Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi interview: Arab art show in Whitechapel, London

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The second part of a broad-ranging exhibition of Arab art has been unveiled at Whitechapel Gallery in London.

The exhibition showcases Arabic art from the Barjeel Collection in the UAE, with four chronological displays set to continue until January 2017.

The second part of the show – Debating Modernism II – runs from 15 December until 6 March 2016. It focuses on figurative works of art produced between 1968 and 1987.

The wider exhibition is billed as one of the most broad-ranging shows of Arab art in London. It highlights works by over 60 artists from across the Arab world, including counties like Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon.

Here Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, tells ShufiLondon.com what’s new in the second phase of the exhibition.

Q. The second part of the Barjeel Art Foundation Collection exhibition has just been unveiled at the Whitechapel Gallery. What are some of the standout works on show?
The second part of this exhibition focuses on works of art in the Barjeel Art Collection produced between 1968 and 1987. Some of the highlights include Marwan Kassab Bachi’s work The Three Palestinian Boys(1970), which portrays a group of youngsters that were part of the Palestinian resistance movement, Kamal Boullata’s 1983 silkscreen prints, which depict Arabic script as abstract geometric compositions, as well as a number of works by artists from North Africa, like Farid Belkahia, Abdel Kader Guermaz and Miloud Labeid.

Q. The display focuses on art from 1968 to 1987. What are the most important themes being addressed by Arab artists during this period?
This is a period in the history of Arab art, which saw a rigorous exploration into the formal aspects of artistic composition. We see a lot of artists working with abstraction, with geometry, and also utilising a very wide range of materials in their work, like wood, leather and ceramics. There is also an emphasis on exploring different ways in which faces and bodies can be represented, which we see for example, in the works of Huguette Caland, Walid Shami and Hassan Sharif.

Q. What was the reaction to the first phase of the show, Debating Modernism I?
We had a very positive reaction, both from the art community and from the general public on the first instalment of this exhibition. It was an important set of works to share with a global audience, and to highlight the period of modernism and the developments that took place in the Arab World in the first half of the twentieth century. This exhibition, as well as the catalogue that was published parallel to it, were a great way to initiate a dialogue between the West, the Middle East, North Africa and South-East Asia.

Q. What kind of interest is there in Arabic art among Western audiences, and what is your aim for this exhibition?
I think the interest in Arab art is growing in the global art sphere. Through staging exhibitions of art from the Barjeel Art Foundation abroad, my aim is not only to share the creativity and the stories from the Arab region, but also to encourage a dialogue between global audiences, between artists, writers and scholars from the West, the Middle East and South-East Asia. I think it is very important to contextualise artworks through deliberately curated exhibitions, and by doing so, highlight the connections and exchange that took place between different geographic regions and different ethnic groups in our collective history.

Q. You described ‘Le Gardien de la Vie’, by Egyptian artist Hamed Ewais, as “one of the most important works in the collection”. Why was that work (on display during the first part of the exhibition) special?
This work was painted in the years 1967-68, right after the Arab defeat by Israel, which is often referred to as the Naksa. It shows a large male figure, seemingly a fighter from Upper Egypt, holding a gun, and with a protective gesture of his right hand, guarding the civilian population of Egypt. This painting represents the year that not only marks the cut-off date of the first part of this exhibition, but that also signals the collapse of the Pan-Arab ideal, which dominated the political landscape of the region in previous years.

Q. What is your favourite work on display during the second part of the exhibition?
Although it is very difficult to pick only one work, as they are all special and all embody fascinating stories, I would have to say that Farid Belkahia’s work Aube(1983) is one of my personal favourites. It is a fine example of abstraction that was practiced in the Arab world in the 1980s, and is also an example of how the human body and sensuality were explored by this artist through geometric, non-figurative means, through only line, shape and colour. This piece is also executed on an unusual material – on vellum, or leather – as opposed to the more traditional canvas and paper, commonly used by artists.

The exhibition consists of (text courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery):

Debating Modernism I (8 September – 6 December 2015)
This first display of works explores the emergence and subsequent development of an Arab art aesthetic through drawings and paintings from the early twentieth century to 1967, an important historical period in the region.

Debating Modernism II (15 December 2015 – 6 March 2016)
Debating Modernism II focuses on figurative works of art in the Barjeel Art Collection produced between 1968 and 1987.

Mapping the Contemporary I (25 April – 14 August 2016)
In the third presentation, photography and video works made between 1990 – 98 go on display.

Mapping the Contemporary II (23 August 2016 – 8 January 2017)
The fourth and final display explores how artists using various media artistically engage with the cities where they either live or work.

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