“Khaleej Modern: Pioneers and Collectives in the Arabian Peninsula” brought together trailblazing works from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Curated by Aisha Stoby, the exhibition employed four thematic sections to map out largely unacknowledged aspects of the art movements that spread across the Arabian Peninsula over the second half of the twentieth century, as the discovery of oil prompted economic and cultural shifts.
The works in the first chapter, “Early Pioneers,” portrayed daily customs, modes of dress, or types of labor that evoke the region’s culture. The oldest exhibited work, for instance, was A Portrait of Tawfiq Ahmed Al-Jarrah, 1948, by Kuwaiti artist Mojib Al Dosari. Here, a traditional oil painting of a white-bearded figure wearing a bisht is mounted in a gilded frame, in keeping with the widespread reverence for gold frames in the Gulf (the world’s largest frame is a nearly five-hundred-foot-tall monument in Dubai). Two other Kuwaiti artists took local seafaring customs as subject matter: Abdullah Al Qassar’s Luxor Port, 1964, depicts details of fishing life in warm tones, while Ibrahim Ismail’s smaller-scale Building of Ships, 1966, shows a similar scene with bright-blue waves and a multicolored sky made up of broad brushstrokes.
The oil economy encouraged overwhelming urban development in the region, as examined in the “Landscape” section. Our Green Land, 1977, offers a snapshot of Bahraini artist Nasser Al-Yousif’s homeland, perhaps as an act of preservation in response to the rapidly changing pastoral environment. Two figures embrace while animals and people working in the fields populate the luscious green scenery behind them. In Saudi artist Mohammed Al Saleem’s Abstract Figure, 1997, yellow, brown, and gray lines that resemble Arabic letters draw on the colors and shapes of the desert landscape and its sun-drenched skyline.
Continuing to explore the evolving terrain but with more introspection, “Self-Representation and Portraiture” examined relationships between the individual and society. Kuwaiti artist Thuraya Al-Baqsami’s melancholic blue etching made in the midst of the 1990–91 Iraq-Kuwait war, The Parting, 1991, portrays two bald figures nestled against each other. One of them appears to have been shot, and a bird flying above has a bullet wound. Al-Baqsami’s reflection on the war is most explicit in the blue linocut print poster, No to the Invasion, 1990, where the work’s title appears in Arabic below two tense faces.
The exhibition’s closing chapter, “The Conceptual Turn,” emphasized experimental media and focused on two groups working with the heightened industrialization of their contexts: the Five in the UAE and the Circle in Oman. The late Hassan Sharif, a member of the Five, has been celebrated as the father of Emirati Conceptual art, and four of his works were displayed. In Jute, Cloth and Rope, 1985, circular structures made of those materials form a pile on the floor. Accompanying Sharif’s installation were the works of three other members of the Five, Abdullah Al Saadi, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, and Mohammed Kazem—missing was the work of their colleague Hussain Sharif. However, many more artists who were part of the group’s broader community, including Ebtisam Abdulaziz, were shown here as well. This section attested to the collaborative spirit that extended throughout the region. While studying in London, Hassan Sharif became friends with Anwar Sonya, who went on to teach the next generation of artists in his native Oman, including Hassan Meer, whose work was also on view. Meer then established the Circle art space in Muscat. Influenced in turn by the Circle group’s formal experimentation, Sonya’s practice evolved from landscape painting toward a range of media, as in his installation Fatma, 2005, in which footage of a fortune-telling coffee reading is projected onto sheer-fabric drapes hanging from the ceiling.
While drawing on the star power of artists such as Sharif, Stoby made room for discoveries—for instance, artists from Oman, who are often overlooked in the already marginalized art histories of the Khaleej, Arabic for Gulf. Ultimately, the exhibition showed how broad the range of underrecognized art has been in the Arabian Peninsula. The recent cultural boom has deeper roots than many realize.