Those living in the Gulf in the early 2000s may remember it as a sleepy era in the region’s art scene, a time when exhibitions were dominated by paintings of stallions and prayer beads, and photography was still very much an emerging genre. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia had not yet created national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, Oman’s now-leading Stal Gallery had yet to open its doors, and Kuwait’s exemplary promotion of the arts remained confined to its borders, with its neighbors more preoccupied with tourism, financial services, and architectural spectacles.
In the later years of the new century’s first decade, a vigorous push for artistic production began in the United Arab Emirates, where galleries like Third Line, Meem, and Grey Noise set up camp, and where Art Dubai was launched. During the current decade, there has been an even greater spike in spaces, events, publications, and projects, which have burst onto the international scene, with a focus on aesthetics, politics, and everyday life in Gulf countries. These new projects include the unassumingly named Bahraini furniture design trio Bahraini Danish; Dubai-based, youth fashion label Shabab International, which is notable for its unisex clothing and celebration of Gulf street culture; and Qatar’s Fire Station gallery, which became the first Middle Eastern country to host Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei last year.
Standing out amongst these exciting projects are three must-follow initiatives:
Among the most audacious of the newer kids on the block is art collective GCC, whose name alludes but does not exclusively refer to the acronym for the Gulf Cooperation Council. Founded in 2013, GCC is a loose constellation of artists with strong ties to the region, among them Serpentine Galleries’ curator Amal Khalaf, multimedia artists Fatima and Monira Al Qadiri, and prodigious writer-stylist-artist Khalid Al Gharaballi. The group seeks to shed light, often quite literally, on those aspects of everyday material culture that are taken for granted by virtue of their ubiquity, from nylon sofrahs to gold-framed photographs of Gulf monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers.
EDGE OF ARABIA
Equally ambitious is the collective, community, and artist platform Edge of Arabia, which describes itself as a “border-crossing collaboration” born “against the backdrop of the last Gulf War.” Launched in 2003 from the mountains of southwestern Saudi Arabia by Saudi artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem and British artist Stephen Stapleton, Edge of Arabia has hosted an explosion of exhibitions at home and abroad, in the last few years. These have included the boldly cross-cultural photography project Cities of Conviction, which documented sites of religion and spirituality between Salt Lake City, Mecca, and Medina; KSA/LAX, which featured video, performance, and virtual reality installations showing Saudi life in the twenty-first century; and the Saudi art and film festival Desert to Delta in Memphis, Tennessee.
Announcing itself to the world with the Arabic word for ‘silence’, Samt describes itself as a “biannual occurrence that…manifests in digital form, and is to be digested virtually through a curated narrative fabricated from a collection of micro-investigative feedbacks on the gist of a mutual concern.” While the work of many of its artists can be viewed on its website, Samt has held several successful exhibitions at London’s Tate Modern and Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue. The collective also recently launched a month-long residency program for Arab artists.
As the Gulf art scene continues to grow, these organizations are leading the way in promoting Gulf-focused creative production both locally and around the world.