Islamic Lifestyle 

A historic exchange: UAE’s Barjeel curates first exhibition of Arab modern art to take place in Iran

| 25 October, 2016 | General
 Siobhan Forshaw
A historic exchange: UAE’s Barjeel curates first exhibition of Arab modern art to take place in Iran
Scene dans le Parc by Marguerite Nakhla, b. Egypt / Oil on canvas, 50 X 70 cm, c. 1940s / Courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation

The first show in Iran dedicated to Modern Arab art will open at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) next month. Curated from a collection of Modern works from the UAE-based Barjeel Art Foundation, The Sea Suspended ‘seeks to explore an important era of Arab art history which emerged in a period of intense social change’. Salaam Gateway spoke to Karim Sultan, curator at the Barjeel Art Foundation, to learn more about the exhibition.

What if you could suspend the cultural, political and geographical boundaries that separate and confine us? What if the sea that would drown you became solid, allowing you to walk across and greet your neighbours? In bringing Arab Modernism to Tehran, The Sea Suspended imagines such a meeting, and extends a historical invitation to reflect on a shared modern heritage.


Inaugurated in 1977, just two years before the Revolution, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is widely credited with housing the most important – certainly the most expensive – collection of Western art outside Europe and the United States.

Largely assembled by American curators David Galloway and Donna Stein under the patronage of Farah Pahlavi, the former Queen and Empress of Iran, the collection was segregated from public view after 1979, remaining hidden in storage for a full two decades before selected pieces were displayed again.

Still rarely exhibited, the collection will take a historic step in December this year, when certain pieces will travel to Berlin to be shown outside Iran for the first time.

When considering the original collection, a dialogue emerges between the Iranian and Western work. Thus, Warhol, Picasso and Bacon share the walls with calligrapher Reza Mafi, painter Farideh Lashai, painter and sculptor Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and illustrator Ardeshir Mohasses.

This relationship is evidenced perhaps most powerfully in the building itself; whilst prominent Iranian architect Kamran Diba’s design draws clear visual references from sculptural architecture made famous by buildings like New York’s Guggenheim, light enters the galleries through windows that reference wind-catchers, a ubiquitous air cooling structure found throughout the Middle East.

Composition by Dia Azzawi, b. Iraq / Painting, Oil on jute on board, 58 X 53 cm, 1980 / Courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation


By a strange quirk of chance, the Barjeel Art Foundation takes its own name from the Arabic word for ‘wind tower’, from which we infer the circulation of ideas, alongside a connotation of art as a palliative antidote to political heat.

Karim Sultan told Salaam Gateway that “during these turbulent times, we are looking to the past to find precedence, context, patterns”. Indeed, several of the most recent Barjeel exhibitions reveal a will to historicise; the curatorial philosophy resting on the Hobsbawmian idea that eras are defined by the passage of significant events, rather than the arbitrary notion of time as delineated by decade or century.

In the accompanying text from Barjeel’s recent exhibition at the Sharjah Museum, The Short Century, the curators note that, “This era was witness to the most violent wars, the largest human migrations, the rapid expansion of cities, the dominance of mechanised industry, and the rapid rise, conflict, and collapse of expansive ideologies that underpinned them”.

In the current moment, parallels emerge between today’s society and that of ‘the short century’, as we witness unprecedented global migrations alongside a rapidly warming planet, the growing dominance of technology and the insufficient legal frameworks to bind its powers.

The historicising impulse manifests again in a newly opened exhibition at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah. Whilst the focus is less overtly political, Beloved Bodies again uses the scope of the Barjeel Foundation collection as a tool to survey depictions of the body within Arab art.

As in the Modernist period, artists across the Middle East continue to flock to the diaspora, as well as to make and show work domestically. Sultan acknowledges the “current focus on contemporary Arab art in the West”, and the responsibility for the Barjeel Art Foundation to engage in more local dialogues about shared heritage.

Untitled by Abdul Qader Al Rais, b. UAE / Oil on canvas, 64 X 75 cm, c. 1970 / Courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation 


The Sea Suspended are words extracted from one of Mahmoud Darwish’s lengthiest poems, Mural. The longer text, frequently described as a masterpiece, imagines a life after death, the speaker musing about place, time and memory. In translation, the phrase sounds almost identical in Arabic and Farsi; a fleeting linguistic link to suspend boundaries.

Speaking to The Sea Suspended as a dialogue, Majid Mollanorouzi, Director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, gave this statement (pdf): “Art is important in that it allows experiences to be shared, even across the boundaries of language or culture. This is even more significant when we work together with organisations from the region, such as the Barjeel Art Foundation. Hosting this diverse collection of Arab art­­ and exhibiting it to the Iranian public will allow us to share the region’s modern heritage. It also allows for a unique dialogue between two institutions that hold a common passion for bringing art to the public, which we hope will continue.”

The search for similarity in place of difference recalls one of the most important political movements during the twentieth century that provided the milieu for most of the works on display in The Sea Suspended: the advocacy for political union between Arab states.

The tenets of pan-Arabism arose in part as a response to the global decline of European imperialism and empire, and the emergent political ideologies that ensued  – often coloured by socialist principles – are evident in paintings like Hamed Ewais’ La Gardien de la Vie. Painted between 1967-8, the revolutionary figure – dressed in farming garb with a grimly resolute expression – is exalted as protector of the humble everyday. Representations of labour and domesticity, exemplified by Saliba Douaihy’s Milking the Cow (undated: circa 1940s) are frequent themes throughout the exhibition.

The impulse to self-determine witnessed during the twentieth century found echoes in the regional wave of revolutionary action that defined the Arab Spring, when tensions between the role of the individual and of the collective in politics became a global concern.

The role of the individual artist in society is repeatedly questioned throughout the exhibition, and the fact that many artists were patronised by the state to study in European institutions further blurs the lines between political and artistic modernism during the twentieth century.

Sultan remarks (pdf) on the selection of works “by theme and region demonstrates the multiple approaches to artmaking in modern conditions by artists from diverse backgrounds.”

He continued, “Modernity did not begin at one point and end in another in history – instead, it begins and ends in different places, overlapping and emerging from different scenarios, pressures, and conflicts, and different sets of influences.”


Sultan  goes on to point out that some of the most important modern and contemporary Iranian artists are represented by galleries based in the Gulf region, but that there remains a relative lack of response in the exchange, despite significant recent exhibitions like Spheres of Influence, held at the Mohsen Gallery earlier this year.

Restoring balance relates also to the need to reinsert Arab artists into the global history of art. Organisations like AMCA (the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran and Turkey) are pioneering new scholarship to disrupt the established canon that privileges white, male artists.

The Sea Suspended works in tandem with these aims, both in broadening the available narrative and seeking to strengthen new connections with audiences. This political charge “certainly forms the subtext of the exhibition,” asserts Sultan; “examining these works in their context pushes a new complexion onto the concept of globalisation, perceived to be such a recent movement, but so alive during the development of modernism.”

The Sea Suspended opens on November 8th and runs until December 23rd

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