Kuwait’s little-known Modern Art Museum showcases a unique, albeit neglected, collection

Located in the Sharq district of Kuwait, a short distance from Arabian Gulf Road, the Modern Art Museum of Kuwait is dedicated to exhibiting and preserving the work of the country’s pioneering figures in the art of the last century. The humble museum, which does not even have a website, contains in the lobby works by notable Kuwaiti artists like Essa Sagr, Khazal Al Gaffas, Sami Mohammed and Thuraya Al Baqsami. The permanent collection is spread across the ground and first floors.

Interestingly, the museum is housed in one of Kuwait’s few pre-World War Two era buildings, an imposing former school that educated some of the country’s most prominent figures, including the current Emir Sheikh Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. Today, the unique building is managed by the National Committee of Culture, Arts and Literature, which is responsible for maintaining the collection and permanent displays on site.

Converted into a museum in 2003, the building had to be renovated as a result of heavy damage sustained during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Today, its permanent collection is displayed according to the diverse themes and styles of Kuwaiti visual culture, primarily in terms of painting and sculpture, featuring many of the country’s most stylistically innovative artists. In terms of collection policy, the Modern Art Museum is headed by director Hashem Al Shamma, who formerly served as a member of the Kuwaiti Fine Arts Council, having also worked with the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature. His expertise and directorial vision have played a critical role in preserving the best-known work of the Kuwaiti artists of the last century.

Al Shamma’s expertise in shaping the collection has also been instrumental in preserving more recent Kuwaiti visual culture. Under his direction, the collection has branched out to include not just Kuwaiti artists but other important regional figures who travelled through or had some connection to the country. It includes work by artists like the UAE’s Abdul Qader Al Rais, who studied in Kuwait, Lebanon’s Paul Guiragossian, Syria’s Nazir Nabaa and Bahrain’s Jamal Abdul Rahim, all of whom show how important Kuwait was as a regional nexus in shaping and hosting artists from across the Arab world.

Where the collection suffers is in its total lack of proper display or supplementary art historical scholarship. There are no books or supplementary wall materials accompanying the displays, which sadly give the viewer little context in terms of who these artists are or why they are important. As such, the museum could improve significantly by conducting serious scholarship connecting the threads of its important permanent collection with due art-historical diligence, adopting museum quality standards of display along with academic rigour.

Nevertheless, it remains one of the most under-studied – yet important – collections in the region. It has been given little attention in regional media, however, and as a result art tourists have hardly been flocking to uncover the museum’s many treasures. Seen contextually, the hundreds of artworks in the museum’s permanent collection form a unique and pivotal piece of Gulf modern art history.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 120-123.