A new history of Arab art to begin at London’s Whitechapel Gallery
On Tuesday, an exhibition billed as “the broadest single overview of Arab art to be shown in the UK to date” opens at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
By the time it finishes in 2017, more than 100 works from Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi’s Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation will have featured in Imperfect Chronology: Arab Art from the Modern to the Contemporary in a series of four separate chronological exhibitions that will chart the development of Arab art and aesthetics from their 20th-century origins to the present.
The show’s curator, Omar Kholeif, has described the exhibition as an attempt to outline “a possible trajectory of recent Arab art” at a “time of hyperactivity across the Arab art world”, which in plain English amounts to an ambitious statement of intent.
As curators go, the Cairo-born and London-based Kholeif is uniquely qualified to make such statements, being both a product of and participant in the “hyperactivity” he describes.
In 2014, the Dubai-based Canvas Magazine named Kholeif, who also acts as a senior editor at Ibraaz, a website and biannual online publication dedicated to the visual culture of North Africa and the Middle East, as one of the 50 most powerful people in the Middle Eastern art world, and since then his stock has only risen.
In March, Kholeif curated Focus: MENAM at New York’s illustrious Armory Show, which featured art from the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean, and in August his reputation was further bolstered by his inclusion in the panel of jurors for Dubai’s 2016-17 Abraaz Group Art Prize alongside such art-world luminaries as Defne Ayas, Sandhini Poddar and Hans Ulrich Obrist.
Sheikh Sultan’s year has been just as busy as Kholeif’s.As well as sending loans to the Venice Biennale and the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, his foundation also exhibited works at the Armory Show, collaborated with the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and saw 430 of its works uploaded to the Google Cultural Institute website – an initiative that also features the collections of the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the Altes Museum in Berlin.
In many ways, the coming together of Kholeif and Sheikh Sultan, the Barjeel Art Foundation and the Whitechapel Gallery represents a rare confluence. Not only does the show give audiences in London the opportunity to see masterworks such as Kadhim Haider’s Martyr’s Epic and Hamed Ewais’s Le Gardien de la Vie, but it also sheds light on the workings of the contemporary art market and the magic that can happen when the interests of curators and collectors, galleries and museums coalesce.
Whether the show becomes a footnote or a milestone in some future history of art will be for posterity to determine but one thing is almost certain, visitors to Imperfect Chronology are likely to remember the show by saying “I was there”.
Nick Leech is a features writer at The National.
Updated: September 3, 2015 04:00 AM