Y Magazine’s historic art event was a raging success as children from all over the Sultanate came together to memorialise His Majesty with their creative talents and celebrate 44 years of peace and prosperity. Deeba Hasan and Matt Blackwell report. Photography by Geoff Cruze
As Aryan Kanchan Shere and Areej Hamood al Busaidi step up to the stage to collect their prize, they blink at the near blinding flash of the dozens of cameras that fill the Afrah ballroom at the Grand Hyatt Muscat, and in that moment, history is made. The two children have been selected as the winners of the first ever “Portrait By A Nation” competition, a momentous event organised to celebrate the occasion of the 44th National Day.
National Day is a special time when every citizen and resident of the country joins hands to commemorate the years of Renaissance and the road of evolution His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said has guided the country along, resulting in a proud and modern nation able to hold its own on the world stage.
When it was first conceived, the idea behind “Portrait By A Nation” was a relatively simple one – to create a lasting tribute to His Majesty as seen through the eyes of his nation’s children. We could think of no better way to celebrate 44 glorious years and unite the community at the same time. And while we suspected that this competition would bring out a sense of pride in all those who reside in Oman, no one could’ve guessed just how big “Portrait By A Nation” would become.
It quickly became clear that we had really fired the imagination of parents and children. A total of 659 children applied to be part of the event and 584 eventually participated, most during two days at the Markaz Al Bahja mall. These were whittled down to 44 finalists who nervously stood at the award ceremony on November 18 to find out whether their portrait had been chosen as one of only four winners. You could almost reach out and touch the excitement and tension in the air. As the names were called out, the applause erupted all around.
Aryan from Bawshar is 10 years old and was selected as the winner of the six to 10 year old age category. Speaking of his win, Aryan said, “I’m very proud. I never thought I would win as all the paintings were so good. I’m going to save some of the money and spend a bit, but I’m not sure on what yet.”
The winner of the 11 to 17 year old age category, Areej Hamood al Busaidi, was equally overwhelmed, saying, “It was really awesome to have won. I thought I might qualify for the finals but I didn’t expect to be the winner.” She will spend the RO500 winnings on some new art materials. Bashaar Khan, nine, and his sister, Soha, seven, also both made it to the final 44. “I’m very happy that I got to the finals,” said Bashaar, while his sister added, “I enjoyed doing my painting and I’m happy.”
Their mother Lubna Yasar said: “I’m so blessed to have such great kids and they did really well. I’m very proud of them. They are miracle children for me, especially my daughter who is so young.” Felicity Glover, Y Magazine’s managing editor, said, “It was just fantastic to see so many young artists taking part. Even though there were only four winners, everybody is a winner in our eyes because they were all so great.” Felicity also had a special announcement to make at the ceremony: “We are looking forward to holding ‘Portrait By A Nation’ next year and it’s going to be bigger and bigger. We are going to introduce a third category so we can widen the appeal.”
What concluded in the Grand Hyatt’s beautiful ballroom actually begin over a month ago, in the middle of October. Y Magazine put a call out to young artists all across the country, urging them to harness their creativity as they completed a pre-printed canvas of His Majesty using any medium of art they wished at a special event to be held the weekend before National Day. The responses came flooding in from Salahlah to Sohar and everywhere in between. The deadline for entry even had to be extended, such was the level of demand.
National pride wasn’t the only reason that children would be taking part though, there was a prize pool on offer too – RO1,500 in total – with RO500 going to the winners of each age category, while the runners up would claim RO250 each. Over the month prior to the event, Y Magazine interviewed the cream of the local art scene, selecting four artists who specialised in a unique style, in order to inspire potential participants with their own life stories, as well as tips, tricks and favourite techniques.
On the eve of National Day, the weekend of November 14-15, the final preparations had been made and the stage was set for the extraordinary event to take place at Markaz Al Bahja mall. Presented by Bank Sohar, in association with Shell Oman Marketing, Jotun Paints Oman and of course the mall itself, Y’s “Portrait By A Nation” began at 4pm on the Friday with the first of five two hour sessions held over the two day period. We had Chris Fisher from Merge 104.8 acting as Master of Ceremonies to provide lighthearted moments. Our youngest competitor was six and the eldest was 17. Children arrived with plastic bags bulging with art materials and their own inventive ideas, including using wool, glitter, pencils and even egg shells as decoration. Some were so small that they were almost dwarfed by the pre-printed canvas handed out by Y and a team of volunteers.
The children taking part in the competition ranged from those with a longstanding interest in creative work to those exploring art for the first time. Whichever camp they belonged to, one thing all children shared was boundless enthusiasm. Arun Halaswamy was there with his six-year-old son, Ishan Arun who attends Indian School Al Ghubra. “It’s Ishan’s first time taking part in a competition like this,” his father says. “The students had a practice session in their school last week, but Ishan also practiced twice before coming here. I think the competition is just wonderful because it helps children explore their talents and show them in public as well.”
At the other end of the spectrum there was six-year-old Hiyam and 10-year-old Haitham, who although young, are already something of old hands when it comes to competitions. Their father Tariq al Hadidi explained, “My children like taking part in such competitions and they are here to celebrate the spirit of National Day. Such competitions make children love the Sultan even more and increase their patriotism towards the nation. This is why I brought them here.”
As the competition got well and truly underway the children’s creativity really began to flow. Out came traditional paints and palette, right through to fabrics, card, cotton wool, rice, lentils and salt. Each session also had designated mentors on hand to offer support and guidance for the budding artists, including Jenni Eden, a celebrated artist whose paintings have graced the walls of Bait al Zubair, Bait Muzna and Al Madina Art Gallery, as well as several private residences. One of the things that impressed Jenni the most was the level of imagination shown by the young contestants. “I think what’s been amazing is that everyone has come from the same playing field, having the same portrait to start with and then seeing the innovative and incredibly creative ways that everybody has approached the task.”
She added: “There is a little girl, she’s only seven years old and she’s been using normal table salt and paint powders to create her portrait. Her level of control and focus has been very impressive. She’s obviously naturally talented and I’ve encouraged her mother to keep that going and make sure it doesn’t get phased out or ignored.”
This idea of phasing out is one of Jenni’s primary concerns as an artist. “Unfortunately with the way education is, a lot of the arts don’t get much attention,” she says, which is why events such as “Portrait By A Nation” are so crucial she argues. “In the Middle East you have a culture that is less keen for the arts. A lot of people want their children to be professionals and go down the route of doctor or lawyer, but art needs to be encouraged everywhere and in any way. We need the creatives, we need the artists and we need the free thinkers because they are the ones who shape and create our futures.”
This was echoed by the parent of a child taking part who said that his daughter had entered several art events while living in Qatar, but that this was the first time the family had come across one in Oman. Mahria Saqib, assistant marketing manager at Jotun Paints Oman, one of the sponsors said, “It’s history in the making. This kind of initiative has never been undertaken before in Oman on such a huge scale.”
Mazin Mahmood al Raisi, assistant general manager, head of marketing and publicity at Bank Sohar also agrees that the event should become a regular fixture. “Always the first time you learn from it,” he says. “You can look at the positive points and how to build on that and if there are any weaknesses you can learn how to overcome them for next time. From the response, I think this should be something that continues.”
Matthew Herbst, graduate in art, exhibited artist and photographer and Y Magazine’s art director was also one of the mentors. “An event like this in conjunction with National Day brings unity and also encourages the younger folk to bring out something that maybe their parents didn’t even know they had,” he said.
As the second day of sessions came to an end, more than 250 canvases had been collected, which joined others painted at special events held at Bank Sohar branches around the Sultanate for those who couldn’t make the journey to the capital. The fate of the young artists now lay with the panel of six judges.
Made up of art experts and representatives from Y Magazine as well as the event’s sponsors, they had the weighty responsibility of whittling hundreds of hopefuls down to just 44 and from those, selecting two winners and two runners-up.
As he entered Markaz Al Bahja, shortly before the end of the final session Burair al Lawati from Shell Oman Marketing said, “When I saw the portrait for the first time, I thought that you could colour it, but when I saw the children doing such creative stuff – using different techniques, bringing in different elements and materials, I was amazed. They are all so young but I love their imaginations and I’m looking forward to the judging.” Mr al Lawati added, “We always look forward to supporting these kinds of educational initiatives especially at an event like this one, where art and education come together, it’s a perfect combination to help children to have a sense of belonging to the community.”
Speaking just before he rejoined his fellow judges to make the final decision, Ibrahim Gailani, one of Oman’s well-known artists spoke about how hard he expected it to be when it came down to choosing. “It’s going to be a tough decision because I have seen some really great works. There have been many techniques used and we’ll be looking for something that stands out.”
The final 44 portraits chosen by the judges were then collated and spread onto a larger canvas, acting as a giant collage of the many faces of His Majesty. This larger piece of artwork will be on display for the duration of the country’s National Day celebrations. The children’s art is also on display at Markaz Al Bahja until November 27. Open to the public, the artwork will be available to buy in person or online. The proceeds of the sale will be given to each of the child artists.
This will be your chance to own a unique piece of history and be part of something really special this National Day. And for the children who took part in “Portrait By A Nation”, we hope it will be a memorable moment in their lives that stays with them into adulthood.