim the errors. So, what we did well was organise exhibitions, but what we did badly was that we did not celebrate the minorities. We did not show the Ajam, the Amazigh, or the Kurds. All these people did not see that there’s a place for them under our Sun. Consequently, we have a chance to re-make pan-Arabism, but instead it could be a cultural pan-Arabism, a pan-Arabism 2.0.
M: In addition to Barjeel being a pan-Arab project, you are also engaged in cultural diplomacy, as the institution, for instance, loans its artworks to other institutions. There have also been several international exhibitions in Japan, Britain, and the US. You have also exhibited regionally in Alexandria, Amman and Tehran. One of the remarkable projects of this kind was the Sea Suspended exhibition at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 2015.
SSQ: Indeed, this was the first time that modern Arab art travelled to Iran, although Iran is our neighbouring country – yet we had never shown our modern art there before. Imagine! Hundreds of years of relations, but we have never shared with them our cultural modernity. Organising this exhibition was complicated, because it was extremely political at that point. The collection managed to go, thankfully, however I wasn’t able to go. Hence, the collection became a diplomatic agent that was there to represent the Arab world. We exhibited artists who were Shia, Jewish, Armenian and Christian Arabs amongst others. It was very important for me that the Iranians were exposed to the diversity of the Arab world.
Another example concerns the Gulf crisis over the past four years. I usually never intervene in the curation, because I’m not a curator but a collector. However, I suggested that a Qatari artwork we acquired be included in the Taking Shape exhibition that is today shown at the Boston College McMullen Museum. It’s the only time that I ever said to a curator, would you consider adding a work? In the end, the curators selected the work and I was happy. So, the work is there because of its artistic merit and, at the same time, it is important for me as someone from the Gulf to display a cultural bridge, even in the midst of a diplomatic crisis. Culture transcends politics. For me displaying that work was an attempted act of healing.
M: Gladly, we overcame the diplomatic crisis. In 2018, you took a break from Barjeel Art Foundation as a space but now the collection is on long-term display at Sharjah Art Museum. At the same time, you went back to teaching which is a profession you experienced in 2008 as you taught at the Dubai Men’s College. Along with that part time teaching experience, you were working for your family’s business. You have now however taken a major detour to teaching. Can you elaborate more on that decision?
SSQ: In fact, there was a very good reason that prompted me to teach. I am definitely influenced by my mother, who became a teacher in 1964. She, along with auntie Amna Al Hajeri were the first teachers in formal education in the Emirates. Thus, I was very much interested, and inspired, and raised by a teacher. Even though I was working full time in an investment company, I decided to take some time off and teach at Dubai Men’s College in 2008. I was teaching two classes on entrepreneurship and history of the Arab world. Less than 10 years later, I was invited by the NYU Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies to teach a class. Initially, what happened was that they asked me to teach a class on the Arab Spring. In response I said “how about we do a class that is not on Arab Spring, but about Arab art, in which one of the modules will be the art of the Arab Spring”. That was initially how I started, how I dipped my toe into American academia. I liked it, and I got hooked. And now we’re looking at almost four years later, and academia is now part of my personality, part of who I am.
M: How have you conceptualized the course you’re teaching, which is titled “Politics of Modern Middle Eastern Art”. We were also curious about the emphasis on the ‘political’. Obviously, the course evolved over the years according to institutions. We would like to know how did the course that you’re teaching evolve and is it still evolving?
SSQ: The class was conceptualized in collaboration with my colleague curator Suheyla Takesh, she definitely helped me out very much in conceptualizing the class. She still helps me very much as the class evolves. We initially didn’t have a class on regional art from the Gulf, nor a class on women artists. I introduced the class on US government foreign policy, the US cultural foreign policy in the Arab world, I also introduced a class on hip hop this semester; and I’m excited about it. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop for a year and a half now. So I thought let’s try to teach a class on it. Furthermore, in the class in the US, I have a module on abstract art because the exhibition Taking Shape is now at Boston College’s McMullen Museum and the students need to know what they’re looking at. In France, I have a class on French foreign policy in the Arab world, so I try to customize the class to the students and it is definitely continuously evolving.
M: Currently, Elina and I are both PhD students, researching the topic of modern and contemporary Arab art. I’m sure many students find it frustrating that there isn’t a textbook on the subject. As such, there is a lack of academic resources for students to learn but also for teachers to teach the subject. So, do you think it would be a possibility to have a textbook put together by scholars of the subject? Could this be one of the endeavours of teaching, having a textbook?
SSQ: Yes, that’s a very good point. We are lacking textbooks. But in fact, this gives us a lot more freedom to assign different readings. Textbooks could be helpful, but could also be constraining. I am definitely on the Team textbook. Nonetheless, it could also be frustrating and limiting. What I can do is to reach out for a text by Shiva Balaghi for modern Iranian art and I can look at Adila Laïdi-Hanieh‘s work for a text on Turkish modern art, I can then exchange it and I can look at a text by Tally Tamir on Palestinian-Israeli art. And so I can pick and choose what I want to teach and this gives me much more freedom. I understand that other people who are teaching classes on culture from the Middle East at various universities do the same. And this is actually a lot of fun. Just yesterday, one of the teachers shared on Twitter a syllabus for a class that they proposed on Middle Eastern culture and so there’s so much going on, I don’t see this as negative. The good news is in your time, you have access to literature and textbooks that we didn’t have when I was growing up in the 90s. For instance, Nada Shabout has a book, Wijdan Ali has a book, Khalid Shoman Foundation has a book, and there are tons of catalogues, essays and publications.
M: Amazingly, Taking Shape catalogue contains essays up until page 125, which is incredible!
SSQ: We invested so much in the cost of the book. A large portion y of the cost was paying the scholars for their time, work, and intellect. Can you imagine you’re paying someone for their mind, for their ideas? And because we own the artworks, we were able to save on the image rights. But the major cost was the paying for the essays and the copy editing. You have essays on art in Lebanon, in Sudan, in Kuwait, in Algeria. The thing I’m most proud of is the publications. Very soon, we will have a publication on modern art in the Arabian Peninsula coming out, in which Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, all these countries will be represented.
M: You mentioned that you have so much freedom when it comes to teaching. But again, teaching art history is standardized and established by the West and so there are a lot of methodologies when it comes to interpreting a painting, an artwork and so on. But from what we have observed is that you have integrated novel methodologies in your teaching. And what we love about your classes is that you invite artists to take part in your class. We are curious about your approach to the methodologies of art history; what are the methodologies that you are integrating into this very established and structured field of art history?
SSQ: Obviously, you don’t take everything that’s coming from the West. Instead, you take the best of what they have to offer, and you start rejecting the negative or the unfair or unjust characterization of the region. Today we were talking in class about Edward Said and Orientalism, and how Osman Hamdi Bey depicted Middle Easterners reading books, whereas Jean-Léon Gérôme was depicting Middle Easterners as belly dancers and snake charmers. Evidently, the idea is that when you look at the Middle East, through local and regional eyes, you look at the other side of the Middle East, you look at the real Middle East as well. What I do, as you said, is invite artists. But also, we use podcasts in the class, we watch videos, interviews, lectures, these resources are part of the class material. Most of the texts are written by Middle Eastern scholars, but we have many texts written by Western art critics. For example, today’s class readings were written by Nada Shabout and Wajdan Ali. Similarly, students had to analyse the 1951 manifesto of the Baghdad Modern Art Group as a case study. We also analysed a text about Mahmoud Mokhtar‘s Egypt’s Awakening monument that appears in MoMA’s Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents. So these were the four texts that we read today, none of them were by Western writers. But that is not to say that I object to reading Western authors and in many of the other classes we do look at Western scholarship. It’s important to honor the fact that many Western writers also did a great job. And they came in with a lot of love and attention, and spent many years in the Middle East. So we definitely recognise them and read their texts and analyze their work. So yes, it’s a work in progress. The class itself is a work in progress.