Curating Khaleeji Modern Art

The Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula exhibition uncovers a rich history and authors an important chapter in the anthology of Arab art.

The Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula exhibition sets the tone for a much-needed narrative on what it means to be a contemporary artist in the Arabian Gulf over the last century, and challenges colonial misconceptions tethering the emergence of modern art to Western influence.

As The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery’s fall show, the landmark exhibition explores the emergence of modern art in the Arabian Gulf in the beginning of the early 20th century, through 57 works loaned from across the region. It was curated by Aisha Stoby, who helmed the inaugural Oman Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, at the invitation of NYUAD Chief Curator Maya Allison. 

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 United Arab Emirates, a region collectively known in Arabic as the Khaleej.

Through years-long correspondence with 21 different galleries, personal estates, and museums, the curatorial team, which included Assistant Curator Tala Nassar, orchestrated a gallery that puts into perspective the seemingly disparate but thematically cohesive work of artists from the six Arabian Gulf nations.

In their research leading up to the gallery, the team addressed questions around  identity, colonial definitions about art in a modern context, and the mantle of art in an emerging region. Their response led to the show’s  resounding statement about the history of art in the region, and the role of the artists in building a seminal movement that was academically overlooked.  

The relationship between the curatorial team, and the origin story of Khaleej Modern, began during Stoby’s doctoral research at SOAS studying modern art movements throughout the Gulf countries.

“It began as a research project originating from a source of frustration, I felt the Gulf was marginalized within regional art histories, and I had a desire to contribute not just an archive but scholarship to this arena,” Stoby said.

During her degree preparation, Stoby was invited by Allison to turn her research into an exhibition. This articulation of the research was pegged on several overarching pillars that help structure the experience, the work of which began several years ago and put on display this week.

The first pillar: the show looks at defining and joining themes throughout the GCC and documenting the significance of the people involved in the Khaleeji modern art movement, or those they refer to as artistic “pioneers.” With so little the framework to set the historical foundation of art in the region, the gallery identifies individuals who were artists, but also mentors, shapers, and gallerists who founded the creative infrastructure of the regional art movement.

Secondly, the gallery highlights different art communities throughout the GCC and stratifies the works in geographic regions in each gallery that form a chronological and regional progression that helps contextualize the work.

And lastly, the show presents thematic identities in an ongoing conversation between tradition and modernity.

Bringing together the art and installing a conceptually robust exhibition was a challenge that Stoby faced due, not to scarcity but, to sparsity.

“There are several important books that are out of print, some artists and estates were difficult to contact and at times material didn’t seem entirely accurate, these sorts of challenges were present during my research. Taking it that step further to go beyond the writing and acquire artworks of artists who in some cases were already difficult to research at those initial stages seemed very ambitious, and for that reason I feel so privileged to work with Maya the team at NYU, who made it possible to represent so many of these early pioneers,” she said.

The gallery represents art, movements, galleries, and artists whose work was being made or displayed as early as the 1940s, at a time where the region was beginning rapid development. It showcases the oldest work from the Bahrain National Museum,  a painting by Bahraini artist Ahmed Al Sunni displayed in 1960.

Through loans from all around the region, the exhibition helps contextualize the importance of the art movement while offering explanations to questions, or misconstructions, in defining the modern Gulf identity.

Scholars have developed significantly more art research on other parts of the Arab world partly due to a myth that art was absent from the Gulf. This is attributed, according to Allison, partly to a lack of visibility or attention given to the art in the region. She says that Khaleej Modern provides a “sweeping gesture” of modern art of the Gulf in what is likely the first show of its kind.

“This show is the first step on the journey of retracing the invisible art movements that we’ve lost track of and are retracing to find what they mean,” said Allison. “The lack of study is a circular phenomenon. We have to remember that the rise of what we think of as art in the modern sense, or painting on canvas, is directly linked to the movement of colonialism.”

Initially, the “circular phenomenon” is predicated on a lack of momentum in art history, where there was a scholarly neglect hinged on a self-perpetuating assumption that because there is no attention paid to the Khaleeji modern art movement, then there must not have been a movement at all.

The misconception, Allison says, is that research on heritage and the research on art were on disconnected scholarly paths such that one begins where the other ends. But the difference, and possibly what makes Khaleej Modern unique, is that these artists were in constant dialogue with their heritage during the artistic process while being in dialogue with the world.

“How do you address this issue of the colonialism of modern art history and, in the case of the Gulf, the neglect of scholarship in these regions? The answer to that is to simply contribute, to produce material, and to start conversations.”

To that end, Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula opens the show with this question and aims to drive that conversation to well beyond its closing day.