Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a respected commentator on Arab affairs, is also the founder of the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation, an organisation that seeks to promote art from across the Arab world
Zoltán Somhegyi: The Barjeel Art Foundation has a really significant and extensive collection of contemporary art from the MENASA region — extensive not only in its number of artworks, but in variety and its covering of a wide geographical area. How can you follow the developments of these art centers and the production of artists — ranging from the (almost) completed oeuvres of the great masters — until the latest experiments of emerging talent?
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi: I rely on my extensive network, which includes artists, collectors and galleries, to stay abreast of the latest in the world of art, especially in the Middle East. I also find publications and the internet an important resource for past and upcoming exhibitions respectively. Finally, social media such as Facebook and Instagram is becoming an increasingly important tool to follow the work of artists in the region.
ZS: The collection is also very diversified in terms of media. There are paintings, graphics, sculptures, photographs, installations, videos, etc. On the other hand, ‘traditional’ techniques such as painting and sculpture are still the most popular among art lovers and collectors in the region. According to your experience, is this tendency changing in the area and is there a growing interest towards new forms?
SQ: Conceptual art, video and graphics are a relatively new phenomenon in the Middle East. Although I generally prefer paintings there is no denying that newer forms of artistic expression are also gaining ground in the region, especially amongst younger artists, although we have seen more established artists also attempt to diversify into new fields.[two_columns_one]
ZS: Contemporary art from the MENASA region is really in focus now. We see more and more galleries either completely concentrating on the area’s art scene or including artists from the region in their portfolio. But in terms of the public, do you think that a non-specialised audience can get all the layers of the works of MENASA artists? How can all aspects of a local work be mediated to those viewers who are less familiar with the references?
SQ: Many artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia prefer not to be grouped in a regional categorisation. They work as global artists. Similarly, art admirers are able to view and appreciate art regardless of its creator’s origin, although I find that with certain types of artworks it is essential to have a minimum knowledge of that region’s modern or contemporary history in order to understand the work fully.
ZS: What initiatives are needed to spread the contemporary art production of the Middle East beyond the region? What is still missing? More galleries, collectors, specialised curators, larger shows in museums of global impact?
SQ: One of the biggest obstacles and challenges for the Middle East art industry is the relatively insufficient number of art critics and writers. Although there are some great writers who specialise in Middle Eastern art, their numbers have not increased proportionately to keep up with the growth of the industry. Without critical writing it will be challenging to qualify exhibitions, curators, and artworks.
Read more: Our “Curated By” pages for the Art Issue #29 by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
ZS: Many say that the most important advantage in collecting contemporary art is that you can get in touch with the artist, unlike classical masters from earlier centuries. However, a lot of collectors still prefer not to know the artist personally in order to (try and) keep their selection objective, without any bias. They don’t want to be influenced by a friendship with the artist. What is your approach in this regard?
SQ: I personally prefer to meet the artist even if I did not intend to buy any of the work. Oftentimes the stories of these artists are best told by them and can change the entire understanding of an artwork. One should not expect a collector to buy work from an artist following a meeting with an artist, although collectors may later come to regret not buying a work from the artist’s studio if they did have a chance to visit her there since the selection is far larger than what a gallery can hold.
ZS: At Barjeel Foundation the visitors can often meet other branches of art, e.g. one of your latest openings was accompanied by a fascinating concert. Can these ‘dialogues’ between the arts efficiently attract visitors who were perhaps previously less interested in contemporary visual art?
SQ: It would be ideal in the Middle Eastern art community if we all supported each other. If movies or music videos were made featuring great art, if artists could draw portraits of musicians and authors, if writers featured paintings or music in their blogs and websites. This entire cultural movement in the Middle East would be greatly enhanced if we all come together as we share a common goal. [/two_columns_one_last] [divider]
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Art Issue #29, on page 132.