The exhibition “Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula” at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery was no humble undertaking. The first institutional attempt to tell a visual narrative of the Arabian Peninsula—which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—demanded intrepid archival research, an imagination that exceeds the status quo, and a love for these artists, many of whom are dead and cannot witness the fruits of their work.
The show includes some 60 works beginning in the 1940s, and spanning painting, sculpture, and installation, as well as more idiosyncratic entries, like a stunning visual diary. Some of the oldest works were loaned out of private collections and are being exhibited for the first time.
“In the early 20th century, this region that didn’t have commercial galleries or formal exhibition spaces,” said Maya Allison, the gallery’s executive director and chief curator. “Artists had to teach themselves or go abroad and return to teach others what they’ve learned. This is a movement that didn’t have an institutional framework to tell its history even as it was happening.”
The show is about many things, including the treasure hunt for these works, the creation of a context for art to be made and studied, and, above all, why lands become nations and how people make sense of that conversion.
The show was curated by Aisha Stoby with assistance from Tala Nassar, and is organized into four thematic groups: “Early Pioneers,” “Landscapes,” “Self-Representation and Portraiture,” and
“Early Pioneers” opens with a smooth, stately portrait by painter Mojib Al Dosari, one of the earliest recognized visual artists in show. He was born in 1922 in Kuwait and was a teenager when oil reserves were discovered, ushering in an industrial revolution in the country.
“So many works were lost because of the Gulf War,” Nasser said. “We reached out to every museum in Kuwait to find a painting by this artist and eventually we found the author of a book written about the artist, and [the author] also started searching for paintings. Eventually he put us in contact with the grandson of the man in the portrait.”
Kuwait, a small nation at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is the starting point for the regional modern art movement, which the curators loosely established as when artists, grappling with the rapid transformation, started gathering.
The works from this period are folkloric, concerned with preserving the essence of a people and place. Bold colors and broad brushstrokes animate cafes scenes, ceremonies, farmers harvesting, and fishermen sailing toward a crimson horizon. Bahraini painter Nasser Al Yousif who formed the influential “Manama” Group, after his hometown of Manama, with Ahmed Qassim Al Sunni and Abdul Karim Al-Orrayed, painted verdant landscapes in which villagers pause their labor to inspect the viewer, more curious than unkind.
Some works are startlingly sensual. In an untitled painting from 1956 by the Kuwaiti Ibrahim Ismail, a woman reclines on a couch while an artist—Ismail himself, perhaps—paints her likeness. Her loose hair falls in a single brown sheet. Nassar said that the hasty lines of her black dress suggest she was originally painted nude.
The most exciting pieces in “Landscapes” depict terrain bending into biomorphic abstractions. Mounirah Mosly, one of the first Saudi women to exhibit art and part of the expat wave to Cairo, projected the constant flux of her home onto her surroundings. In The Land of Solidities, from 1970, a veiled woman looms larger than the sandstone mountains. Figuration breaks entirely in a work by Emirati mixed-media artist Najat Makki. It looks like the desert during a windstorm, jagged impressions of black, yellow, and bronze. As a whole, the show is terrific viewing, even if the lasting impression is of reading the foreword of a well-researched document. The curatorial team might say that’s the point.
Arab art is underrepresented in modern art histories, though that is slowly changing. Allison described “Khaleej Modern” as “throwing down the gauntlet” before the academics and curators of the world to help fill in the gaps. Stoby, who also curated the inaugural Omani pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennial, is a force in her field, and her research for this exhibition is illuminating.
But a well-rounded history of art from this region will require the work of many scholars. There’s more to say about the Circle Group from Oman, who pioneered new media practices, or Safeya Binzagr, who exhibited alongside Mosly. Binzagr is represented by one of the best—and most unexpected—pieces, the portrait Al Zaboun, from 1969. The sitter, a woman, is radiant in a yellow outfit beautifully offset by the blue backdrop and arabesques.
There’s more to be unpacked, too, about how art influences diffuse over borders, evolving into what Stoby calls a “nuanced hybrid concept of modernism.” Looking around there’s fractured Cubist landscapes, references to Matisse, and a flat perspective that is reminiscent of Manet. Most of the artists in the show were awarded scholarships to study abroad where they would encounter European modernists.
But the curators are particular about causality and reject the power structures inherent to European modernism—what the writer and historian Partha Mitter coined as the “Picasso Manqué syndrome,” a phenomenon in which Picasso was praised for appropriating African imagery while artists below the Global North have been called derivative for engaging with influences outside their culture. The alternative is a plurality of modernisms that are defined by the singularities of their context.
That idea has come to be known as “transmodernism,” and it’s gaining institutional traction, most recently in a survey of global surrealism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That show’s curators, Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale, tracked the independent eruptions of surrealist fervor in some 45 countries, including the Arab world, arguing that local histories explode art historical generalizations. Surrealism, for example, revolted against the “establishment,” but that means vastly different things to a European artist and an artist from a post-colonial country.
The last section of “Khaleej Modern,” “The Conceptual Turn,” ends in the present, suggesting that art movements end when all the important things have been said. This is the most dynamic portion of the show, featuring photography, installations, and videos starting from the 1970s made by individuals and collectives in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Hassan Sharif, the totemic Gulf conceptualist and educator from the UAE, is represented in several pieces. Sharif, who died in 2016, had a rebellious streak, and his Fluxus-flavored performances—he’d gather friends to jump in the desert, or tie ropes between rocks—challenged the consensus of what art is, and isn’t.
The artists here are more critical of their surroundings, reflecting a growing social consciousness around issues such as the abuse of migrant workers from Southeast Asia who make up an incredible percentage of the population. The street sweepers of Muscat, the capital of Oman, occupy the periphery of Budoor Al Riyami’s installation Brooms of Wisdom (2007). A workman’s laces and red broom bristles edge into her photographs, like the laborers perpetually present yet purposefully unseen. There are also images from Emirati artist Ebtisam Abdulaziz’s intervention Autobiography (2007), in which she wears a bodysuit printed with ATM transactions and haunts Sharjah’s streets. In two wonderfully absurd images, she withdraws money from an ATM and curls like an alley cat on a trash heap. There’s a human cost to these outrageous skylines, even if the powerful few never pay.
The last entry is by another important Omani artist, Hassan Meer, the cofounder of the Circle and more recently Muscat’s Stal Gallery and Studio. Under the Water (2004) illuminates a small dark room with a looping installation of the artist struggling in a pool. It’s an unsettling, entrancing vision that also visited this year’s Venice Biennale. Meer’s art is, in part, about ghosts. The traces of who he was—and what Oman was—that endure in the landscape, language, and values of the present. This isn’t an inherently good or bad reality, he says. Time simply moves its captives along a rip current into the unknown.