In 2007, I initiated an art project about the history of art in the Arab world. My project leans on the recent emergence of large new infrastructures for the visual arts in the Arab world. These developments, when viewed alongside the geo-political, economic, social and military conflicts that consumed the region in the past few decades, shape a rich yet thorny ground for creative work. The artworks and stories I present with this project were shaped by encounters on this ground with individuals, institutions, economies, concepts and forms.
Over the past few years, I have been fascinated by the emergence of new art museums, galleries, schools and cultural foundations in cities such as Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Cairo, Doha, Istanbul, Ramallah and Sharjah, among others. I am intrigued by the increased visibility of the makers, sponsors, consumers and histories of “Arab art,” and more so by the acceleration in the development of new infrastructures for the visual arts in the Arabian Gulf. Suffice it to cite the Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi which will soon include the largest-to-date Guggenheim museum by Frank Gehry; a Louvre museum by Jean Nouvel; a Performing Arts Centre by Zaha Hadid; a maritime museum by Tadao Ando; and a Sheikh Zayed National Museum by Foster and Partners. Forthcoming and recently-unveiled museums, galleries and foundations elsewhere in the Gulf, whether in Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Sharjah are no less remarkable in scale and ambition. Such plans clearly attest to the Gulf states’ laudable mandate to showcase local and regional cultures in their full complexity. They also shore up nascent cultural tourism industries, and substantiate the benevolent intentions of the Gulf states’ rulers, further sanctioning their hereditary rule. In my project, I am not interested in identifying and unpacking the complex and/or simple motives that prompt the sheikhs and sheikhas, emirs, kings, princes, ministers of culture and others in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab world to invest massively in the arts. Rather, I concentrate on some of the gestures, stories, forms and colors made available by the emerging infratrsuctures, especially when these are screened alongside Jalal Toufic’s concept of “the withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster.”
In his book titled Forthcoming, the writer and artist Jalal Toufic proposes the concept of “the withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster.” With this concept, Toufic considers how disasters affect tradition. He pays particular attention to the rare instances when artworks are affected immaterially, in more subtle and insidious ways than has hitherto been thought. Moerover, Toufic characterizes such immaterial effect as a “withdrawal,” not in the sense that an artwork is hidden (to safeguard against its destruction; nor because it does not conform to the reigning ideological and political outlook of the time) but in the sense that extant cultural artifacts are treated by sensitive artists in their own artworks as though destroyed, as unavailable to vision, for example. In his essay, Toufic also proposes that artists have at times attempted to resurrect such withdrawn artworks, albeit with great doubt as to their resurrecting efforts. In this project, I lean on Toufic’s concept because it has provided me with a precise and apt language to frame some of the material, aesthetic and conceptual considerations that I am confronting as I engage the history of Art in the Arab world.