by Shraddha NairJan 09, 2023
It is not a new discovery that the discourse in art history conversations is fairly unidimensional and euro-centric. Several region-specific movements and indigenous expressions remain poorly documented and rarely find their way into the contemporary hallway discussions. One such lesser known, in the context of global narrative, is the Arab modern art. Dubai Collection recently launched an art exhibition titled When Images Speak, showcased at the Etihad Museum in Dubai. With works chosen from some of the most influential artists from the UAE, the exhibit aims to introduce many of the dominant beliefs, critical inquiries, and social dynamics of their times.
Curated by Dr. Nada Shabout, the show features a selection of nearly 70 modern and contemporary artworks from the region, including museum-quality pieces by Baya Mahieddine, Naziha Selim, Fateh Moudarres, Dia al-Azzawi, and Abdul Qader Al Rais. Launched alongside the exhibition and live since November 4, 2021, the Digital Museum of the Dubai Collection constitutes a unique educational resource for the general public and will feature the artworks and artists represented in Dubai Collection, alongside engaging editorial content.
The artworks in the exhibition space have been lent to the Dubai Collection initiative from the collections of 11 patrons of the initiative. Alongside the opportunity to view pieces from The Private Collection of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and The Private Collection of Her Highness Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the exhibition includes art from the collections of A.R.M Holding Art Collection, The Cyba Audi Private Collection, the Snow Feinan Li Private Collection, the Ali & Rafia Malas Private Collection, The Mokbel Art Collection, The Samawi Collection, The Private Collection of El Shaer Brothers, and the Charles Al Sidaoui.
The immersive exhibition unfolds across three thematic chapters, Abstract Variations, Societies in Transition, and Evoking the Environment, while tracing a historical survey of the negotiations through Arab modernism and its progression into contemporary trends.
I had the distinct privilege to get a curated walkthrough by Carlo Rizzo, Special Advisor to the Dubai Collection, during my recent visit to the city.
I speak with the art curator Dr. Nada Shabout and Carlo Rizzo on the ongoing exhibit and long-term vision of this initiative.
Rahul Kumar: What was your curatorial framework to choose the 70 works on display in the current debut show of the museum, titled When Images Speak: Highlights from the Dubai Collection?
Nada Shabout: The curatorial premise of the exhibition draws directly from the works in the collection. When Images Speak invokes questions around the desires and wants of images. While giving us clues for possible answers, the exhibition opens paths into the rich and diverse visual production in the Arab world during the 20th century, and across to the current times. The chosen works represent some of the most influential and leading artists and introduce many of the dominant beliefs, critical inquiries and social dynamics of their times. They particularly reflect on the nationally charged questions around the mid-20th century in the Arab world. Responding to major political shifts, artists of the Arab world embarked on developing a distinct visual language capable of expressing their new self. These works offer us examples of their exploration and navigation of the complex and rich history of post-colonial and post-national connectivity, intersections, and collaborations between artists of the region.
Rahul: Some of the most significant Arab moderns, like Baya Mahieddine, Naziha Selim, Fateh Moudarres, Dia al-Azzawi, and Abdul Qader Al Rais, are lesser known in rest of the world. How does this exhibition help create awareness about them and their work?
Nada: By now, it is not a surprise to anyone that what is known as the canon of art history, is Euro-centred and one dimensional. It has to do with the colonial roots of the construction of the discipline of art history and the persistence of old hegemonic narratives. Thus, the reason why the Arab modernist are lesser known in the rest of the world is because they have been omitted from the history of art, and not because of the quality or impact of their work. I would argue that the stories told by art history remain incomplete until artists like Baya Mahieddine, Naziha Selim, Fateh Moudarres, Dia al-Azzawi, and Abdul Qader Al Rais, among many others and beyond the region of the Arab world, are acknowledged and heard. Exhibiting their work, along with writing the histories, forces the canon to address them and allows the rest of the world to see them. When Images Speak specifically situates these work as equal forms of beauty and knowledge.
Rahul: How does one draw parallels and discover cross influences with other country’s art movements alongside that of the UAE?
Nada: The exhibition navigates how the negotiations of modernism by Arab artists across the region unfolded during the past century and its evolution into the contemporary trends of today. Grouped into three broad themes, directed by the conversations activated by and between the works, the exhibition reflects the common issues of concern across the Arab world. Artists were debating the appropriateness of some styles, the necessity of invoking certain subjects, while constructing locally significant aesthetics adept to represent their past and present within a wider international context. Most of the works exhibited here defy a simple stylistic classification. The artists themselves span the region, with many living in diaspora, yet they intersect through their realities, imaginations and constructions. Throughout the century, different cities became the dominant hubs of creation and exhibition. The Emirates Fine Arts Society (EFAS), formed in Sharjah in 1980, played a vital role in allowing many of these conversations to continue following political instabilities in the former art capitals of the Arab World, through their magazine Tashkeel launched in September 1984 and annual exhibitions. While in the last decades of the 20th century the UAE became a host for many of the Arab modernists through various projects, at the turn of the 21st century it played a more pivotal role in the evolution of artistic practices by artists of the Arab world.
Rahul: What is the genesis of the museum and how did the 11 patrons join hands to contribute from their collections to kick this off?
Carlo Rizzo: The Dubai Collection responds to an urgent need to reimagine institutional collecting beyond the somewhat monolithic perspective of traditional art museums. For a start, the collection is not conceived for a physical building. Public engagement with it happens through a combination of a digital museum and a programme of temporary exhibitions. We just launched the latter with our first show - When Images Speak - at the Etihad Museum. The collection is led by a simple curatorial vision: to bring together art that reflects the spirit of Dubai and documents its role as a crossroads of people and ideas over the last half a century. As such it not only has no permanent walls, but it also has permeable geographical boundaries, which aim to mirror the growing diversity of the city.
The initiative is built from the bottom up. This is where patrons come in. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum laid the foundations of the Dubai Collection by offering his private collection on loan, and so did several other collectors who call Dubai home, which were brought on board by Art Dubai Group, the entity that manages the collection.
The museum itself combines history of UAE along with a section dedicated on modern and contemporary arts from the region. Over the next decade, we want to show that there is space for radical innovation in how institutional collections are built, and that Dubai is the perfect testing ground for it. Our vision is to build a group of dedicated, passionate patrons that together will contribute to the creation of a world leading collection of XX and XXI century art. We are working to create an important resource for the public and for researchers, whilst establishing international collaborations to make it as widely accessible as possible. The vision, of course, starts in Dubai. The city is home to some exceptionally important collections of art from the UAE and the wider region. As we kicked off the Dubai Collection it was essential to reach out to our ‘core’ collector base and invite them to participate. The current shape of the Dubai Collection reflects, therefore, the important holdings of modern and contemporary art from the region that are found in private collections here. Whilst we ensure that this core identity is celebrated, researched and exhibited, the collection will grow in size and diversity, becoming itself a new crossroads of people and ideas.
Rahul: Please talk about initiatives to make the collection and associated knowledge available to a larger audience across the globe.
Carlo: Our core public engagement tool for international audiences is the Digital Museum, which contains the first holdings in the Dubai Collection and will soon host the new loans recently approved by our independent curatorial committee, reaching over 300 works in total. We are in early discussions with international institutions to establish collaborations that may take shape as joint research projects, exchange programmes or co-curated exhibitions. It is too early to share further details but I can assure you that international outreach is a top priority.
STIR was a Media Partner of Art Dubai 2022 that took place at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai from March 11-13. See the exclusive coverage here.