Following the tragic death of Sarah White (pictured), the arts advisor and museum director of the Bait Al Zubair Foundation, Joe Gill asks whether Oman’s artists are now ready to take on the world
A young graphic artist steps up to the podium at Bait Al Zubair. She points to the screen where images of Omani-style comic art appear in quick succession. She has just a few minutes to get across to her hip and happening audience just why this work matters – the applause says they totally get it.
Across town at the Opera Galleria, the cream of high society is gathering for the opening of a prestigious exhibition at the Bait Muzna Opera Galleria. Cameras flash as a royal guest enters to greet the young artist, watched by foreign dignitaries and members of Oman’s cultural elite.
It’s just another night in Muscat, where new art exhibitions – from the most abstract of paintings to the latest 3-D animation, often but not always by well-known local artists, are unveiled every week.
Is this artistic blossoming just a bubble for local audiences, or is something of wider cultural significance unfolding?
Flash back 40 years. It’s 1971. Young artist Anwar Sonya returns to the Sultanate with his family after growing up in Bahrain.
“There weren’t any art places in Oman at that time. There was no Oman Society for Fine Arts, no galleries,” he recalls. “My family moved to Bahrain for work, there was nothing here, no work, no way to live. May be there were 10 or 12 artists in the country. Now there are thousands.”
A lot has changed in four decades. Sonya, who recently exhibited his work at Bank of Beirut, is part of a generation of pioneering artists who helped bring Oman’s artistic talents to the world stage. “I began painting in Bahrain where I lived with my family. Many of my friends were artists and musicians, they were all artistic people and we helped each other.
“At that time I started to paint. I wasn’t painting for money, just for myself. People didn’t know abstract painting at that time – it is only now that they have come to like it.”
Maryam Al Zadjali, director of the Omani Society for Fine Arts, was one of a handful of artists involved in the Youth Studio, the first government-backed organisation that supported artists in the Sultanate.
“At that time we were a small group. Anwar taught me at the art studio, how to use oils, mix colours, use brushes and everything,’ she says. “He has done a lot for Omani arts, giving lessons daily for beginners and passing on his skill and experience.”
She feels his is an example to follow. “It’s very important that artists who have been supported in the their work should give something back to the country, and pass their experience on to the new generation.”
“The times are changing,” says Sonya, one of the few Omani artists who compete on the international art market. “Many Europeans buy my work now. My paintings have been exhibited all over Europe and the Gulf. Sometimes they come to the Bait Muzna Gallery or the Society for Fine Arts and they see my work and they ask for it.”
All styles and genres of art can be seen in Oman, says resident art expert Dr Patricia Groves. “Nevertheless, the current global trend is toward abstract and abstract expressionist art, especially contemporary pieces on large canvasses – and Oman is no exception.”
For Dr Groves, the turning point for Omani arts was the exhibitions of works by The Circle group of artists in 2000.
“The Circle artists, predominantly but not exclusively Omani or Gulf Arab, included figures such as Anwar Sonja, Hassan Meer, Budoor Al Riyami and Austrian artist Sini Coreth,” says Dr Groves. “Experimental and innovative, the Circle exhibitions created a great deal of excitement and gave a huge boost to the confidence and courage of local artists.
“Many Omani artists were invited to exhibit abroad through the embassies, personal connections and the Muscat Festival. A few Muscat artists have gone abroad to live and study or work, returning here to give exhibitions – notably Radhika Khimji and Latifah Al Said.”
With limited formal exhibition space for artists, two of Muscat’s leading galleries – Bait Al Zubair and Bait Muzna – have found innovative ways to showcase the talent of the country’s artists.
“With Mohammad Al Zubair and Sarah White, the Bait Al Zubair Foundation led the way in promoting local art by providing international exposure of local artists to visitors from around the world at the prime location of Barr Al Jissah, as well as later in the refurbished Al Bustan Palace Hotel,” says Dr Groves.
“The Bait Muzna Gallery also began to work with corporations to hang the art of local artists in offices, hotels and public spaces…Bait Muzna extended its reach to embrace global events like Art AbuDhabi and Art Dubai. Works by outstanding Muscat artists began to sell at international prices.”
More recently, Bait Muzna’s director Monique Helou has sought out new exhibition spaces for Omani artists such as the Bank of Beirut in Ghubra, while Bait Muzna’s second gallery opened at Opera Galleria.
While these efforts have undoubtedly created a buzz around the work of Oman’s artists, there are some who feel that this is just a first step to raising the standard of Omani arts to a level that can compete on the world stage.
Paul Doubleday, the British Council’s director in Oman, was a close friend of Sarah White, who died last month aged 45 due to surgical complications.
Together, they worked on numerous projects including a series of arts management courses, the Out of Britain exhibition, as well as working with the Oman Society for Fine Arts where Sarah, as a practising artist, would engage in workshops and seminars.
“Sarah and I had a lot in common,” Doubleday explains. “We both worked in the cultural sector, Sarah ran a similar scale operation, we had a similar organisational approach to arts and culture, which is a different approach to a business one. We had a common vision organizationally with that of the Bait Al Zubair Foundation; that is to promote contemporary art in Oman.”
One of the successful projects that came out of their co-operation was PechaKucha Muscat, a network of young artists working in mediums from graphic art, photography to video that showcases work at regular gatherings in the city.
Among the diplomatic community, it isn’t just the British Council that has promoted arts in Oman.
“The Embassies of India and Pakistan have regularly held major exhibitions of contemporary art featuring some of their premier artists,” says Dr Groves.
Malik Hinai, the director of Bait al Baranda, has played a major role in developing arts in the capital, including running the Muscat Festival. This year the festival featured international arts luminaries and performers, and, at the initiative of the head of Muscat Municipality, HE Sultan Al Harthi, next year there will be a separate Art Festival.
Through Bait Al Baranda, Al Hinai has worked with others to develop the skills and confidence of Omani artists. “Our focus is mainly on students and the very young. I also encourage artists to come forward and assist in the creation of an arts movements, dedicate their time towards children and teach them the various forms of art,” says Al Hinai.
“We have introduced the Muscat Art Festival as a platform for the exact purpose of bringing artists together. We bring to Oman renowned artists to speak and conduct workshops for the local artists and students and we would like them in time to pass on their expertise to the young ones.”
Video artist Abdullah Al-Sulaimi, who specialises in video montage and working in the non-profit sector, says the opportunities for multimedia artists to receive training and reach audiences is greater than ever. “However, artists need more support and exposure through exhibitions and to participate in international festivals and workshops, so that their work can reach the international market,” he says.
Doubleday says the main challenges facing Omani arts is the lack of studio and exhibition space for artists and the fact that Oman does not have an arts school, meaning Oman’s artists must travel abroad to study art. “A lot of the leading artists here have studied in America or India, while others have gone to London, Paris or Florence.
“The number of internationally recognized Omani artists is not that great and there is a bit of a gap between those and the next generation who have not had that international training and wider influence,” Doubleday says. “Saying that, the talent in Oman is amazing.”
Patricia Groves agrees. “Although it has come a long way in a short period of time, Oman’s art scene is still in an early developmental stage.
“Two essential ingredients are missing – one is a College of Art and the other is a National Art Gallery, although the soon-to-be-opened Sultan Qaboos Higher Centre for Culture and Science will include the latter.”
Innate talent is not in short supply, however. “The arts scene in Oman, even though there is very little formal training, is incredibly vibrant,” says Doubleday. “Partly because it is a very beautiful country, so the things you can paint or photograph are amazing.
“However a lot of work can be quite derivative and this is why we have been trying to open the eyes of artists here to other schools of creativity.”
Dr Groves says it generally takes at least two decades for a generation of artists to mature. “The efflorescence witnessed over the past decade and a half is not so much marked by a new generation as it is by the blooming and expansion of the current generation – so, in a sense, the old generation is the new one.”
She adds: “It should be borne in mind that the supported development of visual art in Oman began just three decades ago with the establishment of the Youth Studio by the Ministry of Heritage and Culture in 1980.”
Other state-backed arts institutions followed, including the OSFA, which opened in 1993. In the absence of an arts school, the Society funds a limited amount of art teaching by professional artists.
Sonya is one of those who teach art and also runs workshops for arts education teachers at the society and receives a small salary. “I teach painting to anyone who wants to learn,” he says. “If they come to me I will teach them, not for money. I never ask for money. They just pay for the colours and canvass. I’ve been teaching in Muscat, Nizwa, Ibri, Salalah for three to four years now.”
The good news for Omani artists is that new studio space is opening. Hassan Meer, an internationally renowned Omani artist, is building a residency and a gallery space in Muscat, following a British Council-supported residency at the Delfina Foundation in the UK.
Also, there are rumours, not yet confirmed, that the Muscat Municipality together with Bait Al Baranda are looking to create a residency space based on a similar project in Abu Dhabi. However, Malik Al Hinai said there was “nothing concrete” in development at this time.
For Sonya, the prospects for Omani artists are on the rise. “If you go back to the ‘70s and ‘80s there were just 10-20 artists. Nowadays artists want to go deeper, to see different kinds of work, to see where is our place in the world.
“I think in 10 years Oman will evolve to a new level of appreciation of art, the market will develop as people come to love and care for art.”
White’s role in helping to raise the flag of Omani art is universally recognised by artists and creative leaders in Oman. Al Hinai says she has left a “fantastic legacy”, while her passing has left a “void” for him personally. “Sarah White was a great artist,” says Sonya. “We loved her, we miss her. She was a good, good friend. We respected her. It’s too sad – we are shocked about what happened to her. She supported all the Omani artists. She was very kind.
“May be in the future someone can come and help Oman’s artists like Sarah did. We don’t know.”
There are artists then there are people who make money from art. Here’s Y’s tips for buying valuable art.
To start with, look at who is selling well at the international art fairs, such as Abu Dhabi Art Fair, Art Dubai, or MenasArt in Beirut. Bait Al Muzna publicizes the artists whose work it has sold.
GO FOR PRINTS
If you can’t afford the originals, one can always go for prints of the original. You need to be aware of how many prints have been made and whether the prints are made of materials that will stand the test of time.
TALK TO DEALERS
Ask the dealers how many of the prints have been sold, which can be a good indication of how affordable they are. Also prints signed by the artist will tend to preserve their value better – but will cost more.
BUY WHAT YOU LIKE
The bottom line is buying art is not a guaranteed money maker. It’s hard to know what will happen to the value of your painting or print, so make sure you buy something you actually like. The odds are, others will like it too.