When people ask me to describe Kuwait, I always say that it is a geographically small country that has, in less than century, experienced a long series of momentous events.
Kuwait has gone through many phases. In the early 20th century, it was nicknamed ‘The Pearl of The Gulf’ for its role in trading precious pearls. After oil was discovered in the nation in 1938, it began rising in prominence. The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were a golden age for the young state; this was followed by a darker period after Iraq invaded in 1990, but the light shone on Kuwait again after it emerged victorious, and it has been a stable state since.
Now, we are witnessing a new and colourful cultural wave that is gradually taking over the Kuwaiti scene. This movement is dynamic, unconventional and young. I am not exaggerating when I say that there is an urban art movement in K-Town!
The Spark: Graffiti and Street Art
Urban art is a reflection of a society’s landscape and lifestyle, particularly its street culture. Although this movement is commonly linked to graffiti and street art, it is not limited to just these two art forms. After all, in art there are no limits.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when urban art began to emerge in Kuwait. However, in the past five years, the movement has become impossible to ignore.
Perhaps the spark was the boom in graffiti artwork, which includes both aesthetic statements on buildings and state-commissioned murals. Street art and graffiti are two ways in which the thriving young, creative crowd can loudly showcase their art and opinions. As Fay Al Homoud, an enthusiast of Kuwait’s urban art movement, describes, “The streets of Kuwait are becoming even more vibrant by how these artists bring the walls to life, filling dull buildings with beautiful colours.”
Fay, who also founded Q8StreetArt, an Instagram account dedicated to documenting and promoting street art in Kuwait, says, “The street art and graffiti scene in Kuwait was not as popular as it is nowadays. It was difficult for people to go out in the streets and display their artwork. One of the main issues was people not understanding this form of art and considering it as vandalism.”
“As people began to gain a new appreciation towards this scene, they started to understand the world of street art and graffiti more,” she continues. “The more related events happened, the more people joined, yearning to learn how to become graffiti or street artists”.
Fay adds that both small businesses and corporations are now regularly commissioning street and graffiti artists to illustrate office murals or to collaborate on advertisements. As more artists received commissions, the public gained more appreciation and respect for graffiti and street art.
Once graffiti and street art began to be acknowledged, the way was paved for new forms of urban art such as music and dance to appear and to be appreciated.
The Rise of the Competitive Scene
“The music scene in Kuwait keeps surprising us,” says Red Bull Culture Specialist Nour Al Kawas, who also founded Get Out, an online platform dedicated to introducing people to various regional and international music events and artists.
“The DJ scene in Kuwait started in the 2000s,” Nour says, reflecting on the history of Kuwait’s urban music scene. “As for the live music and bands, people started realizing what we have in 2014.”
Nour is an observer of Kuwait’s urban art movement. “The scene is really evolving,” she says. “We have many promoters like Get Out, Talent Shop, Gas Events. Gigs happen more than three times per month and sometimes weekly.” Nour credits both the artists and the promoters for raising awareness about the talent in Kuwait. Local coffee shops, cultural spaces and international companies such as Red Bull have helped build this scene through sponsorships and encouragement, she adds.
When I asked her what has driven the movement to evolve rapidly, she replied that it was “having such a competitive scene, which emerged as a result of the increasing number of gigs, and bands helped building it up. “More than 20 art galleries and hubs like Artspaceq8, Center of Arts, Contemporary Art Platform, The Hub, and The Print Room took part of this revolution.”
“With daily and weekly workshops and events by leading mentors, I have to say that the art scene in Kuwait is one of the strongest art scenes, not only in the Gulf region but also in the Middle East, and we can prove that,” she confidently says.
The Golden Era of Street Dance
Street dance in Kuwait has also played a part in this movement. I met with a member of the b-boy dance group Hood Skillz Crew, Hussein – also known as ‘Slash’ – who told me that street dance, just like graffiti and music, “was underground for some time.” However, thanks to many shows that have relied heavily on dancers “to incorporate dance as its sole component, street dance finally came to the forefront, as people in Kuwait love to dance, and we love to showcase it,” he says.
Slash, who also co-hosts and organizes b-boy dance competitions in Kuwait, believes that the urban art movement is driven by the unity of emerging artists, photographers, designers, illustrators, musicians and street artists. “This opened my eyes to many interesting art dimensions that influenced me as a dancer and a person,” he says. He describes the present time as the “golden era of street dance in Kuwait.”
“Street dance is respected in our society more nowadays,” he elaborates, “which is unprecedented and surprising, but I think it is heading for a good break in the media and regional atmosphere.”
“You can’t cut off the revolution of street dance in Kuwait from the urban art scene; they are integrated and coincided” says Slash. “They are both influenced by a broader culture; the streets, the everyday hustle and comfort. They are influenced by our lifestyle: a style full of dramatic and smooth transitions. They are influenced by our verbal and physical approach to one another: suave and fluid.”
Challenges Holding the Scene Back
Dr Muayad Hussain, Assistant Professor of History of Art and Art Criticism at the College of Basic Education in Kuwait, describes the current art scene in Kuwait as reviving.
“Historically, the art and culture scenes in Kuwait were thriving, and one might say ‘leading’ in the surrounding region, during the so called ‘golden era’ of the 60s and 70s of the twentieth century,” he explains. “The social, economic and political conditions of the 80s and 90s had hit the once-progressive cultural scene harshly, causing it to halt or even regress, if one would take an art-historical look at it today.”
“With the turn of the twenty-first century, one can witness an emergence of a new art/cultural scene. The current, revived scene is mostly led by the private sector and independent artists, as opposed to the government-supervised or supported art establishments. The new movement takes different forms such as galleries, book stores, business hubs, art collectives or even cafes and temporary markets, all supporting the local artists and enriching the cultural scene.”
However, Dr Hussain notes some shortcomings.
“We find that the current art/cultural scene, regardless of how well established it is, is dominantly local. Kuwaiti artists who exhibited or promoted their work abroad in a professional manner are less than a handful. When talking to people interested in the art scene in the region, they can hardly name two or three Kuwaiti artists’ names, which in my opinion is shameful,” he asserts passionately. “Kuwait, on the other hand, has a much stronger pop culture scene. Kuwaiti TV drama for example, or even social media figures, are widely known and much more influential in the region, probably because they work and get organized in a much more professional manner when compared to the people in the high-culture scene.”
“What is missing are professional organizations which can both develop the scene and raise its standards, and at the same time, promote it regionally and internationally,” he adds.
Having educational establishments that teach all kinds of art and cultural studies is also essential, he says. I cannot help but agree with Dr Hussain. It is true that the movement is rising, but it is not making enough noise on a regional scale, so it needs a boost.
The private sector of the movement also lacks proper support. Therefore, we see art and culture businesses in Kuwait struggling to survive, so artists or people interested in the arts are only served if they are financially capable. Otherwise, these art-oriented businesses either close down or change their services to be more consumer-friendly – in other words, less cultured and more commercially viable.
Understanding what the movement lacks and identifying its flaws will help to solve future problems and preserve the rising urban art movement. Nothing comes easily, which should motivate current and future art enthusiasts to continue establishing the scene to ensure that it will not break down because of social or economic failures.
These young enthusiasts have come and have conquered, and I strongly believe that they will stay for a long time, fighting and overcoming a wave of obstacles.
Mashael Basheer is a Kuwaiti journalist.