Astronomical amounts of money —as much as $300 million for a single painting — have been paid for works of art around the world, but the art market in the Sultanate presents uninspiring tales of struggle by Omani artists who find few takers even when their labour of love is offered at bargain prices. Hasan Ali Shaban Al Lawati talks to local artists to find out why art is so damned cheap here and how they are forced to look elsewhere for appreciation.
Young Omani artists are travelling abroad to sell and promote their works, citing lack of appreciation for visual arts in the Sultanate.
Some of the emerging artists said they ended up spending more than they made from their artworks.
“The local art market is almost non-existent. Owning art is seen as an unnecessary luxury rather than an investment,” conceptual artist Raiya Al Rawahi said.
“Since arts are generally overlooked and under-developed in the country, the culture of collecting [art] is not embedded in the local collective consciousness,” she added.
“I am aware that local artists can make greater profit in terms of money and exposure when selling their artwork abroad,” she said.
“There is a growing gap between the local perception of art by the average individual and what art actually is. I believe that the starting point is rousing curiosity in order to encourage learning about the arts not just by students but the general public as well,” she suggested.
Al Rawahi said “a society cannot be expected to value what they are unfamiliar with.”
She explained that once the appreciation and understanding of art are present, contributions by patrons would offer financial support, resources and skills for the art scene to grow and flourish over the years.
Echoing her, film director Mohammed Husam Al Kindi said: “Artists do eventually start selling their works outside Oman because it is not very common here to buy exclusive signed images. People would rather buy random prints of an apple or a wave instead of researching an image and know more about its story.”
“In Oman, the ideology is very programmed against accepting full-time artists,” he added.
Al Kindi decided not to take a job in Oman but, instead, he has been working on a number of film, photography and other art exhibitions in Saudi Arabia, Europe and the United States.
“Art in Oman, in general, needs a push forward. The biggest issue we face is that the youth are alone and the government is alone. I think the authorities should involve more local artist in local project,” he said.
Asked if it was too early to be a full-time artist in Oman, Al Kindi replied: “It is rather very late. Art gives voice to Oman. I meet a lot of people during my foreign exhibitions who ask me about my country and show interest in visiting it. I think art is an industry people did not hit yet in Oman.”
Young artist Sarah Ahmed said: “I feel that the reason why so many Omani artists are selling their work abroad is simply the fact that the locals were not exposed to it much in the past.”
Anas Al Dheeb, award-winning photographer, voiced his frustration over the lack of appreciation of art in Oman.
“The biggest problem here is that artists are not doing art as a full-time job. Treating art as just a hobby stops them from developing their skills and knowledge,” he added.
“What is being sold here for RO50 can be easily sold for RO450 in a neighbouring country,” he explained, encouraging art bodies in Oman to support local artists through teaching them what the market needs and how they can promote themselves.
He said he once sold a photo for RO800 in the UAE and when the same piece was displayed in Oman, he tried selling it for RO120. “Even then it was not bought,” he said.
Murtadha Al Lawati, Director of Ghaliya Museum, presents another take on the subject. “Art is relatively new to Oman. The government only showed a real interest in developing young artists in the 1980s, but has not since then been able since to drive society into buying artworks,” he said.
“There are between 30 to 40 houses being built in Oman every month, house owners spend fortunes buying furniture but seldom spend a penny to purchase a painting,” Al Lawati said.
“Due to cultural and perhaps religious reasons, people are still reluctant to support art in Oman.”
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“A good example of supporting local artists is the Stal Gallery’s annual Young Emerging Artists Prize,” Al Rawahi said.
“It offers its space and resources to ten young and exceptionally talented Omani artists through an open call. The freedom given to artists facilitates the production of avant-garde and experimental artworks,” she said.
Sarah Ahmed agrees with her.
“I just have to point out how amazing the Stal Gallery has been doing which I can honestly say is life saving. It’s an amazing space…I can’t wait to see it grow and many more spaces just like it in the near future.”
Omani artist Rawan Al Mahrouqi, who exhibited her works in London’s Menier Gallery said that “Art is a very powerful tool that Oman isn’t utilising as best we can,”
“If we had the same exposure in Oman as we get in Dubai we would be able to sell our work easier perhaps. It is true nowadays we have internet and that goes a long way. But art galleries, journalists and curators play a big role in helping the process,” she said.
However, emerging artists are not waiting for authorities to recognise their works. “I am very happy to see young Omani artists creating their own movement and taking matters in their own hands. Independent events are being organised by artists for artists. It is lovely to see!” Al Mahrouqi added.