By Sharifah Alhinai
As an independent curator and educator, Dr. Aisha Stoby knows Omani art and the Omani art scene intimately, in a way that only a handful of people do. The 33-year-old Omani has an impressive resume. She has a bachelor’s degree in the history of art and archaeology from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), a master’s degree in curating contemporary art from the Royal College of Art, and a PhD in the history of art, with her thesis focusing on the modern art movements in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, from SOAS, where she currently teaches.
In addition to pursuing an academic path, Dr. Stoby has also been curating exhibitions in close collaboration with various Omani entities. These have included Al Fen Yettahedeth (Art Speaks), an art exhibition held in Muscat in 2010 as part of a larger programme to train female artists from Oman’s interior region, Oman et La Mer, an exhibition on Oman’s trade history at the National Maritime Museum in Paris in 2013 and Salon Oman Nour, a 2013 exhibition at the Leighton House Museum in London of modern Omani artists Hassan Meer and Radhika Khimji, alongside British artist Dillwyn Smith, who was a Delfina Foundation Resident in Oman at that time. Through her curatorial work and academic focus, she has helped increase the visibility of Omani artists and introduce their work within the country and abroad.
I spoke with the curator and educator about her beginnings in the world of curation, discussed what Omani artists offer the world through their art, delved into how their representation can be increased and uncovered her hopes for the Omani art scene. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you enter the world of art curation?
AS: Truthfully, I had always felt passionate about the arts. I enjoyed creating it but somehow did not feel that it was a vocation. I have to say that as soon as I knew what the word ‘curator’ meant, I knew it was something that I would be interested in doing. Having that role in terms of translation, research, putting together materials and, crucially, making art public – both through exhibitions and in terms of education – has been a driving force for me. I think, speaking in the case of Oman in particular, we have had so much local talent over the past decades, and having this role of being able to highlight that talent, place that talent in a regional and global context and discuss some of the pedagogies and theorisations around those narratives has really been a privilege. For me, I think the role of a curator in a Khaleeji (Gulf) context is going to be more and more crucial – the role of a translator in the coming decades.
Can you expand on some of the exhibitions and shows have you curated or helped curate with regards to Oman?
AS: I’ve been very fortunate to work both with Oman’s Ministry of Culture in the past, and independently on projects inside and outside of Oman. The first major project I worked on was in 2010. I had just concluded working for the Bait Muzna Gallery, which at the time was participating in the newly established Art Dubai and Art Abu Dhabi, and I founded an art foundation with some dear friends and colleagues. The title of the programme was Al Fen Yettahedeth (Art Speaks), and we sent out an open call to Omani women from the interior of Oman. We brought them to Muscat and orchestrated a training course with many major artists throughout the country. We also enabled placements in our major galleries at the time: Bait Muzna Gallery, Bait Al Zubair Gallery [and] the Fine Arts Society; to conclude the programme, we held an exhibition that was opened by our now sultan, H.M. Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who was the Minister of Culture at the time. It was, of course, indicative of how longstanding his interests in the arts has been. Highlights for me, following that experience, include curating Oman et La Mer, an exhibition on Oman’s Trade history’s at the National Maritime Museum in Paris in 2013. Another was Salon Oman Nour, which was an exhibition at Leighton House Museum of modern Omani artists Hassan Meer and Radhika Khimji, alongside British artist Dillwyn Smith, who was a Delfina Foundation Resident in Oman at that time. I have some very exciting new projects that I look forward to sharing with you in due course.
Given that you’ve helped curate Omani artists’ works in the past, how has their work been received, particularly abroad?
AS: I can honestly say that it has been a privilege to be able to play that role in promoting and representing Oman in a global context, and to share work by Omani artists in exhibitions, talks and lectures in universities and various institutions. Work by Omani artists is always met by great curiosity, interest and favour.
As a country, we’re known for many things: our diplomacy, far-reaching trade histories, multiculturalism, indigenous heritage and global outreach. Although we’re very established, regionally speaking, in our own art narrative, it’s not something that we’ve been known for globally to the same extent as our neighbours. It has been a great pleasure to be able to bridge some of those gaps.
What makes Omanis’ artworks special, in your opinion? In other words, what do Omani artists have to offer to the world?
AS: Omani artists offer a timelessness. There are many things about our culture that one must really experience to understand, and which can be witnessed almost immediately. We have a long-standing history across continents… When people talk about multiculturalism and global contexts, this is not new in our narrative or our arts. Similarly, that level of tolerance and understanding that is derived from Omanis’ exposure can be seen in the sensibility of different artworks. There are Omanis who haven’t studied outside of Oman or shown outside of it, but simply because of their local infrastructure and backgrounds, they have a broader and more developed sense of their neighbours and a far more nuanced sense of where their history is placed than one might initially expect.
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