DUBAI: “In art histories, the Global South has been underrepresented. And in this framework, the Arab world has been under-represented. And in texts dealing with the greater Middle East, the Gulf has been marginalized. We wanted to reclaim ownership of this space somehow.

Dr. Aisha Stoby talks about “Khaleej Modern,” an exhibition she curated that runs at New York University Abu Dhabi through December 11, and which grew out of Stoby’s research for her Ph.D. in which she examined the art scene in the Gulf from the mid-twentieth century until what she calls “the cultural boom, which I pin to 2008”.

Munira Al Kazi, ‘Untitled (Family)’, 1965. (Courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah)

The GCC countries were not considered rich sources of art at that time, not only by Westerners, but often also by those in older countries of the Arab world, as Stoby discovered during his research. .

“Even in cases where it was unexpected, I faced this kind of pushback. I asked very well-known artists in the Middle East if they had been to the GCC and what interactions they had had with artists here, especially in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And I got very surprising responses,” Stoby told Arab News. “Some positive, but some – surprisingly for our neighbors – negative; rejecting art scenes that took place.

Hassan Meer, ‘Underwater.’ (Provided)

It was largely frustration with the lack of information available to counter such attitudes that led Stoby to dig deeper.

“There is little material. And it’s very scattered; there are a lot of books that are out of print and the region is generally not seen as a whole,” she says. “(The Gulf art scene) has generally not been seen as collectives that have crossed borders – the things that join us as nation states: the prosperity that has come with oil, the ongoing conversations about tradition and modernity, and the divides this can create, as well as progress, and how this might be perceived. So (my research) came from wanting to compile a more accurate archive (which might give) more visibility .

Thus, visitors to the exhibition will find works by, among others, the Saudi-Kuwaiti artist Munira Al-Kazi, whose work in the mid-1960s was acquired by MoMA in New York and the V&A Museum in London. .

“Today it is common for institutions in the Middle East and the West to collect works from the region, but in the mid-1960s MoMA and the V&A both decided to collect Munira’s work. Al-Kadir is special,” says Stoby. .

Visitors will also learn about the collective The Artist Friends of the GCC, which included Yousef Ahmad of Qatar and Abdulrahman Alsoliman of Saudi Arabia among its ranks and which, for a decade or more from 1975, exhibited in the Arab world, as well than in Europe.

Safeya Binzagr, ‘Zabun.’ (Provided)

“It was a very cosmopolitan group who had all studied abroad or traveled abroad. Traveling is something that, generally, should be part of an artistic practice: absorbing different influences and information.

Stoby says she hopes the exhibit can be “the start of a conversation”, adding, “I guess the difficulties inherent in the filmmaking process also point to other discussions we hope to have.”

Some of these discussions will no doubt revolve around the definition of modernism itself.

“If you take the word ‘modernism’ in the context in which it is understood, you realize that the ownership it has been given is really fundamentally wrong – it is an ongoing process in so many of our countries in the South, if you look at it from a non-global northern perspective,” says Stoby. “(Indian art historian) Geeta Kapur calls this an ‘incomplete process’ in India, and I consider that to be true for our region as well. “It’s ongoing. And it’s what joins us. This conversation of tradition and modernity continues throughout the Gulf and is as present in the work of artists from the 1940s as it is in the last room of the exhibition. in 2007. And if we were to continue the exhibition, she would have been there as well.”

Several other themes run through the exhibition: Urbanization, development, society and self-representation. “Again, these are things that resonate with us – our collective experience as a region,” says Stoby.

The exhibition’s subtitle is “Pioneers and Collectives,” which is why, Stoby explains, some artists who might have expected to be included are not.

“In this context, ‘pioneers’ means not only artist, but also founder, teacher, mentor,” she says. “(These are all people) who have gone on to do really important things for their country, beyond their practice.”