Sharjah Art Museum, 20 Years of Arts & Culture (2018)

Book celebrating the 20th anniversary (1997-2017) of the Sharjah Art Museum (2018). Here the English front cover of the book, which has on the reverse side an Arabic cover.

Some words deserve to be chiseled in stone and I think that these lines written by the Sharjah Art Museum’s curator Alya Al Mulla about her institution qualify well:

It is important to have such a facility in any society, where ideas and perspectives can be exchanged in a healthy discourse. Not everyone has to agree on a certain piece of art, or necessary like it for it to work, but anything that makes people think and change perceptions or ask questions, eventually achieves and adheres to our mission.

They were printed on page 19 of a book published to celebrate the first 20 years (1997-2017) of the art museum in the Emirate of Sharjah: Sharjah Art Museum, 20 Years of Arts & Culture. I picked up two copies of the book for our library at its launch on the 22nd of March of this year during a visit to Art Dubai, escaping for a moment from the hands of gallerists. Curious also about what I could learn from an institution only ten years senior to the smaller one I have been forging in Amsterdam. Perhaps other words, now from the Sharjah Museum’s director were of use to me: “In the midst of our systematic and continued work, we celebrate the 20th anniversary (…).” Words of steady and anchored progress that may comfort art fair visitors.

Book and contributors

The hard cover publication does not demand hours of reading and primarily shares with us a timeline of all events and exhibitions at the museum and chronologically arranged pictures of them. The book can be opened from both sides with either a left-to-right reading English text or a right-to-left reading Arabic version. Contributors of the book are clear in what they have to say. They are Manal Ataya, the Director-General of the Sharjah Museums Authority, the publisher, with a foreword, the Chairman of the Department of Culture, Abdullah Al Owais, with ‘Twenty Years of Merit and Integration’ and the museum’s curator Alya Al Mulla with ‘Sharjah Art Museum; A Jewel in the Heart of Sharjah.’ About the museum’s building we are enlightened by Peter Jackson and Brian Johnson, who were both involved in designing and realising the museum in the late 1990s. I should give them this compliment: I visited the museum twice and thought of it as just any institution in Paris, Madrid or London and didn’t attach any specific period or age to it. And thought it had a great facade for the usual banners, not minding these windtowers, I knew nothing about then. In their writings one thing all contributors do the same, dutifully but genuinely, and that is acknowledge the ruler of the emirate, who I browsed online and encountered in an altogether different position of sovereignity: as king of the barbeque. As in that barbeque however, he seems not just to be the ruler, but an active and learned participant.

Book presentation of ‘Sharjah Art Museum 20 Years Arts & Culture on 22 March 2018 in Dubai by director Manal Ataya and curator Alya Al Mulla.


Timeline and the museum’s returning events

The books main feature is a 24 pages long timeline of the 20 years celebrated that allows a quick and easy way to learn about the museum’s choices. Browsing through it one notices a number of returning events in which the museum collaborates with other organizations in Sharjah and I list them here to give an idea what the museum does besides their own exhibition and conservation work:

Every year:
– The exhibition of the Emirates Fine Arts Society
– The Islamic Arts Festival (with the Department of the Arts)
Every two years:
– The Sharjah Biennial
– The Sharjah’s Children’s Biennial
– The Sharjah’s Calligraphy Biennial
Every so many years:
– Opus (numbered I, II, III, V) exhibitions dedicated to the professors and faculty of the American University of Sharjah’s College of Architecture and Design

Apart from those collaborative events there is a permanent flow of local and international exhibitions among them two Dutch ones about the Golden Age of painting (Rembrandt’s time) and the 1950’s free painting movement named after Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam: CoBrA. However, the exhibitions among the many I would have liked to have seen most are a Saudi Cultural Week in 1999, of which no images struggled their way into the book, and an exhibition of printmaking from both India and Pakistan in 2014.

Permanent collection and its exhibition

Speaking at the launch of the book the museum’s director and curator attached importance to its website and making the permanent collection accessible online. In the book you will find the opening around 2015 of the permanent collection exhibition ‘Modern and Contemporary Arab Art’ not mentioned in the timeline, but pictured on pages 312-314. Images of specific artworks in the museum’s collection appear also at the beginning of each of the 20 yearly chapters with photographs of exhibition openings, wich make up the bulk of the book (pages 52-349). It starts from the English side quite appropriately, to balance the famous blind singers and imams, with Man without a Tongue (1999) by Ahmad Nawash. In total around 20 works from the Sharjah Art Museum Collection are illustrated. I tried to find links to the works on the museum’s website, which is part of the website of the Sharjah Museums Authority’s site, but the ‘collection search’ function failed today. I link the page here for future exploration: Sharjah Art Museum Website.

Exhibition openings photographs

As said, the bulk of the publication exists of the many illustrations, nearly all photo’s, of the exhibitions that took place in 20 years and mainly from their openings. When I looked through them I was at first actually annoyed by the many officials featuring in the pictures. I have nothing against my own king’s ambassador to the U.A.E. or the CoBrA museum’s director (no identities are attached to the officials in the photograhs, one needs to guess or ignore them), but I would usually much prefer seeing an artwork in an art museum’s book than officials. It reminded me of the picture reports of weddings in Jeddah, that usually feature the bride’s brothers and her uncles, but not the lady herself. On second inspection I changed my mind. Many of the photo’s are carefully chosen and show the interaction of the offcials and the artworks, sometimes very tale-telling or suggesting and with a good sense of rhyme and humor. Bravo actually for the selection. Have a look at the boy on page 221, whenever you get hold of the book, or at a meeting of the emir himself, a Warhol painting and a lady (page 102).

I thought the book useful and look forward to the future of the museum’s systematic and continuous work. It left me with the question, which museum around the globe is now or will become in the future the main and inclusive reference institution for ‘Arab art,’ which is something this museum does not collect or research, but relates to nevertheless.

 

Cities of Conviction (2017). Exhibition catalogue.

Cities of Conviction (2017). An exhibition catalogue of ‘Saudi contemporary art’ in Salt Lake City’s Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.

The title and theme were intended to connect Islam’s holy cities Mecca and Medina with Salt Lake City in the United States, which hosts the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormon Church. Mormons, not unlike some Muslims worried about contemporary culture, wish to return to the original practice of their religion, so the idea of this confrontation of the arts must have been that they would politely find each other. Cities of Conviction is the most charming book so far that has followed from a ‘struggling for some freedom’ exhibition in London in 2008, branded ‘Edge of Arabia’ by its British and Saudi Arabian initiators. In Utah in 2017 the organisation had transformed into something named Cultrunners and was helped and financed by the public relations budget of the Saudi Arabian state oil company Aramco, dressing itself as the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture and branded ‘Ithra’ – who knows what that means? It’s a bit like a Russian doll this exhibition structure and married for the event in Salt Lake City with the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, a more easily to understand institution. The exhibition was just one of several by a group of artists from Saudi Arabia touring as a caravan the United States with the stated purpose “to generate people-to-people dialogue and better understanding between the two nations.” In plainer language, it was a public relations effort for Saudi Arabia and, this is the paradox, at the same time valuable support for the artists for who a bit of applause in the U.S.A. may bolster space for free expression in Saudi Arabia. At least, that is what one hopes for and has actually been happening. Strange only was that the tour was initially timed to coincide with the presidential election campaigns, perhaps not favouring Trump at all, but one might not expect Saudi Arabians to embark on such an intervention in foreign elections.

Publication design – Brian Maya

The Cities of Conviction book aknowledges graphic designer Brian Maya, who says about himself on linkedin that he “oversees all in-house design and production operations” at the Utah Museum. I kind of like most things about the book, its slightly taller than A5 format, its not too non-glossy non-glossyness, its white and black combinations and best of all its cover with Rashed Al Shashai Heaven’s Door (2014) which artwork I had seen earlier in Jeddah at the top of public stairs in an apartment block in central Jeddah with one of the collectors turned gallerists, who supported the exhibition in Utah. On the back of the cover calligraphy by Moath Alofi – presumably the title in Arabic – completes the design.

UMOCA – A fearless voice

The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) introduces itself as having existed since 1931 and being “a fearless voice for innovation, experimentation and dialogue surrounding the topics of our time.” Was there danger in this exhibition and for whom, I wonder, if they speak about fear?

The curator – Jared Steffensen

In his curatorial statement Steffensen connects both the cities Mecca and Medina to Salt Lake City on several points that Saudi Arabia and Utah share. He chooses to see both regions anchored to a specific religion and points out that Mormons have a twice-annual pilgrimage of the faithful to the General Conference at Temple Square, the spiritual center of the Mormon faith. Both countries Steffensen sees as having arisen from the desert and to enjoy a natural resources driven economy – let him perhaps not stress this point in the Hejaz or Asir provinces of Saudi Arabia, where the landscape is different and the revenue from the oil trickles down at a different pace and volume. Pleasing to the ears of some will be that both Utah and Saudi Arabia are said to have “a youth culture pushing the bounderes of their society through relentless individual expression, while maintaining a sense of community.” Surely maintaining a sense of community is on the curatorial wishlist, but what about ISIS, tribalism and rollercoaster nationalism?
Another thing Steffenson does not inform us about, is whether he travelled to or researched Saudi Arabia himself or simply received Cultrunners in curious gratitude, never wondering which laws or permissions of Saudi Arabian authorities allowed the artists to present their work in Salt Lake City. It is my experience with both Saudi Arabian students and the Aramco company in The Netherlands, that they all need specific permission from authorities in Riyadh to go around showing art. Apparently such issues did not present themselves to or bother the curator or director Kristian Anderson of the museum, who remains silent in the publication.

The artists and artwork descriptions

The book has 74 pages containing 37 images and 19 artist biographies and slightly longer descriptions of the artworks than some exhibition books. About Rashed Al Shashai’s Heaven’ Door on the cover of the publication and pictured in this report it reads on page 61 that “these arched stained glass windows are in fact made from kitchenware – plastic colanders and baskets.” The artist sees and illustrates the veneration of God as something to take place in everyday life and not through extravagant public acts that lack sincerity or substance.” Clean you heart and vegetables perhaps before you visit ambitious temples or exhibitions. I enjoy this work and may one day acquire something similar for Greenbox Museum’s collection, which already includes two other, rougher works by the artist acquired in Jeddah in 2013 at a breathtakingly permissive exhibition at Hafez Gallery, where authorities in Riyadh allowed the artist to discuss the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, ISIS, the Sunni-Shiite animosity and the relevance of a religious learning overdose in the contemporary world.

Road to Makkah
“…perhaps included by Gharem as a subtle critique of the practice of exclusivity”
On page 22 and 23 an old friend of mine, in the collection of Greenbox Museum since 2008: Abdulnasser Gharem’s Al Siraat (The Path) performance video – here mistakenly dated to 2012 – which receives from Steffensen the purely individual interpretation, the safest one, ignoring religious and political connotations that the work definitely had. But then, a little more in line with the ‘fearless’ character which the Utah Museum claims for itself, de text on page 22 also describes Road to Makkah in which work the artist has used stamps to reproduce the road sign forbidding non-Muslims entering the city of Mecca, while embedding with the letters of these stamps a variety of small quotes about the city, which, proposes the book, were “perhaps included by Gharem as a subtle critique of the practice of exclusivity.”
So wow! Somebody actually read the quotes and says it, Gharem puts the exclusivity of entering Mecca for Muslims up for discussion. Both the British Museum and the Dutch Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde didn’t pay any attention to the possibility given here by the artist for some discussion about the issue of forbidding cities for even the most genuine students of their religion. Both European museums exhibited a version of Road to Makkah made in 2011. The version shown in Utah was from 2014 and with slightly different texts, but the overall intention was no different.

The back or Arabic front of the Cities of Conviction Exhibition catalogue (2017). Calligraphy by Moath Alofi.

Moallaqat (2014). A 21,39 Exhibition catalogue.

Moallaqat Jeddah
Moallaqat Exhibition Publication (2014)

Adding this to the library today. A large folio publication for the central exhibition of the 21,39 Jeddah Arts Fair in 2014. With an introduction by Aya Alireza about the title and theme of the exhibition of Moallaqat, a term said to denote ‘suspension’ and used in reference to seven ‘hanging poems,’ which in pre-Islamic times may have been written in gold on Coptic linen and hung from the Kaaba in Mecca. Legend and science here seem not yet to have been fully disentangled. The publication has a short foreword by princess Jawaher bint Majed bin Abdulaziz, who chairs the organizing informal Saudi Arts Council, while Aya Alireza and Raneem Farsi curated the exhibition under the vision of Hamza Serafi, one of the two owners of Athr Gallery. It contains 32 excellent and large pictures and short biographies of the 20 artists participating in a total of 81 pages. Artists and artworks mentioned are listed below.

List of the artists and artworks in the publication

Ibrahim Abumsmar with Al-Qeblah (2013)
Shadia Alem with Sand Flower (2014) and My iCloud Heritage (2014)
Manal Aldowayan with The Tree of Guardians (2014)
Musaed Al-Hulis with Holy-Wood (2014)
Mahdi Al-Jeraibi with They were all here… (2000)
Nasser Al-Salem with An Adornment of Stars (2014) and
Indeed, All Things We Created With Predestination (2014)
Dania Al-Saleh with Ahwak (I adore you) (2014)
Jowhara Al-Saud with Negative 3 (2012) (Knot series)
Raeda Ashour with twice untitled (2009)
Abdulaziz Ashour with untitled (2013)
Dana Awartani with Orientalism (2010)
Taghgreed Al-Baghshi with I Waited For You, But You Did Not Come (2013)
Ayman Yossri Daydban with Close Ties (1998)
Dr. Effat Fadaag with Bequests (2014)
Mohammed Al-Khatib with Al-Jokhdar Entrance (2013)
Maha Malluh with Food for Thought ‘Moallaqat’ (2014)
Ahmed Mater with The Empty Land (2012)
Faisal Samra with Other Body No. 1 & 4 (1998)
Ghana Al-Rabea with Contemporary Jahiliyya (2013)
Saddek Wasil with Abjadi Letters (2014)

It may be noted that the older works by Daydban, Samra and Al-Jeraibi were on loan from the Almansouria Foundation. Most other works were by courtesy of the artist or of the artist and Athr Gallery. The publication is well designed and printed, but unfortunately it doesn’t mention where and by whom.

In her introduction Aya Alireza mentions four sources for the theme of Moallaqat and I repeat them here as she did.

W.A. Clauston, Arabian Poetry
A.J. Arberry: The Seven Odes: The First Chapter in Arabic Literature
Charles Lyall. An Introduction to Ancient Arabic Poetry
Reynolds A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs.

Geef me het licht (Give Me The Light)

Jumana Gouth, Ayman Yossri Daydban, Athr
Jumana Gouth designed catalogue of a solo exhibition by Ayman Yossri Daydban (2016).

Toegevoegd aan de bibliotheek vandaag een bescheiden en door Jumana Gouth mooi ontworpen Engelstalige catalogus van een solo tentoonstelling van de kunstenaar Ayman Yossri Daydban. Die vond plaats bij ATHR in Jeddah in 2016. Daydban volgens het boekje ‘werd in 1966 geboren in Palestina’ en woont verder al zijn hele leven in Saoedi-Arabië. Daar was ik eens bij hem thuis in een wat armoedige flat aan de rand van Jeddah, waar hij na een scheiding op een kleine kamer bij zijn ouders woont en werkt, met boven zijn bed een afbeelding van het door Frankrijk gedoneerde, maar nooit afbetaalde, New Yorkse vrijheidsbeeld. De catalogus bestaat hoofdzakelijk uit een interview dat Baha Abudaya, een freelance curator, meestal verbonden aan wisselende commerciële instellingen de kunstenaar vlak voor de tentoonstelling heeft afgenomen. Abudaya bespreekt met hem verschillende delen van zijn werk, dat meestal reflecteert op zijn eigen leven in limbo als man alleen en als burger zonder een echt eigen land. Over de dood van de één en het leven van de ander en de dubbelzinnige relatie die de dingen met elkaar hebben, maakt Daydban met behulp van wisselende materialen kunstwerken. Aan bod komen in de catalogus en het interview verschillende delen van zijn oeuvre, van twee waarvan, Verboden en Ondertitels, zich in totaal vier werken in de collectie van Greenbox Museum bevinden.

Naast het interview bevat de catalogus tekst van Maryam Bilal, Maya El Khalil, Fiona Fox, Annabelle de Gersigny en 33 illustraties van het werk van Daydban. De rechten berusten bij de kunstenaar en ATHR.