Through Art, a Story of the Arab World

Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, on Going Global with Middle Eastern Art

Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi
is the founder of the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation,
and one of the Middle East’s most widely followed voices on art and politics.
Image courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation

Sultan al-Qassemi and Barjeel Art Foundation
Curator and Director Mandy Merzaban (second from right)
lead a tour of the Barjeel collection.
Image courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation

Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi is one of the most influential advocates for art and progressivism in the Middle East today. Based in the United Arab Emirates, the Paris-educated globetrotter is a force in global media all his own, having contributed to publications like The Guardian, The Independent, The Huffington Post, Canvas, Al-Monitor, and the U.A.E.-based National, where he penned a column about everything from art preservation to geopolitical affairs.

Nowhere is his voice more forcibly felt, perhaps, than on social media. His Twitter account boasts 300,000 followers, and is the regional go-to for inside perspectives on Middle Eastern art, culture, and politics. "Commentators are still debating the extent to which media contributed to the 2011 Arab uprisings," wrote TIME magazine in its 2011 rankings of the year’s 140 best Twitter feeds, "but one thing's for sure: to the extent that the revolution was tweeted, much of it came through the feed of Sultan al-Qassemi."

He is also an avid art collector. In 2010, he founded the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation, a non-profit organization, gallery, and printing press dedicated to promoting U.A.E. artists and to managing his personal collection, which includes hundreds of works from artists across the Middle East. Christie’s spoke with him ahead of a 21 October 2014 sale of Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian & Turkish Art , and a coinciding online-only sale of Modern and Contemporary Arab & Turkish Art , on offer from 16-30 October 2014.

Why did you start the Barjeel Foundation, and how would you describe its mission?

I have been inspired by a number of collectors in the West and in the region who decided to tell a story through curating a collection of art. In my case, the story was the story of the Arab world.

Over the past decade, since I started collecting, I have moved from being a private collector to a public collector. I buy art like museums buy art. I’ll buy art because it complements a movement or a historical angle. Even if I don’t like the work, I will buy it if I think it is important, so that visitors to the museum that I hope to build one day can have a good understanding of art from the Middle East and the Arab world.

I understand Barjeel loans its collection to places all over the world—and not just to art institutions, but also places like the Google headquarters. Do you find that has been a successful way to spread awareness of Middle Eastern artists?

Over the past two years, we have loaned to thirty institutions. For instance we have a piece that is on the fifth floor of the New Museum by Mona Hatoum [ "Here and Elsewhere," 16 July-9 Sept. 2014]. We curated an exhibition in the Singapore Art Museum. We loaned to the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp [Belgium], to the Institut du Monde Arabe, in Paris, and so many other institutions. We also loaned to the DIFC Court in Dubai—which is a very interesting location because it is beautiful and there are a lot of interesting people that go through the building.

We don’t ask for anything in return [besides] three things: Credit for the work, insurance, and transport. We never ask for money. It’s an especially important component of any collection that the works be seen. Artists have gifted me work because they said that, "Because you loaned my work, I got more recognition and collectors heard about me. And I’d rather you had the work than someone else that would never show it in public."

Do you find that the Western thirst for Middle Eastern art has grown over recent years?

Yes, there is a keen interest from the West, and from the East. I was invited to put up an exhibition in Asia before I was ever invited to do an exhibition in Europe.

I have a few requests that come from governments. Especially from three or four European countries. The governments contact me on Twitter because they follow me and I follow them. And they ask me, "Could you organize an exhibit of Middle Eastern art in our country? We will put you in touch with the museums." I say, "I’d love to be in touch with them, but it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t come from government to government. It needs to be institution to institution." As far as I know most Western and Eastern ambassadors based in the Middle East follow me [on Twitter]. It’s interesting to see that there is an overlap between the world of diplomacy and the world of culture in the Middle East.

People outside the region might be more attentive to what’s going on in Aleppo and the rest of Syria if they were fully aware of Syrian artists like Louay Kayyali.

I wrote an article for Al-Monitor about this. There has been a huge loss, a catastrophic loss of culture in the Middle East over the last decade, let’s say beginning with the Iraqi war. Even with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, a lot of the artifacts that were in the Kuwaiti museum were destroyed. During the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, thousands of artworks went missing, some of them never to be recovered.

Now over the last three or four years, we’ve seen that loss in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Syria and Egypt are amongst the greatest civilisations in the world—not just the Middle East. So much art has been lost. And to be honest with you, that added more impetus to my intentions, to my motivation to save a lot of this art. To save it and display it and promote it, and to show the world the other side of the Middle East. And that is why I don’t only buy art that I like. I try to buy with a more open mind, rather than as a single individual collector.

Do you find that Middle Eastern artists embrace social media more enthusiastically, or differently, given the nascency of art institutions there compared to cities like New York or London?

Very much so. There isn’t a single art museum in the Middle East that has a [viable] website. These artists sell their work, and then if they don’t photograph it and put it on Facebook, they will never see it again. Nobody will ever enjoy it. Not a single art museum, whichever budget they have—and I include Kuwait, Sharjah, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria—has a [useful] website. We hear from the grapevine that a museum has collected a piece, and yet they never admit it. They never tell you that they have collected a work.

Another differentiator is that many Middle Eastern artists are politically active—especially within the past few years, with the Arab Spring. You have a lot of Egyptian artists who put their work online, but are also very active online because their country is going through a revolution. They have opinions and they want to publicize their opinions so they go online where they also publish their work. So Palestinian artists, Syrian artists, Egyptian artists, Lebanese artists—I would say the vast majority of artists from the Arab world are very politically active. The vast majority of artists from the Western world are not politically active. Some of them might be active within a small sphere. They might be active in regards to causes that they believe in, but not on the grander scale of the politics of the country.

You are a passionate collector of Egyptian Modernist painters. How do you see the influence of those artists continuing in the region today? What important aesthetic or cultural boundaries did they break that seem crucial for today’s artists?

Egyptian modernists, let’s say early- to mid-20thcentury, were all politically active individuals [e.g.Mahmoud Said and Abdul Hadi El-Gazzar], many of them leftist, demanding more rights and to have an independent parliament. Many of them were nationalists. Meanwhile, Egyptian artists like Samir Rafi [along with Ramsis Yunan and Georges Henein] introduced surrealism into Egyptian art as early as the 1940s and 50s. You had cubism. You had abstract art emerging in the Western world and emerging in the Arab world soon after, if not simultaneously. We are talking about art from the Middle East and the Arab world that was concurrent with moments in the West. Egypt was the core center for all of that.

Artists of the Arab world, especially from the Gulf and the Levant would go to Egypt to study. I think of Abdallah Al Qassar, of Kuwait—he went to Egypt to study. Nassir Choura, of Syria, and many others went to Egypt to study because that was the center of cultural production. You only had the Maghreb countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia who went to Europe. The Egyptians went to Europe. But the rest of the Arab world came to Egypt.

In Canvas , you wrote about the importance of women to the contemporary gulf region art scene. That article focused mostly on the institutional side; are there contemporary female artists you are particularly excited about?

There’s plenty. I think, for example, Manal Al-Dowayan, of Saudi Arabia, can also be categorized as a social activist, rather than a political activist. In her work Esmi, which means "My Name Is," she tackled this taboo of men in the gulf, never [publicly] uttering women’s names, their wives’, and mothers’ and sisters’ names. So she invited all these woman artists to write their names on [giant] beads. She said "You have to be proud of your name. You have to assert your identity." And I love that about her work.

Then we can talk about Qatari artist Sophia al-Maria who is showing in the UK and tackles themes such as identity. Farah Behbehani, the Kuwaiti artist, did incredible work with her peacock series! I can go on and on.

Manal is so charitable, as well. She donates her work once a year for Art 4 Sight.

Yes, thank you, very good point. She’s given a lot of work to charity. I am very happy and proud of how the art community in the Gulf and the Middle East has come together when it comes to raising money for charities. So many young artists donate their work to charity. People like myself—and I probably am the least and the last—donate from their collections. We participate and we buy and then give the work again to [charity] auctions. I see a lot of recycling of work—and decent work, as well.

There has been a great movement from artists from the Middle East who have donated work. And this is just the artists. Then you have collectors who donate their spaces. I think it is one of the best things about the Middle Eastern art market. Because it is a bit more politicized than other regions, it is one of the positives of the Middle East art community—how philanthropic and how charitable it is.

There’s so much more that can be done and should be done in the region to present the Middle East as it truly is.

Hopefully this is just the beginning. I think in 20 years, people will talk about the early 2000s and even the 20-teens as the formative years of the globalization of Arab and Middle Eastern art. I think we’re just seeing the beginning of it. When I speak to you again in 2040, we’ll look back and we’ll say, "Wow, it’s gone global on a scale we never thought we would see."

Christie’s spoke with Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi ahead of an online-only sale Modern and Contemporary Arab & Turkish Art , on offer from 16-30 October 2014.