Purchasing power shifting from West to East
SHE IS known as a woman of formidable intellect and culture. And she is driven by a great sense of purpose. Sheikha Lulu Al Sabah, co-founder and partner in JAMM, an independent art advisory, is inspired by art and creativity in others.
To her art is not simply aesthetically pleasing, it is a genuine form of expression, which has the ability to anticipate future trends in society and inspire innovations.
To her art has no boundaries and she aims to create cultural projects that go beyond geographical confines. The daughter of Sheikha Paula Al Sabah, a noted patron and collector of art in the Middle East, she believes that contemporary Arab art will soon become part of the mainstream global art market.
Currently she is working on the inaugural exhibition of JAMM, which will open on Nov 20 in Kuwait. Titled “How I Learned to Stop Fearing and Love Exotic Art”, the exhibition will feature artworks by emerging and established Middle Eastern artists, including Parviz Tanavoli, Hassan Hajjaj, Farideh Lashai, Katya Traboulsi, Fareed Abdal, Amira Behbehani, Shezad Dawood, Nargess Hashemi, Susan Hefuna and Farhad Moshiri. Find out more about her forthcoming exhibition and the revival and expansion of art and cultural production in the Middle East.
Question: Are we witnessing a revival of art and cultural production in the Middle East?
Answer: Absolutely. There are now over 40 art galleries in Dubai and more galleries being established across the region. I feel that arts appreciation is on the rise and the Middle East will eventually have a better arts infrastructure to support its artists. Moreover, there are an increasing number of global exhibitions and auctions that feature the works of Middle Eastern artists. The spotlight is on the Middle East and in time, our nascent art market will soon become part of the mainstream.
Q: Is all of this changing the “image” of the Arab world vis-a-vis the international community? Can a vibrant art scene challenge people’s assumptions about a region?
A: It certainly can, especially for those who believe that the Arab world is nothing but desert and oil. One could argue that a motivating factor behind the building of world-class museums in Abu Dhabi and Doha is for the elevated prestige it will garner in the eyes of the international community. I believe that a vibrant art scene allows for more cross-cultural dialogue and further understanding, which help in breaking down stereotypes.
Q: There is a palpable sense of excitement about contemporary Middle Eastern art in the region and around the world. But despite the art scene expanding its boundaries in the Middle East, is there a debate on the way it is expanding?
A: Yes, there are debates surrounding a number of issues in regards to the way it is expanding. Some question the sense in building large scale museums in the Gulf region prior to establishing art academies and other forms of arts infrastructure that exist to support the museums. Some are worried about the influence of auction houses on the careers of Middle Eastern artists, particularly those who are still in the early stages of their development. Another ever-present debate is the question of patronage. How much should government spend to support the arts in the region? How to increase patronage among the private sector? This is very important because without patronage from both the private and public sectors, the scene will not be able to sustain itself.
Q: Would it be right to say that with an expansion in the art scene, purchasing power has shifted to the region? Was it evident in the auctions organized by JAMM?
A: The purchasing power is shifting from West to East, especially the Far East. Global contemporary art auctions, particularly in London and in New York, attest to this. In regards to the JAMM auctions, most of our buyers are either local or regional, as we had expected from the start. I believe the interest in contemporary art, especially among our younger collector base, is a direct result of the expanding art scene in the region. In this respect, your statement is correct.
Q: How difficult has it been for artists in the Middle East to give expression to their creativity? Has the climate of political and religious turmoil pushed them to seek innovative means to create art?
A: In terms of censorship, some countries in the Middle East will always be more restrictive than others. Middle Eastern artists have certainly found ingenious ways of expressing their thoughts and emotions without having to be explicit. When people are currently taking to the streets and are willing to die for their beliefs, it seems a bit trivial to censor works of art. In terms of art production, it is extremely difficult to create art in times of instability and war. An artist cannot create unless the threat of immediate danger has passed and his/her basic human needs are met. In general, art is created in the boom times.
Q: Why is it that until recently art was often a much ignored subject in Kuwait? Could this disinterest be linked to government apathy and lack of patronage in a way?
A: I feel the subject of art was given more importance in Kuwait in the late 1960s and 1970s than it is today. The Kuwaiti government no longer offers scholarships to study art abroad and some government school have removed art classes from their curriculum. For a child with great artistic potential attending public school today, they would require enormous support outside of the school system in order to flourish. I believe there is a trickle-down effect in the sense that more government support would lead to more patronage in the private sector.
Q: A lack of modern galleries and exhibition space must have added to this problem. But at present a combination of international attention turning to Middle Eastern art and renewed interest among the wealthy in the region in collecting works and sponsoring artistic institutions is slowly beginning to remedy the deficiency. Is that right?
A: A positive development in Kuwait is the increasing number of galleries that have been established in recent years. The private sector is the driving force behind this growth. The current art scene has all the potential to thrive and grow.
On a separate note, the Arab Spring instigated a change in consciousness throughout the region, beginning with the hope for change, which spread very quickly. Institutional change will be a much slower process. I believe that contemporary art from the Arab world is no different from the contemporary art that is being produced elsewhere in that all artists are inspired by their experiences in life. I feel that contemporary art is a genuine expression of the world we live in today; artists help us better understand our cultures, offering interesting perspectives on the beauty and complexities of life. For this reason, it is crucial that artists are not censored and that art institutions allow artists to express themselves regardless of how ‘political’ the artwork is. It is also important for art institutions to inspire creativity, raise questions and debates by featuring and contextualizing works of art that express issues relating to gender, globalization, the economy and the Diaspora.
Q: An unprecedented engagement with the international art community in the Middle East has resulted in an explosion of art producers, art consumers, art consultants, fairs, galleries and museums. Is the same happening in Kuwait?
A: Yes, I believe so but on a smaller scale. It will take more time for us to catch up as we went through a very long period of stagnation.
Q: For serious collectors of Middle Eastern art to become the leaders of the art market, would it be wrong to say that art sellers and artists need to understand the traditions that influence Middle Eastern art and the styles preferred by the locals?
A: I agree that art sellers need to understand their audience. I do not believe the same statement holds true for artists, as artists need to express themselves honestly rather than pander to a particular trend or market.
Q: Are there regional intra-Arab differences in the way that art is being produced and consumed and if so, what effects might that have on the construction of a pan-Arab image of sorts?
A: There are enormous differences in the way art is being produced and consumed across the Middle East. Places like Egypt have artist residency programs, art academies and a more sophisticated arts infrastructure in general. The UAE now has two major art fairs every year. Each country is different. Nevertheless, there can be increased collaboration between the Arab countries that can result in a more cohesive pan-Arab art scene. In terms of image, I think it will be will a detriment to our artists to categorize their work to a particular region.
Q: How daring and progressive is Middle Eastern art? Sometime back I read an article on Iranian art which mentioned that though Iranian art is alive and doing well, much of it cannot be shown publicly or can be exhibited for a few hours before being pushed into storage – You have dealt with Iranian art and your upcoming exhibition features several Iranian artists. To what extent is this true?
A: I think this is very true. There are many artists who have left Iran because they have felt limited by their environment or felt they could get into trouble if they were to show certain works in their own country. Some of the art (by Iranian artists) that is shown in Europe or the US would never see the light of day in Iran, unless the artists were prepared to risk going to jail.
Q: In recent years we have seen several Gulf countries generously funding the establishment of museums and art shows. Abu Dhabi for example is leading the way to becoming the art capital of the Middle East. Where do you see Kuwait in this emerging picture?
A: The state of Kuwait has the means to finance the kind of projects we see in other Gulf countries. Given that we were light years ahead of these countries forty years ago, I had thought that the examples set forth by Qatar and Abu Dhabi in recent years would propel Kuwait to follow suit. Unfortunately, this did not happen. I really don’t know. I can only hope that our turn is next.
Q: Is it right to say that women like yourselves have played a very important role in the resurgence that has been taking in the Middle East? And being a member of the ruling family helps because inadvertently you become role models for others?
A: Women have played an enormous role in the resurgence that has been taking place in the Middle East, and because royal patronage still drives change and titles matter, some of the biggest players are women from the ruling families. Examples include SheikhaMayassa, daughter of the Emir of Qatar, chair of the Qatar Museums Authority; Sheikha Hoor, daughter of the ruler of Sharjah, head of the Sharjah Art Foundation; Sheikha Mai Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, the region’s first minister of Culture; Sheikha Lateefa Al-Makhtoum of Dubai set up Tashkeel, an arts center to support artists; and of course there are a number of collectors such as Sheikha Salama of Abu Dhabi, Sheikha Paula Al-Sabah (my mother) and SheikhaHussah Al-Sabah (my aunt).
Q: A talented artist does not imply a ready a market. Sometimes, it is difficult for an artist to dedicate his or her time to both their creating and promoting their work. Are there enough resources in the region to take care of this need?
A: Artist should only focus on their work, not the selling and promotion of their work. The role of an art gallery is to promote and sell their artists’ work. Of course there are many artists who cannot find proper representation and they are left to promote and sell their own work. There are currently not enough platforms where artists can do this however, this too is going to change and the role of the internet plays a large part in that.
Q: You have already organized two auctions in Kuwait. What took you so long to have your first exhibition here?
A: We held an exhibition in London in October 2010. We felt the time was right to have our first exhibition in Kuwait. We plan to host both exhibitions and auctions in future and continue to host dinners, book launches and hopefully an education program.
Q: Why is your upcoming exhibition titled ‘How I Learned to Stop Fearing and Love Exotic Art’?
A: The title is meant to be ironic. The word exotic is often used when describing the unfamiliar. Therefore, anything can be viewed as exotic, depending on what is being perceived, by whom, where and when. Due to sociopolitical and economic changes in recent decades, there has been a new focus on contemporary Middle Eastern art and particularly the stereotypic elements of the art from these regions. These so-called ‘exotic’ elements differentiate contemporary Arab and Iranian art from the art that is being produced in other parts of the world. This new focus raised a wave of pseudo-intellectual criticism questioning the concept of exoticism. With this exhibition, we hope to continue the dialogue.
Q: You have mentioned that your exhibition will stress on creative expression of the written word. Calligraphy is traditionally regarded as the most elevated of the Islamic art forms. How will the upcoming exhibition showcase the diversity of art incorporating text?
A: The use of writing is a common theme in contemporary Arab and Iranian art. At the same time, the use of the Arabic language is one of the characteristics that render the art from this region as ‘exotic’ to outsiders. We wanted to play with this theme.
Highlighting the use of writing in the field of contemporary Arab and Iranian art, JAMM”s exhibition will feature artworks that incorporate text in its various forms- calligraphy, graffiti, quotations, poems and sometimes just a single letter. The exhibition will also feature various artistic media: photography, video projection on canvas, neon light, painting, sculpture and embroidery. This is a research based show, which means that we looked for specific works that reflected the theme of the show. As such, we have works that were produced over a decade ago. Most of the works, however, have been produced in the last five years.
MA from Birkbeck College, University of London.
Assistant to the Features Editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris
Consultant for Christie’s International
Former Director of the Middle East at Phillips de Pury and Company
Co-founded JAMM, an independent art consultancy firm along with her colleague Lydia Limerick in 2009
A frequent contributor to Canvas, an internationally distributed high-end magazine dedicated to art and culture in the Middle East.
Contributor to Eastern Art Report, an academic-based art magazine, for which she authored a special issue on “Art and Artists” in Kuwait.
Speaker at Art Basel 2006 and 2008 as well as Art Dubai 2008.
Co-organized an exhibition of paintings by Kuwaiti women artists, in 2006, held at the prestigious Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris.