Bringing Modern Arab Art to the World ; London Gallery Traces Region's Heritage in Series of 4 Exhibitions

By Ayad, Myrna | International New York Times, November 6, 2015 | Go to article overview

Bringing Modern Arab Art to the World ; London Gallery Traces Region's Heritage in Series of 4 Exhibitions


Ayad, Myrna, International New York Times


A series of exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery in London documents the history of the region's art from the early 1900s to the present day.

At a Christie's sale in Dubai in 2010, applause erupted in the auction room as Mahmoud Said's 1929 painting "The Whirling Dervishes" sold for $2.5 million. The event stunned the audience and marked a historic turning point: In addition to setting a world record for a modern Arab work, it firmly put the spotlight on art from this genre and its importance to collectors in the region, who are both looking back at the Arab world's rich artistic traditions and linking them to contemporary practices.

Since 2010, auctions in the Middle East and Europe have continued to offer prized pieces from this field. (Some of them have been acquired by Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, which opened in Doha, Qatar, in 2010 and houses the world's largest collection of modern Arab art.) International institutions, from the Tate in London and the Guggenheim in New York to the Serralves Foundation in Porto, Portugal, have staged solo exhibitions celebrating Arab artists whose work precedes the recent interest in contemporary Arab art.

The Whitechapel Gallery in London is a rare Western institution to take an even more comprehensive approach. Through Dec. 6, the gallery is staging "Debating Modernism I," the first of a four-part series called "Imperfect Chronology," curated by Omar Kholeif, that documents the history of Arab art from the early 1900s to the present day. The first two installments of the series are the first shows focusing on Arab world modernists to be staged in Britain.

Over the next year, some 100 works by more than 60 Arab artists from the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, will be displayed in Whitechapel's Gallery Seven, a space reserved for private collections. Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, an Emirati art patron and collector, established Barjeel, which means "wind tower" in Arabic, in 2010 to preserve and manage his collection.

In addition to regularly staging exhibitions in Sharjah, Barjeel also frequently lends works to such museums as the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and the New Museum in New York.

"We own 1,200 works, and the ideal scenario is that we loan all of them," said Mr. al-Qassemi, who is also a commentator on Arab affairs. "This is the ambassador of Arab art to the world."

The aim of the "Imperfect Chronology" series is to educate audiences about the genealogy of Arab art and to relate key moments that heralded the region's contemporary art. According to Mr. Kholeif, the show acknowledges, as its name suggests, that its account is sequentially flawed, because there is a lack of documentation on artists and art practices from the modern era.

Mr. al-Qassemi, Mr. Kholeif, who will join the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago as a curator later this year, and others are trying to remedy this, drawing more attention to the issue by presenting exhibitions, publishing catalogs and speaking at panel discussions.

Mr. Kholeif said that the works in the Whitechapel exhibition should be viewed in the context of historical events in the Arab world, not in the West. …

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