Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Barjeel Art Foundation’s Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 which was dedicated to the art scene in the UAE in which we unravel the threads of unity by exploring the perspectives of various stakeholders within the UAE’s art community. Through insightful interviews with galleries, art institutions, and auction houses, a vivid mosaic emerged, depicting how unity has been woven into the fabric of the art scene.

As the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, could you share with us the founding story and the vision that led to the establishment of this remarkable institution dedicated to Contemporary Arab art?

I began being interested in art during my undergraduate studies at the American University of Paris in the 1990s. This is when I began exploring museums, galleries and cultural spaces across the city. Upon completing my degree in 1998, and returning to the United Arab Emirates, my interest in Arab art began to develop and grow, eventually leading me to build a collection of Modern and Contemporary Arab art that would later become open to the public with the establishment of the Barjeel Art Foundation in 2010. My vision for the collection is to showcase the breadth of art from the Arab world with all its minorities, its women artists, and its different influences. I would like for this art to be available for view and for scholarly investigation by art historians, placing it on a par with art from other parts of the world in the writing of global art historical narratives.

Courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation.
Courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation.

The Barjeel Art Foundation focuses on Contemporary Arab art. How has this emphasis on Arab art played a role in fostering cultural unity and a shared cultural identity in the UAE?

While the region is very diverse in its communities and populations, it does have many shared histories and experiences. The collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation is currently one of the most rounded collections of Modern and Contemporary Arab art in terms of showcasing various communities and minorities residing in the Arab world, including Amazigh, Kurdish, Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Jewish and Circassian, among others. It is also one of the most gender-balanced collections of Arab art. I believe that offering a platform for the region’s various voices and presenting them in a shared space fosters cultural unity, and an understanding that it is a history that we are all part of, and we all have a stake in.

Could you highlight some of the most impactful exhibitions or artists that have been featured at the Barjeel Art Foundation and the influence they’ve had on the local and international art communities?

Since its inception, the foundation has held 40 art exhibitions both locally in the United Arab Emirates, and internationally in cities like Singapore, Paris, London, Berlin, Toronto, New York, Boston, Tampa, New Haven, Amman, Kuwait, Alexandria, Baku and Tehran – allowing global audiences to gain first-hand access to Arab art. Notable collaborations include projects like The Sea Suspended at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) in 2016, and Taking Shape: Abstraction From the Arab World, 1950s-1980 at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University in 2020, which went on to tour four additional venues in the US. Our latest international exhibition was held this year, in 2023, at Christie’s, London, and was titled Kawkaba. It showcased 100 works from across the Arab region, and was visited by a large number of people. The foundation has also loaned artworks to over 130 institutions globally, including museums like Tate Liverpool and Tate St. Ives, MoMA PS1, The Art Institute of Chicago, Mori Museum and others.

Courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation.
Courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation.

The foundation places a strong emphasis on education and research. How do these aspects contribute to the cultural enrichment of the UAE and the broader Arab region?

The Barjeel Art Foundation aims at developing a public platform to foster critical dialogue around Modern and Contemporary art practices, with a focus on artists with Arab heritage internationally. We strive to create an open-ended inquiry that responds to the nuances inherent to Arab histories beyond the borders of culture and geography. As part of these efforts, we continuously work on generating knowledge around the collection, whether through publications, many of which can be downloaded on our website for free, or through collaborations with universities and academic institutions on initiatives like conferences, symposia or exhibitions. We also often have graduate students and researchers spend time in our storage facilities in Sharjah, seeking to view artworks that are part of their academic work and writing. In addition to that, we have a large part of the collection on long-term view at the Sharjah Art Museum, which is an institution that receives a lot of students, from pre-school to graduate level.

The UAE’s art scene is dynamic and ever-evolving. What are your thoughts on the future of the Barjeel Art Foundation and its role in shaping the art landscape of the UAE?

The art landscape in the UAE is indeed very dynamic, and includes institutions like state museums, non- profit organisations, commercial galleries, auction houses and various artist-run spaces, as well as educational establishments that provide training in art. I see the Barjeel Art Foundation’s continuing role in the UAE’s cultural ecosystem as educating audiences on Modern and Contemporary art from the Arab world, and also keeping the collection accessible to wide viewership, both locally and internationally, including providing access and support to researchers, scholars and students.

The Barjeel Art Foundation is known for its dedication to preserving and showcasing Arab art. Can you tell us more about your approach to building and maintaining your art collection?

Our approach to building the collection is to represent as many voices and significant schools of thought that emerged from the region as possible. We continuously look to fill in the historical and geographical gaps in the collection, which happens through ongoing research, consulting with scholars, and a constant search for artworks that would make valuable additions to the collection. The foundation also continuously invests in conserving and repairing artworks, some of which arrive to us with visible damage, while others require cleaning and professional dusting. Maintaining the collection is as labour intensive and important as assembling it.

Courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation.
Courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation.

Art often has the power to provoke thought and inspire change. Can you share any instances where art displayed at Barjeel has led to meaningful dialogues or social change in the UAE or the Arab world?

Art is what encapsulates the ideas, dialogues and concerns of the societies within which it is produced. As such, it can be a very effective vehicle in conveying the socio-political conditions of its time or, for that matter, serving as an agent of social change. In our experience of curating exhibitions, enriching dialogues have been generated when the Barjeel collection travelled to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) in 2016, for example, as despite many shared histories between Iran and the Arab world, these artworks had not been seen by audiences in Tehran before due to geopolitical conditions. We also had wonderful conversations about figuration and non-objective art that emerged from our travelling exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction From the Arab World, 1950s-1980s, which took place between 2020-2022, that helped to challenge opinions about Modern Arab art, and turn attention to the diversity and originality of modernity in the region.

The foundation has been involved in numerous collaborations and partnerships. How have these interactions with the international art community influenced the foundation’s mission and reach?

Collaborating with other institutions and interacting with the international art community allows the Barjeel Art Foundation not only to showcase the collection more widely, and start conversations about Arab art with diverse audiences, but also to expand our own areas of inquiry, become aware of possible gaps in our research, and to view the collection from multiple perspectives. For example, in 2020 journalist Raphael Cormack of Apollo Magazine, who reviewed our exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction From the Arab World, 1950s-1980s at the Grey Art Gallery at NYU, aptly noted that a discussion of the Cold War and how it may have influenced the proliferation of Abstract art movements in the region was missing from the exhibition and the publication. This got us thinking about expanding our field of research, and offered an additional lens through which to investigate regional art histories. Building and circulating the collection is to a large degree an organic process, which is dotted with discoveries, pivots and occasional changes in direction.

Art and culture often transcend national boundaries. How does the Barjeel Art Foundation engage with artists and art from around the Arab world, and how does this contribute to a sense of unity and shared identity within the region?

The Barjeel Art Foundation collects art from across the Arab region, as well as art by Arab artists internationally, thus transcending national boundaries and providing a shared platform for diverse voices. This fosters a sense of unity not only among the presented artists, or among our shared histories, but also among visitors from across the region who are able to recognise themselves and their experiences in the artworks on display.


About Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an Emirati columnist and researcher, is renowned for his insights into the social, political, and cultural affairs of the Arab gulf states. Ranked 19th on the “Arabic Thought Leader Index” in 2018, Sultan has shared his expertise as a fellow and lecturer at esteemed institutions like yale university and Georgetown University. Founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation in 2010, he continues to contribute significantly to the Arab art scene while imparting knowledge through teaching and editorials.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi,founder of Barjeel Art Foundation.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of Barjeel Art Foundation.

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