Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi talks about his love of Arab art.
By Afshin Molavi | September 4, 2017
In May 2008, a Dubai art gallery owner turned to Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a rising Emirati commentator and art collector, with a simple question: “Why are you not on Twitter?” The rest is social media history.
It wasn’t long before Al Qassemi developed a passion for the social platform. When young, disenfranchised Arabs from Cairo to Tunis; Sanaa to Tripoli took to the streets, Al Qassemi channelled their voices, offering a news feed to the world. As Time magazine noted in 2011, ”to the extent that the revolution was tweeted, much of it came through the feed of Sultan Al Qassemi”.
Today, Al Qassemi is a social media force of nature with 500,000 Twitter, 80,000 Facebook, and almost 21,000 Instagram followers. Reflecting on the Arab Uprisings, Al Qassemi says: “I was completely intoxicated by what was happening, and part of me is still intoxicated by it.” At times, he recalls, he was tweeting every 45 seconds, translated speeches by Arab leaders verbatim, and even went so far as to live-tweet news updates during a family wedding. “I was completely zoned out.”
These days his energies are more focused on Barjeel Art Foundation, which is devoted to modern and contemporary Arab artists. Through the foundation Al Qassemi has held exhibits everywhere from Sharjah to Toronto, and appears regularly on TV, radio, and public panels. He is also a Director’s Fellow at MIT Media Lab.
There is more. This past year, Barjeel upped its game with 12 international events. Al Qassemi also recently taught a course at New York University in Manhattan on contemporary and modern Arab artists, where emerge85 caught up with him for tea.
The conversation flowed beyond New York, continuing several weeks later in Washington DC’s Union Station.
The library of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University (NYU).
Sultan: Green Tea
Afshin: Moroccan Mint
“We do not have fancy teas here,” Al Qassemi says somewhat apologetically as we pick through a box of Tetley tea bags. “But it is quiet, and we can hear ourselves talk.”
What the centre lacks in tea, it makes up for in ambiance. Enveloped in a strikingly modernist building designed by Philip Johnson, the library and reception area evoke old Damascus with their tiled fountains, walls lined with mother-of-pearl inlay, and intricately carved wooden ceilings. A circular staircase leads to a second floor of books.
“I am more of a coffee drinker,” Al Qassemi notes, a familiar remark among his generation, “but I have thought a lot about tea, and especially the milky tea that I drank growing up. In a way, the milky tea binds the entire Indian Ocean region in a common beverage.”
Having just finished teaching in the same room where we sit, one can sense Al Qassemi is still feeling the buzz of his time at NYU. “This experience changed me. No doubt about it. I felt, in some ways, vindicated that my work over the years in collecting art and speaking about contemporary Arab art was being received so well. I am so glad that I could, in a small way, introduce some of these great artists to people who might have never known they existed.”
Later, when we meet at Union Station in Washington DC, we continue our conversation in more detail, looking at works of art on a laptop as Al Qassemi reflects on the artists he admires and why he chose this path.
“I am continually struck by the interest in contemporary and modern Arab art across the world,” he says, sipping a Chamomile tea. “I could not have imagined that we would be involved in 12 exhibitions in the past year.”
A Sharjah youth
Growing up in Sharjah was very interesting because the emirate was ahead of its time in terms of investing in culture. We already had a book fair that started in 1982, four years after I was born, and, so, I grew up visiting [it]. We had Shakespeare plays coming to perform. We had the Emirates Fine Art Society, founded in 1980. When I was opening my eyes in the world as a 10 or 11 year old, it was a vibrant, cultural scene that was not the norm in other parts of the Gulf.
But it wasn’t just arts and culture. I was also a kid and I played a lot of video games. I think a large part of the creativity, of the ambition of my personality, is because of the video games. I played video games to a point, but then I also went to the real world and I was reading a lot. For some reason, I was very interested in reading. I had a number of excellent teachers growing up. I attended Rosary School, a Catholic school, and then Choueifat, a Lebanese school, which was the first [international] one. Then I attended Al Maarifa, a school founded by my uncle and aunt.
Moveable feasts and the Paris years
Editor’s note: Al Qassemi moved to Paris in 1994, aged 16, where he lived for four years.
I think a large part of my personality was formed in Paris. The beginning was formed in the UAE, for sure, but I think who I am today is still a result of what I became in Paris over four years. London never influenced me the way Paris did.
Maybe it’s because I was 16 years old. Although I lived with two close friends, I spent a lot of time on my own going to museums, going to exhibitions. And, you know, when you are 16, 17, you are more malleable. Your thinking can be adjusted rather than, you know, when you are in your 20s and 30s. And, so, I feel like Paris made me who I am.
It was in Paris that I experienced life as an adult for the first time. The choices I made were entirely my own and there was no parental supervision. In one way, my two classmates and I looked out for each other but we also had our own sets of friends and interests. Whether we chose to smoke and drink or whether we chose to go to the mosque or chose neither it was entirely up to us. I believe it is important for young people to be educated and then given this choice rather than be controlled throughout adolescence.
Twitter – the early days
I first opened a Twitter account in June 2008. Two people told me I should get on Twitter. First, it was Sunny Rahbar (the Dubai-based art gallery owner) who asked me: “Why are you not on Twitter?” I didn’t have an answer for her. Then Joi Ito of MIT Media Lab, who was living in Dubai at that time, asked me the same question. So, I joined. In those days, I was writing articles for The National (an Abu Dhabi-based English daily). I remember my first tweet was something like: “Just published my article in The National or The Times or whatever it was … “
I first began to sense the power of Twitter when I started getting invited to meet a lot of influential people in the emirates. After reading my articles via Twitter they called me in for advice on things. I had never engaged with government like that before. Many government officials had dormant accounts. Now they are much more active. I was also getting invited to speak at places because of social media. I remember I even renegotiated the fee I used to get from the newspaper I was writing for [The National] because of the number of followers I had.
Social media also played a role in my art collecting. I was posting pictures of some of my art works and people were asking where they could see [them]. I had 30-40 paintings in my home or in storage and I began to realise that maybe I needed a place to start a foundation to show them. That was the origin of Barjeel.
The art journey
I started buying art in 2002 and launched Barjeel, which means wind tower, in 2010 – many months before the uprisings in the Arab world. I always thought it was important, but I realised how much more important it was when the extremists began targeting our culture, which is why we completely stepped up the exhibition programme.
From 2010-13 we had one exhibition each year, but in the last year we’ve had a dozen.
The idea is to send art from the region [and] collaborate with institutions in the region and internationally, whether it is the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in Iran, Yale University Art Gallery [in the US], or Whitechapel Gallery [in the UK]. These are three of the most prestigious institutions in the world and we have worked with all of them.
I am continually surprised about how interested people are in the art. Our Tehran show, which was an exhibition of 80 works – 40 Iranian, 40 Arab – had over 20,000 visitors at short notice, at a very busy time of the year. Our show at Whitechapel Gallery had over 300,000 visitors, [and] our show[s] in Singapore and Toronto had between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors.
The selection process
The selection process has changed over the years. It began in a very whimsical manner: I liked an art work, I had a gut feeling about it, and so I bought it. This was the mid-2000s. Over the past decade things have changed. I am buying more responsibly [and I am] more conscious of the works being exhibited. In the back of my mind, when I buy a work, I am thinking: Where is this going to fit? Is anybody going to borrow it? I treat Barjeel as though it were a private foundation for the public good. I no longer buy work only because I like it. I buy works that scholars tell me are important. Even if I am not too keen on it, I may buy it because you are saving the work, making it available to be loaned, for example. A lot of other buyers will buy the work and refuse to loan it.
How a show is launched
We had organic growth with Barjeel. As word got out that we were developing a collection, we became a contact point for international museums who might say: ‘We are looking for a 1950s painting from this artist. Do you have any?’ By early 2011-12, Singapore Art Museum approached us and asked to borrow works for an exhibition. We curated half from our collection and borrowed [the other] half from others.
The Whitechapel Gallery exhibition we had in 2015 was in the making for two years. We also held exhibitions at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Alexandria Library, Jordan National Gallery of Art, Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, Yale University Art Gallery, and Bard College.
In some cases I approach the museums and I say: ‘I want to do a show. Do you have a slot?’ In other cases institutions approach us, like Whitechapel Gallery. [Sometimes] we have a person introducing us. There is a museum in South Asia and we are hoping to do an exhibition there. There is also a museum in Tunisia we are working with and that’s an independent curator. There is a museum in Latin America we are working with now through an individual who approached us. He is a former diplomat and said: I follow your work, are you interested in doing a show?
The cost-sharing is done in several ways. Sometimes the host institution will cover the costs and sometimes we cover all costs. More often than not we cover most of the costs and host institution will cover insurance, hanging, an event, and share costs of publication.
“My favorite decade in Arab art is the 1960s”
For me, my favorite decade in Arab art is the 1960s. In the 50s and 60s, most countries in the region got their independence. National identities were being formed. Even the countries that did not gain independence, like the Gulf states, there was a national identity movement that had started, so the art is so much more interesting for me because it reflects those movements and that’s an interesting time in history.
“The Gulf arts scene is very interesting, especially Saudi Arabia”
The Gulf arts scene is very interesting, especially Saudi Arabia. There are artists like Ahmed Mater, Manal Aldowayan, Abdulnasser Gharem, Rashed Al Shashai, Nasser Al Salem, Lulwa Al Hamoud, [and] Dana Awartani. There’s a lot of great young Saudi artists out there and I was pleased to see they are being appreciated at the highest levels. When the King of Saudi Arabia went to China, the gift he gave the president was Saudi artwork. When Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May, he was taken on a tour of Saudi art, so the Saudis are recognising the importance of the arts scene.
Journalists and scholars come and say there is no modern art in the Gulf. This is absolutely not true – look at artists like Safeya Binzagr, Mounirah Mosly, Abdulhalim Radwi, Jafar Islah, Ibrahim Ismail, [and] Abdulqader Al Rais. There are works dating back from the 50s and 60s in the Gulf. When I see [any] I try to buy it.
The New York “turning point”
The one month I spent in New York in April 2017 influenced me more than the two years I stayed in London. It was really a turning point in my life and personality. It was a vindication of what I’ve been doing the last decade or two, investing in my mind. It was an honour to be invited by such a prestigious institution, to one of the greatest cities in the world, to teach a class I created along with my colleagues. It was a morale boost. I also felt there was a deep interest in Middle Eastern arts, [which] surprised me.
They initially contacted me eight or nine months ago about teaching a class or giving a workshop on social media in the Arab world. I told them, you know, I’m done with social media. I’m more interested in the intersection of art and politics in the Middle East.
And, so, we look at the Arab world, we look at Iran, we look at Armenia, Turkey, and Israel, the art of these countries and how artists reacted to major events whether it was the 1948 creation of Israel, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, or the 1991 Gulf War.
It’s a unique syllabus. It’s a class that as far as I know hasn’t been offered anywhere else.
Meeting the students really influenced me. I made a number of really close friends when I was here and I think it made me feel I was able to live in New York and not merely be a visitor to it.
New York wasn’t merely an experience, it was a revelation. It was a much needed time out of my usual routine. I missed the classroom environment and I spent a lot of time getting reacquainted with myself, who I am deep inside, away from the recognition and distraction of the UAE. I got lost in New York’s anonymity and its impact on me cannot be overstated. I keep thinking to myself how, after New York, nothing – and everything – changed.