Gulf Curators: Expanding the Visibility of Gulf Artists
The career of curating is new to the Gulf, though the role of a curator is not. People have long curated exhibitions in the region at their homes or in art galleries without being addressed as a “curator.” When asked about how familiar people are in the Gulf with the term “curator,” Aisha Stoby said: “I do find that I am still sometimes met with surprise when I say I am a curator, and equal levels of surprise when I say I am an Omani curator.” But with a curatorial platform like Banafsajeel, which means “in the breath of a generation,” people in the Gulf are becoming more familiar with this craft. They are growing their appreciation for local artists, national museums, and interacting with art installations in public spaces, thanks to efforts of young curators like Noor Aldabbagh and Aisha Stoby.
Noor is the founder of Banafsajeel, which promotes and connects artists from the Gulf. She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in visual and environmental studies and a master’s degree in art business at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. In 2012, Aldabbagh worked on a project sponsoring the construction of the Islamic Arts at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Stoby is an Omani art historian and curator who has served on the planning team for the Oman National Museum and has curated multiple exhibitions such as the “Oman et La Mer” at the National Maritime Museum in Paris. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies researching modern art movements in the Gulf.
AGSIW had an opportunity to speak with Noor and Aisha during the institute’s Gulf Arts and Culture Symposium.
AGSIW: Given that Banafsajeel is a collaborative platform based in Saudi Arabia, but not an online one, how do you reach out to artists?
Noor: We use a human-centered design process to learn about the creative community in the Gulf (visual artists and designers in particular), in order to create customized programming that benefits and builds on their work. Rather than an online platform, Banafsajeel brings people together in real spaces, such as institutions or public spaces, to appreciate art and design. That said, digital art is now more prominent within real exhibitions, and the opportunity to view art that is not digital via digital means like Instagram is allowing for much greater exposure to art within the Gulf by young, talented artists who might not be exhibiting their work offline just yet. So, one way we find new talent is by checking out their social media accounts and then connecting with them to suggest a studio visit or interview, or to inform them of an open call for an exhibition.
AGSIW: Beyond curating an annual group exhibition, what are Banafsajeel’s activities? How does it serve the young artists’ community in Saudi Arabia, or the Gulf region more broadly?
Noor: Each year we have a theme, and within it programming is developed collaboratively. For example, last year within the “Flow” theme, we had a functional installation in Saudi Design Week that was designed in collaboration between Saudi artist Marwah AlMugait and architect Majed Alghamdi, along with the Dubai-based design studio Abjad. Our work connects and extends within the Gulf; for example we camped out for a week in Al Dhafra Festival in Abu Dhabi in 2014, presented our work in Dubai Design Week in 2015, and curated an interactive design exhibition in Sharjah in 2016. We look forward to working in other creative cities in 2018.
AGSIW: Earlier this year, you co-curated Jeddah’s art exhibition “Tadafuq” featuring contemporary artists from Saudi Arabia. Why display sculptures, paintings, and new media artworks in a public space like Majra Sail rather than a closed museum or a commercial art gallery?
Noor: Banafsajeel’s research in Saudi Arabia last year showed that artists have various options and opportunities to sell their work, but what they want to do is engage in public spaces; we do not yet have an ecosystem of not-for-profit institutions and art organizations focused on creating experiences that are contextual and relevant to our public spaces. So when my co-curator Qaswra Hafez suggested this empty space for the Tadafuq show … I was up for it. The space was free and open to the public. The curated art show featured 38 artists on two levels that included larger scale interactive installations, and the third floor was used more freely for talks, workshops, and projects by other creative entities along with a pop-up cafe. This space allowed the creative community to connect and hopefully continue to collaborate.
AGSIW: What is the value for artists from the Gulf working together?
Noor: Interdisciplinary collaboration can lead the individuals involved to stretch their imagination, to see things from a different perspective, and the work ends up being richer and multilayered. For example, last year I curated an exhibition called “Once Upon Design” exploring intangible heritage in the Arabian Peninsula, that is to say the customs and traditions we inherit, rather than material objects. There was an architect from the UAE, Reem Hantoush, and a furniture designer from Saudi Arabia, Aya Bitar. They teamed up to look at the idea of the majlis: They took what is traditionally a square seating area and deconstructed it so that the seats are separate and arranged in a circular way, allowing one to leave the space from anywhere. They wanted to evoke this primordial feeling of sitting around a campfire or something like that, so you’re indoors but outside.
The square majlis is traditionally a hierarchical place where the central figure sits at the center, and the less important people sit on the periphery, with the exits on the side, and you’re observed as you walk across the room coming in or out. By making this space circular and opening it up, they changed the interaction and dynamic. Working socially led them to develop work that encourages social interaction, and evolves the customs and traditions passed down through generations.
AGSIW: You are an Omani, who was born and raised in New York, and are currently based in London, though you have gone back to Oman often. How has this international experience shaped your appreciation for the arts?
Aisha: It has been an interesting continued contrast and dialogue. Even when my family and I were abroad, we always went back, and I first started working for Oman when I was in London completing my BA.working for a gallery curating shows, so curating Omani art began when I was abroad and coming home during holidays. Early on I completed internships at museums and interned at galleries and museums such as MoMa and the Guggenheim in New York. This was before I went on to work independently and with the Ministry of Culture in Oman; so I went back to Oman with those experiences. There was a constant back and forth in my mind, considering what I had learned, but at the same time seeing what Oman had to offer that wasn’t available in New York, and what I could bring in terms of professionalism. My experiences enriched my work at home.
AGSIW: You rarely hear about someone who curates art in the Gulf, let alone in Oman. The term in itself is still unfamiliar to many people living in the Gulf and elsewhere. What drew your attention to this field?
Aisha: I still often find myself in conversations with people who don’t know what the word “curator” means. It is still a very new discipline, but as soon as I was told the meaning of curator, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be an artist, but I wanted to work with artists, be creative, and give artists an outlet. It felt so needed; where do we need a better intermediary than in the GCC states, an arena where we are still developing spaces for artists to be shown?
Curating as exhibition making is a new career, but the role itself is not new. For my PhD thesis, I interviewed people who worked at some of the very early galleries that were established in the region. A common critique is that the word curator has been ascribed to what they were doing later, but at the time they didn’t think of themselves curators; they didn’t know this word. Similarly, the master’s program I graduated from at the Royal College of Art was one of the first curating master’s programs, if not the first, established internationally. It was built to train curators for the Tate Modern.
I do find that I am still sometimes met with surprise when I say I am a curator, and equal levels of surprise when I say I am an Omani curator. There are definitely structural areas in which Oman is not represented – art fairs, biennials, forums where people usually meet. You may not see as strong of a representation from Oman, but it doesn’t mean that we aren’t doing very interesting things or that we haven’t been doing interesting things for as long as the other Gulf countries.
AGSIW: Tell us about your work on the planning team for the recently-established National Museum in Muscat.
Aisha: I was on the planning team developing programing, publications, and the website. It was a bit of a dream come true. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me because I was young, and the whole team there was so young and energetic. We were all recruited by H.E. Salim Mahruqi, who has been a visionary in the museum field. There are currently eight different museum projects being developed by the Omani Ministry of Culture that aren’t only in Muscat, including a maritime museum being built next to a boat yard in Sour and an expansion of our National History Museum. The director of that project is a brilliant Omani woman named Raiya al-Kindi.
AGSIW: As a PhD candidate researching modern art movements in the Gulf, what are your main findings? Are Gulf artists working collaboratively? Has social media acted as a promoter for the arts among youth?
Aisha: Before we built highways artists were working collaboratively in the Gulf. The earliest practicing artist I could find was in Kuwait – Mojib AlDosri. He was sent aboard in 1935 on an art scholarship to Cairo. Just the fact of his having been sent on an art scholarship at that time means that art was something that was accepted and merited a scholarship. These shreds of information keep sending my research further and further back, and I continually come back to the realization that artists were working together, even exhibiting in their homes throughout the GCC states. The earliest collaborative art scene I am currently researching is in Saudi Arabia.
However, there are a range of ways in which social media has completely transformed the art scene throughout the Gulf; one of them is purely interaction. Not just interaction locally or regionally, but internationally. It is so easy to find artists now, and it is also easy for artists to gain followings via social media. An aesthetic is being developed, as well as a language. When I was growing up, I recall a very real desire for public space, but it is now so easy for anyone to look up artists in each of the Gulf states.
I feel that in the curatorial community we haven’t yet figured quite how to handle social media. For example, if someone just starts producing work and has a thousand followers, while someone else who doesn’t have any social media presence or following, but has been producing work, has an established practice, has been to art school, and has a solid background, who do you give a show to? So what do we do with these audiences and this aesthetic? What is the merit of this aesthetic or how important are these audiences in the long term? How do you appropriate this phenomenon into a museum narrative when you think of who is important? This is to me the challenge. But this challenge is dwarfed by the immense pros of what social media has done for the arts.