Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Art and Cultural Production in the GCC Working Group I

Art and Cultural Production in the GCC Working Group I

On August 30-31, 2015, CIRS held the first Working Group under its research initiative on “Art and Cultural Production in the GCC.” Included in the meeting were academics, art historians, museum specialists as well as a selection of curators and visual culture specialists. Over the course of two days, the participants discussed a number of relevant issues and identified existing gaps in the literature. Topics discussed during the meeting included, amongst other things, the viability of art as soft power in the GCC region, the role of the Gulf states as patrons of the arts, authenticity, cultural appropriation, and censorship in the region.

Opening the discussion, participants considered the viability of art as soft power amongst the GCC states and the role artists play within these societies. As Bourdieu argues, the value of a work of art is not set by the artist themselves, but by the field of production which produces its value. Hence, when trying to understand how art and cultural production in the Gulf can be utilized for soft power gains, one must not only recognize the direct producers of the art work but also all the agents and institutions, such as critics, curators, collectors, and patrons involved in valuing the art. In the case of the Gulf, artistic development has been taking place in Sharjah and Kuwait since the 1960s and 1970s, yet only recently has international attention formally recognized art and cultural development in the Gulf region as being financially lucrative. This has been largely stimulated by the patronage of the arts, whereby certain Gulf states such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have began to heavily sponsor and fund such initiatives. By recognizing the different actors involved in the game of soft power, it become easier to understand the intersectionalities that exist between internal and external interests in relation to art and cultural production within the region.

In terms of art, authenticity and cultural appropriation in the Gulf, discussants explored the relationship between authenticity and professionalism, and how that ties into issues of citizenship and nationality. If heritage sites in Abu Dhabi and Qatar were to be perceived as art installations, the issue of cultural appropriation becomes deeply problematic considering such places evoke the idea of a mono-identity by marginalizing the other. A certain level of disconnect exists between the arts and the community the art is being created in, which also extends to the relationship of museums with their surrounding communities. The philosophy behind museums is that they should be embedded within their community by providing a necessary intellectual and cultural service. For example, in Bahrain the Pearling Pathway is an artistic initiative that consists of 21 different historical sites such as mosques, schools and underwater oyster beds which depict traditional Bahraini communities’ lives before the discovery of oil. Likewise, in Oman, Qasab Castle is a newly-converted museum which is funded from top-down and managed from bottom-up, in terms of economics and local employment. Nevertheless, these two examples are often the exception, considering most museums in the Gulf often struggle with engaging non-museum entities.

Feasibility and sustainability plans, something most European museums have to go through in order to apply for national funds, are a rarity in the case of Gulf museums.  Most feasibility studies are conducted internally which largely limits community engagement and venues for discussion around such subjects. Similar issues can be perceived when charting the development of contemporary Gulf cinema. Gulf cinema has been a small, but thriving affair since the 1970s, however more recently, there has been a rush of financial support and social interest for young filmmakers from the region. After a while, film festivals and film school programs were downsized dramatically or closed completely. This has partially been due to censorship issues and because correct feasibility and sustainability plans did not take place before the initiative was launched. 

When it comes to understanding the role of the Gulf states as patrons of the arts, discussants problematized the type of vision each art institution and museum was shaping. For instance, at the signing of the contract for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, there was significant concern from the artistic community about the importation of western art considering most of these art collections were curated by foreign art consultants. Similarly in Dubai, art fairs and auctions were market-driven due to the narrative that Dubai was a crossroad for art acquirement in the region. In the case of museums in Sharjah and Kuwait, the vision was focused on supporting local artists through the provision of free art space and educational programs for enrichment of skills. Participants also discussed the educational aspect of the art industry in the Gulf, whereby many art programs train students adequately, but fail to create a critical academic community that is able to nourish a culture beyond state patronage. It is also necessary to examine who is teaching the new generations of artists in the region, since many of the experts are not based locally and happen to be transient.

In regards to censorship in the arts, the Gulf region has had several instance were art fairs and exhibitions were censored due to ‘cultural sensitivities’. In a region as young as the Gulf, the dynamics of the contemporary art world are always in flux. Individuals and collective actors play a crucial role in determining how the art market regulates what is permissible and what is not. For example, certain instances of censorship have targeted pieces of public art because of the level of exposure they had to the public eye. Discussants questioned the nature of public art in Gulf cities that are not pedestrian-friendly, which in turn encourages architectural pieces and buildings to often be the only existing example of art in public space.  

Discussants concluded that in the absence of oil fortunes, the Gulf states of Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait, have had to rely on alternative funding opportunities unrelated to the state, pushing them to engage with various community members in order to fund artistic initiatives through cash donations or collection loans. Discussants later noted that sometimes, in the case of the Gulf region, states can benefit from a lack of wealth in regards to creativity and artistic production.


Participants and Discussants:

  • Haya Al Noaimi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Ian Almond, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Asli Altinisik, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Sheyma Buali, BBC Arabic Festival
  • Nancy Demerdash, Princeton University
  • Elizabeth (Beth) Derderian, Northwestern University
  • Kristin Eggeling, University of Saint Andrews
  • Amira El-Zein, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Pamela Erskine-Loftus, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Karen Exell, University College London in Qatar
  • Maymanah Farhat, Ayyam Gallery
  • Lesley Gray, University College London in Qatar
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Robert Kluijver, Paris School of International Affairs
  • Umber Latafat, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Thomas Leisten, Qatar Museums
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Noof Mohammed, National Museum of Qatar
  • Nadia Mounajjed, Abu Dhabi University, UAE
  • Firat Oruc, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Jelena Trkulja, Qatar Museums
  • Sarina Wakefield, The Open University
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Mohamed Zayani, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

Article by Haya Al Noaimi, Research Analyst at CIRS