By Samia Qaiyum
The 2010s was a decade that saw the Gulf’s art scene rise to great significance. Qatar quietly acquired works by the likes of Mark Rothko, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol. The Al-Mansouria Foundation for Culture and Creativity partnered with Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities for a showcase of modern Saudi art. Louvre Abu Dhabi opened, bringing a slice of the original museum to the UAE’s capital. The annual Art Dubai established itself as the Middle East’s leading international art fair.
And then 2020 happened.
Just as this thriving art scene was helping the region take over cities like Cairo and Beirut as key cultural hubs, the pandemic struck, forcing creatives indoors and into a state of introspection. The result? New platforms, unforeseen projects, bolder pieces and re-evaluating what it means to be a young artist in the Gulf today. Here, Sekka speaks with contemporary artist Abdullah Qandeel, visual storytellers Ahmed Al Kuwaiti and Shaima Al-Tamimi, and artist Mays Almoosawi about their past, present and future. Listen in.
A progressive contemporary artist with bold ambitions for the future of Saudi Arabia’ art scene.
A conversation with Abdullah Qandeel is like no other – the contemporary artist is undergoing a renaissance, much like his birthplace of Saudi Arabia. Known for abstract paintings that unreservedly feature colour and lines, he has broken records at Sotheby’s and counts everyone from Kanye West to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal as fans. But now, Abdullah is setting his sights on bigger things. He recently launched The King of Offset, which is not only named after its objective of offsetting carbon emissions, but also the world’s first Artist-Approved Physical NFT.
“I invite all creators and collectors across the world to join this Decentralised Positive Impact (DePi) movement and adopt AP/AD-NFTs (Artist Approved Physical/Artist Approved Digital – NFTs), not only as the new standard for the creative industry, but as a determining factor for the future of our planet as well,” said Abdullah in an official statement. The NFTs will be featured on MPWR, a new creative platform formed by the Saudi artist to empower emerging creators, enabling them to tokenise their creative energy and commercialise their art using highly transparent blockchain technology.
The future, he says, belongs to creatives. “Look at today’s economy. The most valuable thing in the world is data. That should tell you what tomorrow will look like. The most valuable type of data is creative data, so this is our time.” At 33, Abdullah is a young artist himself, but on a mission to empower youth in unlocking their potential. “This is the most exciting time. There’s no other region where you have such a concentration of young, educated people with a disposable income to enter multiple markets from online retail to commercial banking. This is a demographic that’s tired of the status quo.”
He continues to speak more on a more personal level, revealing, “I’ve been at the heart and soul of multiple movements – these are non-political. They’re humanistic. They’re movements of healing and forgiveness. What I’m attempting to do to as a form of forgiveness is retrain my brain into new habits using a programme called Arrowsmith.” Abdullah explains how a book entitled The Woman Who Changed Her Brain has changed his life.
“It’s by a woman who retrained her brain – that’s what I’ve been doing. Ever since I created more balance, I’ve become capable of creating new habits. If you create new habits, you create a new second nature. And if you want to create a good second nature, that means you want to be a good become a better person. This is where I’m at -wanting to encourage and inspire the region’s emerging creators.” Looking to New York circa 1980s, Abdullah says he would love to be compared with Leo Castelli, who gave the likes of Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein their first one-man shows. “He pushed all these artists to become who they are today did.”
As for the region’s most exciting artists? He cites fashion designer and Hindamme founder Mohammed Khoja as an example. “I have multiple names of individuals who will also support this movement. I believe we are embarking on a new renaissance in the region. This new renaissance will shift consciousness from top to bottom because it will give people joy from things other than money. They will derive joy from creative output. What is creative output? It’s creative energy. And what is creative energy? It is energy created from the soul.”
Delving into his ambitions, Abdullah predicts that the region’s creative output will be the highest per capita by the end of 2021 as a result of his platform. “My short-term strategy is that I’ve built MPWR, which has no limitations – physical and digital, it’s all covered. I want to be the person who creates the infrastructure to have the world’s most creative data output.” And his long-term plans? A little more elusive in nature.
Ahmed Al Kuwaiti
An Abu Dhabi-based filmmaker and photographer looking to Bahrain’s past for creative inspiration.
If Abdullah Qandeel represents a glimpse into the uncertain future of digital art and non-fungible tokens, then Ahmed Al Kuwaiti is the antidote. The UAE-based filmmaker and photographer from Bahrain looks to family for inspiration, his work rooted in celebrating what we have left behind. Just before the lockdown, Ahmed directed a short film that follows its lead character on a trip down memory lane through Bahrain for the 2020 Ta’a Al Shabab cultural festival. Prior to that, one of his photoshoots captured influencer Dhuwa Almahmood on an old balcony in Manama Souq, where both their late grandfathers spent most of their days.
“My fascination with the past comes from my relationship with my parents,” he explains. As a child, I loved observing them – their favourite chocolate, their taste in music, all of it – and started researching my family history as I grew older. Why do we think this way? Why do we dress this way? These are the kind of questions I was asking, and it shows in my work. It made me realise just how much the past has informed who we are today.”
Ahmed admits that he’s not a fan of trends, nor the fast-paced technological world. As for all the frenzy around digital art in the region and beyond? It has yet to faze him, referring to the joy of seeing a painting in the flesh or creating a tangible piece as irreplaceable. “Honestly, these concepts remind me that technology is trying to absorb us more than we absorb it. I’m more interested in helping people realise the world around them and even appreciate some of the bad things that have happened. I believe in keeping up with technology, but not at the expense of forgetting the importance of the past.”
It’s no wonder that memory, identity and objects of yesteryear are prevailing themes in his work. A mere glance at his Instagram account reveals countless family photos laced with nostalgic captions. “I love the word ‘legacy’ and knowing that I’m representing my parents and grandparents.” What’s telling of our times is that Ahmed has several photo albums showcasing the lives of his parents – and nearly none that disclose anything about him. “We lose interest in whatever becomes easy and accessible,” he says. “Back then, my parents not only documented their lives, but also printed and organized everything. I can actually touch their stories. But if I were to research more about myself? There isn’t much after the year 2000. That’s why I tell everyone to look deep within their homes.”
And that’s precisely what he did. Curious about his origin story, the visual artist spent the lockdown period of 2020 sifting through his father’s library and found memorabilia dating as far back as the ‘60s. “The pandemic gave me time with both myself and my surroundings. Life was happening really fast before that. I was able to get back on track, writing and brainstorming. It made me realise that home can be a source of inspiration.” In fact, the change of pace and time spent with siblings have inspired Ahmed to write a short film that highlights one of his grandmother’s experiences.
As someone deeply immersed in the sights and sounds of Bahrain, Ahmed says its creatives are yet to be discovered by the global art scene – and the island’s size does nothing to help. But it’s also a lot more welcoming of young and emerging talent as a result. “Because of how small and tight-knit the artistic community is, there’s always someone interested in meeting you or willing to support your work,” he says. The need for international exposure, however, must be emphasised. “As artists, we produce work and show it to the community around us, but maybe that isn’t enough. Maybe we’re the ones who need to push to showcase our work abroad in order to draw attention to the artists back home.”
Dubai, in Ahmed’s experience, is a lot more dynamic. “There’s always something happening – a new platform, a gallery opening, an event – so you’re always triggered to work. There’s also a lot more art appreciation in such cities because of the diversity. Bahrain has the talent, but most people are more interested in music than visual art because there’s less awareness of how impactful art can be.” But regardless of where Ahmed plants his feet, he says art has given him a platform through which he can share stories of his hometown. “My work provides people outside the region with insights into the island – I love it when I get to introduce my heritage to someone.”
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These days, as he continues to work full-time while writing scripts for short films on the side, he reports that the Gulf is more inclined towards photography than film. “I think photography offers more opportunities because seeking commissions as an independent filmmaker or director is a lot more challenging. Then again, being an artist is not about participating in an exhibition or having your work published. If you have a piece of work that serves to tell a story – even if it hasn’t gained anyone’s attention yet – you’re an artist.”
An Omani artist and illustrator lending a voice to the women of her society through her works.
Sharing the opinion of her peers is Mays Almoosawi, a visual artist who hails from Muscat, Oman. The 26-year-old refers to the dynamics of the local art scene as a “challenge”, saying, “Although we are lucky to be artists at a time when the scene is growing dramatically by the day in the Gulf, we’re bringing something new to a society that has a multitude of restrictions and limitations as far as the concept of art is concerned. It’s not so much that we aren’t given opportunities or support.” And like Ahmed, she says awareness is key, emphasizing the need for more galleries and museums alongside arts education in schools and exposing the general public to artistic realms.
Oman’s cultural scene has been flourishing, courtesy of local figures such as photographer Eman Ali and film director Chndy. But Mays is of the opinion that more can be done to foster further development. “The question is how do we kickstart ours?” she thinks aloud. “A more cohesive community to inspire collaborations and art discussions, for starters. Also, the leaders of the local art community need to engage with developers and patrons to create meaningful opportunities for public interaction with local artists. But art isn’t something that can be forced; it’s the result of hard-to-measure factors such as immigration, education, and social and economic development coming together.”
In the case of Mays, her upbringing was monumental in who she is today. The female form is a predominant theme amongst her pieces, be they illustrations, paintings, photographs, or wire sculptures. Mays has often spoken about how the insecurities faced by many women in her community affected her own identity, stating that she felt the need to provide them a voice. At this point, it would be impossible to ignore the fact that a majority of the artworks depicting the female form have been created by male artists, their gaze often bringing with it an element of objectification – and not much has changed, making Mays’ lens that much more significant. “We come from a culture where almost every woman has been body-shamed, so I create these pieces to let them know that they’re not alone.”
The soft-spoken artist is no stranger to such ridicule herself, revealing that she always had insecurities about her body as a result. “Being an underweight little girl, I was body-shamed almost every day growing up. My relationship with my body evolved when I started expressing my emotions through my paintings. I’ve also made peace with it as I get older. I’ve accepted myself the way I am.” Look closely and you’ll see that it’s not just gender identity woven into her signature style. “By concentrating on the gender identity as an Arab female brings out my cultural identity as well,” she explains. “Growing up, we’re taught that our appearance and behaviour is a reflection of our culture.”
Bold and fluid, her works are the result of her emotional state of mind – a state that’s a lot more comfortable sharing with the world. “Living in quarantine gave me a rare opportunity to reflect on my life and my career as a full-time artist. My work once relied on going to exhibitions and social events, but with the pandemic, everything shifted online. My mental health became my first priority, and committing to meditation and yoga had a huge impact on what I produced. I gained the confidence to speak out about the stories behind my artwork and create something more meaningful. It was a huge step for me.” It’s no surprise, then, that Mays refers to 2020 as “the year of change”.
Change, she says, is also in the air in the Gulf’s creative scene. “There are all these incredible artists who are fighting against the norms to be a part of the change, to make even a slight difference.” In the meantime, Mays continues to dabble in a variety of formats, with clay sculptures increasingly growing in focus. “I love making sculptures – it feels like my figure paintings are coming to life,” she says. “I’m still experimenting, so you’ll see a lot more of them. But I’m also looking into making carpets featuring my illustrations – sticking to one medium gets boring with time, you know? That’s why I need to get out of my comfort zone occasionally.”
A Qatar-based visual storyteller connecting with her Yemeni-Kenyan roots, one film and photo at a time.
It’s hard to tell whether Shaima Al-Tamimi and Ahmed Al Kuwaiti are highly similar or strikingly different. On one hand, both are young and accomplished visual storytellers whose work is anchored in identity. And on the other hand, their journeys couldn’t be more contradictory. Based in Qatar and the UAE, Shaima has roots in Yemen and Kenya, but never lived in either country. The work of this third culture kid is inspired by social and cultural issues reflective of her personal story, which translates to vivid narratives that feature migration and culinary culture as prominent themes. But despite the fact that she has more questions than answers, Shaima says her background continues to shape her as an artist – and a person.
“I came from this phase where I was completely in denial of who I was for many reasons, most stemming from the fact that I wasn’t born and raised in my own country,” she asserts “I started resenting who I was …especially as I’ve never lived in Yemen. I got to this place where I was lost and bitter. But then I realized that I was being bitter about something that wasn’t my fault. And that isn’t healthy. I was tired of living in denial.”
The feeling slowly subsided after Shaima had conversations with her father about his travels and how he escaped the deadly 1960s revolution in Zanzibar as a child. “These were not stories that he shared with us, and that’s one of the reasons it wasn’t easy to organically connect with the two cultures – I had to seek and process a lot of that information on my own because this is part of the trauma that you don’t think you have, but are going through. It helped me understand how I ended up here. It’s because of all those journeys taken by our ancestors. I can’t begin to tell you how important it has been to my understanding of life in general – you have to know about the past in order to pave the way ahead.”
Noteworthy is how both Ahmed and Shaima used the onset of the pandemic to dig through the past as opposed to worry about the future. “It fuelled me creatively. I ended up going far back to explore my ancestors’ history and making a multimedia film out of it, which I just wrapped up.” Everything for the nine-minute film was done within the confines of her house and her family’s home in Abu Dhabi. “It’s a homemade project through and through.”
The upcoming launch of this short film aside, Shaima recently completed work on Don’t Get Too Comfortable and celebrated the display of her photographs at PHotoESPAÑA photography festival in Madrid, Spain. The former is a multimedia letter to her paternal grandfather that was made possible by her Magnum Foundation fellowship, while the latter was part of an exhibition on the Yemeni diaspora. She also curated a fund-raising initiative entitled Prints for Yemen in conjunction with Al Yamaniah, a platform focused on Yemeni women in arts and culture. And if all that wasn’t enough, the artist continues to conduct research for the project that granted her a Sheikh Saoud Al Thani Award. She tells us that it will take shape as a photo book accented with immersive augmented reality technology. Having said that, she’s also ready to slow down, citing the combination of coronavirus, working full-time, and producing films as a recipe for burnout.
But despite feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to “produce”, her passion for the region’s creative scene is palpable. “There’s this movement of waking up to art appreciation – at least in Qatar. There are organizations now offering support, grants and workshops. A lot of it is still in its infancy, but we’ve been seeing people wanting to express themselves. There are also places where we can go to network with like-minded people. It feels nice to be able to create a community.” And while Shaima is of the opinion that going down the documentary route full-time isn’t financially feasible, she says the region boasts a lot of talent contributing to the rise of the Gulf art scene. There is a catch, though.
“The problem is that a lot of it is suppressed talent,” she says. “There are people who have immense potential, but aren’t encouraged because of their cultural upbringing – being an artist is not something that our parents or society deem to be prestigious. But that’s slowly changing. People are investing in art, the mentality is opening up, and the region is starting to create a little bit of buzz. Sure, it also has to do with the fact that the Gulf has more funds than, say, the wider MENA region to allocate towards cultural initiatives, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing if utilized correctly.”
Samia Qaiyum is a Dubai-based editor specialising in travel and culture, contributing to the likes of Mille, Elle Arabia, National Geographic Traveller, and Condé Nast Traveller. A textbook third culture kid with a perpetual thirst for adventure, she has lived in five countries and travelled to 34 others, racking up all sorts of weird and wonderful experiences along the way – just don’t ask her to define the word ‘home’.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.