The Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, is fast developing a reputation not only for great art exhibitions, but also for stimulating discussions where the message behind the art is discussed and analysed. On Saturday it hosted a discussion on the theme “Drawing Nationalism. Where do Artists belong?” Dennis Sammut attended the event and shares his impressions.
Having spent most of the last twenty years trying to understand the destructive lure of nationalism and how different parts of society react to it, I could not resist the urge to attend the event that the Barjeel Art Foundation organised in Sharjah on Saturday 30th June and juggled my travel itinerary to fit it in. The UAE is not a hotbed of nationalism. Indeed as a young nation it is still in the process of building its national narrative. This process probably inspired the Barjeel Foundation to focus on the theme of Artists and Nationalism. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Salwa Mikdadi. The panelists included Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, a founder of the Gallery and respected Arab commentator and blogger, Dr. Sharon Parker, Assistant professor at Zayed University; Isabella Ellaheh Hughes, Independent curator, Dubai editor of Art Asia Pacific and Ebtisam Abdul Aziz, a local Artist.
The speakers touched on a number of important issues, but there was one overarching theme in the discussion: the artist must be given space. He or She should not be boxed in by having a label of nationality or ethnicity attached. Nor should the artist become an instrument of those designing the national narrative. None of the speakers represented governments but the general view was that the Gulf was still a good place to be an artist, not simply because there was solid government support, but also because the region is truly globalised and is welcoming to artists from all ethnicities.
I could not help put a question based on my own observations of how art is sometimes manipulated in the Caucasus region, and yet how artists are often able to break free and defy “official lines”. Do artists understand their own power, I asked. Sultan Sooud al Qassemi said that there were attempts to highlight nuanced differences in identity between Gulf Arabs as the countries of the region develop their different national narratives. Sharon Parker thought that artists may not understand their own power, but that governments do, and sometime they try to manipulate art in their favour. She gave examples of her own experience working in Iran a few years back.
There were several references to how the so called Arab spring may impact art in the Middle East, but like the political project, the artistic side of the Arab spring is work in progress, and so people could only guess.
It was a good discussion that raised more questions than it answered. Indeed this is the mood in the Gulf region and throughout the Arab world at the moment. A lot of the certainties of the past have been shuffled, but the pieces have not yet fallen into place. Art reflects politics, as one of the panellists said. There is now an explosion of artistic expression in the Middle East, and particularly in the Gulf. Looking at the paintings may be as instructive as reading the newspapers, if not more.
At the end of the discussion Sultan Sooud al Qassemi gave me a short tour of the gallery and pointed me to his favorite piece, the work of a Palestinian artist as she tries to express the predicament of the Palestinian people. Sultan has in recent years been giving a live commentary of events in the Arab world through Facebook and twitter and his regular pieces in the world media. He is refreshingly honest, even somewhat innocent in his writings. But he often captures the moment with insightful comments that help to break the sterotypical picture that western media insists on giving us with regards to the region.
Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS, and is currently working on a research project at Oxford University. He may be contacted at email@example.com