Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula, run from September 6 to December 11, 2022 at The NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Art Gallery. Curated by Dr. Aisha Stoby, this landmark exhibition surveys the emergence of modern art in the Arabian Gulf, featuring 57 works loaned from across the region. Covering a period from the early 20th century to the turn of this century, the exhibition includes works from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
Executive Director of The NYUAD Art Gallery and University Chief Curator, Maya Allison; and guest curator Dr. Aisha Stoby
How important is representing this exhibition in the Arab world?
There is a misconception that the GCC countries in particular are lacking in art history, and so exhibitions such as this are crucial for putting on the record the very real and surprisingly complex modern art history that developed over the last century here.
To date, we are not aware of any other survey exhibitions, at least not at this scale, of the emergence of modern art in the gulf. That does not mean they do not exist, but thus far we believe this exhibition marks a beginning point for mapping the arts in this region, for future deep study.
Exhibitions are important beginning points for research and study, particularly in the university context. In the course of her PhD research, Dr. Aisha Stoby mapped key clusters of artistic activity throughout the Gulf in the last century. I invited her to collaborate with us on an exhibition based on this research. Our university gallery is a non-collecting museum, and unlike a large museum such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, our mandate is to work at the frontier of research, investigation, and experimentation. In the case of Khaleej Modern that means using the exhibition format to propose areas for deeper research, and to promote the new research that we find in the field, as we have here.
What can you tell us about the artists participating in this exhibition?
The exhibition’s guest curator, Dr. Aisha Stoby, cast the net wide for her research, across all six countries, to come back with more artists and bits of history than could possibly be studied by one person in their lifetime. She prioritised artists who played founding roles in arts societies or teaching, mentoring, and community building — the ‘pioneers’.
The artists here are selected because of their contribution to the formation of modern art communities throughout the gulf. All of them played key roles in making possible the milestones we see in the course of the last century here: from the first artist to study abroad, first exhibitions in each country, founding art associations, teaching the next generation, writing and publishing about art, and so on.
You will see a number of works in painting, some sculpture, dating from as early as 1943 in Kuwait, and up through 2007 in Oman. Much of it is the development of painting and sculpture, and a whole section about new media and installation and conceptual art.
What are the strategies that you are following?
An exhibition like this is also a method of study that complements and tests the hypotheses and work done at the dissertation phase. Already we have learned from our public and university audiences many bits of information that will lead to new avenues for research and investigation into these artists and their particular context.
Therefore, a mission and a strategy for The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery is this kind of community study and dialogue. History is both written alone in the historian’s archival work, and in public, in dialogue with society. This dialectic ultimately paves the way for the growth of the art canon that we see so wonderfully unfold in our neighbour museums such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and eventually the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
Dr. Aisha Stoby
Can you tell us a bit about the participating artists?
The term ‘pioneer’ is used in this exhibition to describe the multiple roles that artists played within the region; that of a mentor, teacher, gallerist, curator and founder — to name a few. This exhibition looks at groups and communities of pioneering artists who have played these multiple roles, inciting art movements in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar throughout the twentieth century.
What are the strategies that you are following?
The selection of artists came from my larger PhD research, tracing significant figures who played formative roles in their local artistic ecosystems. This research was derived from source material, primary research, travel and interviews. It has been a pleasure to see this material come to life in the gallery.
How can you highlight the importance of such an exhibition in the Arab world?
The greatest significance of this exhibition is that, to my knowledge, there has not been an exhibition tracing modern art movements in the Gulf countries as a whole during this period. The contributions and importance of these artists are well known within their own communities, and my hope is that this exhibition will draw further exposure to their practices and to these histories, for scholars, students, and art enthusiasts alike.
What are the values that modern visual art can bring into the Arab world?
A key theme throughout this exhibition is the historic importance of the artworks and their relationship to the socio-political contexts in which they were created. I hope that viewers will leave the exhibition with a renewed appreciation for the inextricable relationship between art and society, both during the periods we have reviewed and today.
Where can this special exhibition lead current and future artists?
My hope is that this exhibition will contribute in some way to catalysing further exposure of these artists, encourage further scholarship on their work, and ignite further interest on this rich period of our region’s history.