A new semester means new opportunities for students to explore the diverse subjects on offer as part of AUP’s global liberal arts curriculum. This Fall semester, we are thrilled to welcome alumnus Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi ’98 back to Paris to teach a course on the Politics of Modern Middle Eastern Art.
“It’s sort of a homecoming for me,” explains Al-Qassemi, back on campus to prepare for the start of the semester. The class – developed by Al-Qassemi for NYU, though he has also taught it at Yale, Georgetown and Boston College – covers the interplay between artistic and political movements in the Middle East and North Africa, beginning in the early 20th century. “We survey the region’s history with regards to art,” explains Al-Qassemi. “We stop at major events across the 20th century, from independence movements to the creation of Israel, to the creation of the Republic of Turkey after World War One.”
Teaching this class is of a particular importance to Al-Qassemi, given that there has historically been relatively little opportunity to study Middle Eastern art at a university level; he cites just two other institutions offering similar courses today. “All of the information I have acquired has been over the past two decades, since graduation,” he explains. “There was nowhere to learn it when I was a student!” His interest in the subject was instead sparked by visits to Paris’s Institute of the Arab World while a student at AUP. “I’d never seen the Arab world presented holistically before,” he explains. “I must have been two dozen times as a student.”
After graduating with a degree in International Business Administration and Economics, Al-Qassemi embarked on a business career and began to collect Middle Eastern art. Ten years ago, he established the Barjeel Art Foundation, an independent initiative based in his home country of the United Arab Emirates. The foundation works to manage, preserve and exhibit modern and contemporary Arab art and has also published 16 books, which serve as a rich resource base for students taking the class.
“The class is not just about fine arts like painting and sculpture,” Al-Qassemi continues. “We also look at film, poetry, monuments and music.” One example is an Algerian monument designed by Paul Landowski – the sculptor best known for the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. The monument, originally known in French as “Le Pavois,” was erected in Algiers in 1928 to commemorate French soldiers who died in the First World War. After the Algerian War of Independence, the new government commissioned Algerian artist M’hamed Issiakhem to redesign the sculpture, who encased the original monument in a stone sarcophagus emblazoned with hands breaking free of chains. This interplay between art, politics and history provides the backdrop to many of the cultural artifacts studied in the course.
In line with AUP’s global liberal arts curriculum, the course will also offer weekly excursions to museums and exhibitions throughout Paris. Al-Qassemi’s art world background has also allowed him to develop an extensive network of collectors, artists and scholars. “As part of the class we invite these experts to speak to students, so students have direct access to institutions,” he explains. As well as organizing guest speakers in class, Al-Qassemi has invited his contacts to give talks known as majlis – an Arabic word meaning “council.” These events – which, in 2020, will take place online – give students the opportunity to engage directly with speakers through intimate Q&A sessions. “Students are very much at the center of these talks,” explains Al-Qassemi.