Sharjah Art Museum: The Bellwether of Gulf Art Museums
My first memory of visiting the Sharjah Art Museum was sometime in the late 1990s when Sheikh Tariq bin Faisal Al Qasimi, the former Chairman of the Sharjah Economic Development Department, took me to view the collection of Orientalist masterpieces belonging to Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah. I had just returned from Paris and was unaware of the vibrant art scene that had emerged during my several years of studies abroad.
Initially, the Sharjah Art Museum was opened in 1995 in the splendid 19th century mansion Bait Al Serkal before moving to its present permanent location two years later. It was inaugurated on Wednesday April 9th, 1997, as the first dedicated art museum in the Gulf; a testament to the pioneering cultural role that Sharjah held then and still continues to play today. Its opening was perhaps one of catalysts behind the city being named as the UNESCO Cultural Capital of the Arab world in 1998, the first Gulf Arab city to achieve such a distinction. The second dedicated art museum in the Gulf opened eight years later in Kuwait in 2003 (see my article here).
The building itself encompasses 11,000 square metres, including the annex at the rear and consists of 68 halls making it the largest art museum in the Arab Gulf States. It was designed by British architect Brian Johnson, principal and managing partner of Godwin Austen Johnson, an architecture firm established in Dubai in 1991.
Johnson is regarded as a pioneer of infusing traditional Arabic and Islamic themes into modern architecture, and his skills can be seen in of one of the UAE’s most recognisable structures, the Dubai Creek Golf Clubhouse which was completed in 1993 and now appears on the UAE’s 20-dirham note. As a visitor makes their way under the white arabesque arches and into the Sharjah Art Museum’s many galleries, the effect of the seamless and subtle blend of the modern and the traditional architecture becomes evident.
For more than twenty years the Sharjah Art Museum has presented world-class shows from the annual art exhibitions of the Emirates Fine Art Society to major international exhibitions such as a show of 50 expressionist artworks from Netherlands’ CoBrA Museum of Modern Art, exhibited in 2015. In 2009, the Sharjah Art Museum was the last stop of a major global touring show titled Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting 1830–1925, which included 85 masterpieces from private collections and museums around the world. That exhibition had started in the Yale Centre for British Art in the United States before moving to the Tate Britain and the Pera Museum in Istanbul. In 2013, the Tate Modern inaugurated a major show by Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi, which had its inaugural opening at the Sharjah Art Museum the previous year, organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation and curated by Salah Hassan. In 2015, Sharjah Art Museum hosted the first major exhibition of renowned Lebanese artist, poet and author Khalil Gibran with more than 30 artworks as well as notes and sketches.
The first major modern Arab art show held at the museum was One Hundred Years of Arab Fine Art. It opened in November 2000 and contained 240 pieces from the collection of what was then known as the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. The exhibition was inaugurated by the Ruler of Sharjah and renowned Qatari art collector Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed Al Thani, the Vice Chairperson of Qatar Museums and founder of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, which opened in Doha in 2010 (see my essay here). One Hundred Years of Arab Fine Art included paintings by Saliba Douaihy, Nazir Nabaa, Fateh Moudarres, Fahrelnissa Zeid as well as works by artists that can be viewed in the current exhibition such as Ahmed Nawash and Abdul Qader Al Rais. It was in that show that I first encountered the Arab masters of the 20th century. I can still vividly recall the large landscapes of sprawling mountains and valleys by Alexandria born Georges Sabbagh.
For many years, the upper north wing of the museum hosted a significant display of Orientalist art from Ruler of Sharjah’s personal collection, which included various lithographs of Scottish painter David Roberts depicting scenes from his travels to Egypt and the Holy Land in the first half of the 19th century as well as masterpieces in oil such as Ludwig Deutsche’s Cairo (El Azhar University) from 1890 and Franz Eisenhut’s Marketplace in Morocco from 1888. Today that wing is home to the museum’s first long term display of artworks from the collection that it has amassed over two decades. There are 100 pieces shown under the title of Museum Collection: Modern and Contemporary Arab Art.
Perhaps fittingly, the first two works one encounters as they enter the Museum Collection exhibition are by pioneering Emirati artists: Abdul Qader Al Rais and Ahmed Al Ansari. The Dubai-born and Kuwait-educated Al Rais captures the serenity of the Sharjah town of Khorfakkan that lies on the Arabian Sea depicting unmanned fishing boats docked in an inlet surrounded by rocky mountains. One can’t help but sense the presence of movement in the painting as the wooden boats gently rock in the waves. On the opposite wall hangs Heritage by the Sharjah born Al Ansari who explains his inspiration during an interview with Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National: “I have fond memories of my childhood, which was surrounded by forts, castles, the sea and the landscape. I like to bring life to these special memories through my drawings and paintings”. In his painting Al Ansari captures what may very well be a childhood memory of camels and merchants encamping in front of an historic fort.
Beyond the welcome hall, the Museum Collection is sorted into themes such as Abstract art, Resistance art, ‘Hurufiyya’ (the art of the letter), Beaux-arts, the Utopian Village, Modernities, Symbolism and Folklore. Beirut born Saloua Raouda Choucair’s masterpiece Poem, a wooden sculpture that dates back to circa 1960 is without doubt one of the highlights of the collection. The artist, who turned 100 in June 2016, is considered a pioneer in abstract art in Lebanon and worked in the studio of French painter Fernand Léger in Paris in the late 1940s. In 2013, at the age of 97, she was given her first major museum exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, becoming the first Arab artist to have a solo show at the prestigious institution.
In his 1971 oil-on-wood titled Ahzan (Grief), Louay Kayyali depicts a figure beset with sadness. This is a common theme for the artist who sank into a deep depression following the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967, which resulted in the occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights. Kayyali, suffering from addiction and psychological problems, stopped painting until the early 1970s and destroyed a number of his charcoal drawings. Ahzan would be one of the earliest works Kayyali produced after his return to painting.
Museum Collection also includes a rare work titled Taken depicting a shark underwater by Kuwaiti artist Khalifa Al Qattan painted in 1993. That year, the artist was invited by the emirate of Sharjah during the first Sharjah Biennial and awarded the honour of ‘Artist of the Arab World’ by the Ruler of Sharjah. In 1962 Al Qattan, who studied art in Leicester in the UK, in the 1950s, founded a unique art style known as Circlism.
Also in the show are three works by Palestinian artist Suleiman Mansour from his Village Children series, painted between 1992 and 1994. During the first Intifada against Israeli occupation (1987–1993), Mansour and other artists in the ‘New Vision’ art movement (which started in 1987) started boycotting Israeli art supplies and began using local materials like mud and henna in his work, which is reflected in these works. The display also includes a sculpture by Iraqi pioneer Ismail Fattah who taught ceramics and sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad.
Two works can be seen by prominent Kuwaiti artist and writer Thuraya Al Baqsami who pioneered printmaking in the Gulf. In the mid-1990s her publishing output such as The Recollection of Small Kuwaiti Fatuma saw her combining contemporary storytelling about the war with fairy and folk tales. Failaka Inspirations draws on this folk idiom when depicting the island history of Failaka, which bears signs of habitation since the Sumerian era (circa 2000 BCE). From the contemporary calligraphers we can view a drawing by Iraqi artist Hassan Massoudy whose artwork adorned the cover of the British Museum’s breakthrough ‘hurufiyya’ exhibition Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East in 2006.
The exhibition also includes one of the finest examples of works by Hama-born Syrian artist Abdullatif Al Smoudi who was based in the UAE for much of his life and became one of the first members of Emirates Fine Art Society. Al Smoudi’s Muslim Scholars, a collage and mixed media produced in 1996 depicts men and women engaged in studies and medicine with a large palm tree in the centre in full bloom — its dates can be seen as a metaphor for the fruits of knowledge. Al Smoudi was honoured by the Sharjah Art Museum as part of its Lasting Impressions annual exhibition series in 2013.
Viewers will also find one of the most important works by Amman-born sculptor Mona Saudi. The Petra Tablets, a series of 12 silkscreen lithographs painted with China ink with backgrounds tinted with diluted coffee, are reminiscent of the desert sands and reference her sculptures. Saudi, whose work is also held in the National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman; l’Institute du Monde Arabe, Paris (see my article here) and the National Museum for Women in the Arts, Washington, DC was influenced by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși.
Despite the masterpieces on display what makes this exhibition even more special are works by lesser known artists who have left a legacy without attaining their deserved acknowledgement. One of these artists was Hassan Badawi a Sudanese painter, curator and professor who studied in Columbia University and Parsons School of Design in New York City before teaching art at Howard University in Washington DC. Tangency, is a white perforation on paper that looks like the silhouette of a mosque or a palace from a distance. Badawi was born in Khartoum in 1939 and died in Sharjah in 2008 after working for many years at the Sharjah Art Museum and across the street at the historic Bait Al Shamsi where his small studio was located. Another of the lesser-known but profound artist in the collection is Palestine’s Bashir Sinwar who was born in 1942 and studied in the Cairo College of Fine Arts. Sinwar’s activist paintings depicting Palestinian resistance and tragedies such as his mural sized Sabra and Shatila from 1984 in this book led him to being targeted by the Israeli occupation forces who confiscated his artwork more than once including a piece taken in 1984 from the Public Library of Nablus Municipality, the oldest and largest public library in the West Bank.
In addition to being a global and regional institution the Sharjah Art Museum is also a local entity showcasing works by artists including Syria’s Thaer Helal, an award winning professor at the College of Fine Arts of the University of Sharjah as well as Sharjah based poet and researcher Ismail Rifai whose work Childhood from 1997 is a reminder of better times witnessed by Syria’s children. In April 2016 the Sharjah Art Museum hosted an exhibition from the collection of Barjeel Art Foundation titled The Short Century. The show featured 100 artworks from 1914 to 1991 including Hamed Ewais’ The Guardian of Life (1967/68) which was displayed on the banner advertising the show.
Since its inception the Sharjah Art Museum has been the diamond in the necklace of pearls that are the emirate’s museums. It has played a role in educating the public, documenting the artistic past and present, and has helped to cement Sharjah’s position as the capital of culture for the Arab world and beyond. It has transformed the Al Shuwaiheen neighbourhood into a bustling art district that is now home to the globally recognised Sharjah Art Foundation and with Museum Collection: Modern and Contemporary Arab Art the Sharjah Art Museum has come full circle, now presenting a kaleidoscope of art from across the Arab world.
This progression is thanks to the work of Manal Ataya, the director of Sharjah Museums Department, Alya Al Mulla, the curator of the Sharjah Art Museum and Noora Al Mualla, the museum’s former exhibitions co-ordinator. The Sharjah Art Museum is a home for artists and knowledge seekers, the curious and the discerning, the local and the global. With the current display and after wandering the world for two decades seeking the best exhibitions from near and far, the museum has finally come home.
- A version of this article was published in Modern and Contemporary Arat Art: From the Collection of the Sharjah Art Museum in November 2016.
Getting to the Sharjah Art Museum:
Al Shuwaiheyn, tucked in behind the bazaar, close to Al Borj Avenue and the waterfront. Follow the signs for the Arts Cafe. Public parking is available alongside the Creek (3 minutes walk away) or use the basement parking below the Sharjah Art Museum. (source: Sharjah-Welcome.com)
Google Maps location: https://goo.gl/maps/ewtrZe7fksq