Making Arab Art Accessible



Sat, 16 Sep 2017 - 07:00 GMT


Sat, 16 Sep 2017 - 07:00 GMT

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi - Photo Courtesy facebook

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi - Photo Courtesy facebook

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.


This year, Al-Qassemi sat on the jury of Sheikha Manal’s Young Artist Award, a prestigious Emirati award under the patronage of Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Earlier, in spring, he became a practitioner in residence at the Hagop Kevorkian Center of Near East Studies at New York University, to teach a special course on politics of Middle Eastern art.

Most recently, in July, the art enthusiast was chosen to be a member of the board of Trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, making him the first Arab to take on the position. “I joined the board in order to help them expand their collection of Middle Eastern art and to enhance their outreach in the region. The MCA Chicago is one of the great art museums of America and it is an honor to be associated with such a prestigious institution, says Al-Qassemi who has been described by Chair of the museum’s board Anne Kaplan as “a leader in global art, culture, and philanthropy,” according to Art News.



Al-Qassemi is also known as a commentator on Arab affairs. He is widely recognized for his Twitter activity of mainly translating Arabic tweets into English from his home in Sharjah during the Arab Spring, especially the Egyptian January 25 uprising. At the time his tweets became a reliable source of news and TIME magazine listed him among their “140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011.” The prominent cultural figure is also a columnist whose articles have been published in numerous international media outlets including The Guardian, The Independent, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, CNN, International Business Times, the Huffington Post, and more. Arabian Business listed him as one of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Arabs under the Thinkers category.

The Emirati art collector talks to Egypt Today about his passion for art and how it can stand up to fundamentalism.



Have you always been passionate about art?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been passionate about arts and culture. It started with my love for reading and attending the Sharjah National Theatre when I was young. But my real exposure to fine art started when I went to Paris to study. I studied business administration as an undergraduate at the American University in Paris, and I hold a master’s degree in global banking and finance from Regent’s University London. I never studied art nor practiced it, yet I have profound passion for it.

After I came back home in 1998, I started looking for Arab works of art. I now envy the younger generation for having art galleries and exhibitions which were much more easily available than they were back in my days.

Your mother, Sheikha Na’ma bint Majed Al-Qassemi, was the first female teacher in the UAE. How has she influenced your love of arts and culture?

My mother was orphaned at a young age. Her mother, Sheikha Mouza [her name means a rare kind of pearl] never went to school, but paid much attention to her daughters’ education. She sent my mother and aunts to study in Kuwait, which was a huge step back then in their conservative society.

My mother and my aunt Sheikha Mahra bint Majid Al Qassemi were respectively recognized as first teacher in a systemic school in the UAE and first school principal in the UAE. My mother’s students are now bright female figures in different fields in the country. This must have deeply impacted me. But as for my passion for art, I believe it is because of both nature and nurture; I am not sure which of these factors has impacted me more.

Barjeel organized the first Arab art exhibition in Iran. Tell us about that.

The idea came to me when I found that here in the UAE we usually host Iranian art exhibitions, but we never sent our own artistic products. So my purpose was to show the Iranians the Arab arts, which they never had a contact with.

Politically, there are tensions between the Iranian and Arab governments, but the peoples have geographic, historic and economic ties. And art has to play an important role in bridging the gap between the cultures of both sides. So Barjeel curated an exhibition of Arab modern art at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in November and December 2016. It was the first time to show Arab art from the modern period in Iran and the exhibition featured works by modern veteran artists from all over the Arab world: Egypt, Iraq, the Maghreb region, the Levant. I insisted on sending works from Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Kuwait.
It was a successful exhibition that attracted 20,000 visitors in seven weeks; Iranians and Arabs living in Iran. It was a very nice experience.

What obstacles did you face?

There were some difficulties at the beginning of the preparation, but it was then facilitated from both sides. To avoid any problems, I didn’t go to Iran [myself]. I only sent two people from the foundation to take care of the installation process.

Emiratis are open-minded people who are open to all cultures. The idea of sending our cultural products to the Iranian people wasn’t refused at all.

Is your foundation profitable?

I wish it was [chuckles]. But in fact, I cover all of its costs from my work in the family business.

Who are your audiences in the US and Europe?

I don’t have a breakdown of the ethnicity of our visitors. The exhibitions, like those that took place in London, Paris and New York, were attended by both Arabs and non-Arabs. But let me tell you that I’m happier with Arab attendees, for these exhibitions make them relate to their artistic heritage and feel proud of it.

Given the situation of the Arab world today, some people believe art is an unneeded luxury. What do you think?

Art here in the Arab region is a fundamental requirement. It is a weapon to fight terrorism, extremism and fundamentalist ideals. Unfortunately, there is an attempt to wipe away our identity and cultural heritage—[look at what] the Islamic State terrorist group [did to] Palmyra and Mosul and other places. We also saw it when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. They demolished the monuments and sculptures, which was meant to erase the Afghan identity. Terrorism is the enemy of art.

There was that very beautiful scene in Egypt during the revolution, when the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir square was under threat, the Egyptian citizens created a human shield around it to protect it [from vandalism and looting]. It was a beautiful response that gives hope and confidence to people attached to their heritage. et

Barjeel curates inhouse and international exhibitions, lending artworks to global forums as well as producing print and online publications. It is also working to create partnerships with international arts and cultural institutions to raise art awareness, developing a platform to raise critical dialogue about the works of Arab artists. The foundation has curated exhibitions in a number of countries like Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Iran, the US, UK, France and Singapore, and is currently planning to hold exhibitions in Tunisia, Mexico and India.





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