Interview with Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi

Collaborated with Art Publication, @artmejo, to interview Sultan Al Qassemi, founder of Barjeel Art Foundation in his Washington home.

ALIA: What story or art piece sparked your passion for Arab art?

ٍSULTAN: So, I divide my interest in art since childhood into three phases: in high school, I learned about World War II and the Guernica taught how art could capture a historic, political moment in history.

The second phase, is my time in Paris as a student where I used to visit the Musée d’Orsay and the Pompidou which had a lot of works which were also political but social as well, more importantly perhaps.

And finally, in around the year 2000, I was visiting an exhibition with my mom and my late father. The exhibition was by this duo artists from Palestine Ismail Shammout and Tamam Al Akhal. That work reflected the Nakba, the Naksa, the displacement that the Palestinians faced. It was really different and special for me to hear someone explain to me these issues.

On Arab Art Movements:

SULTAN: The movement that is unique to the Arab World and to the Middle East is the movement known as the Hurufiyya movement, the Hurufism, or in English Letterism. It’s a movement in which some Arabs, Kurds, Persians and Pakistanis tried to emancipate the letter from the word. They understood and valued the beauty of a letter on its own as an absolute formation.

Other movements from the Middle East are the Saqqakhaneh movement born in Iran. From Kuwait there is Circlism, which was also an abstract movement. Another one I really like was born in the late 60’s to early 70’s in Iraq called the One Dimension. It has a very spiritual aspect to it.

ALIA: I really like this question: what is the female representation in Arab art, relative to men’s?

SULTAN: I would say that women throughout history, especially the 20th century have been undervalued, underappreciated and underrepresented. This is largely because it’s been a man’s world. Although you do have the anomalies.

In the Arab World, I can tell you what a pleasure it’s been for me the past year discovering women artists. Women in the Arab World have really excelled with abstraction. From Huguette CalandSaloua Raouda ChoucairSamia Halaby in Palestine. In Jordan, you have an entire school, from Hind Nasser to WijdanUfemia RizkSuha Shoman.

ALIA: So, with the new exhibition that’s on tour across many universities at the U.S., called Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World. What impact do you think that’s going to have? Is it one of the major exhibitions of Arab art in the U.S.?

SULTAN: This is probably the largest, if not one of the largest, exhibitions of art for the Arab World ever seen maybe anywhere in the West. Its title is Abstraction from the Arab World, because we realized there has never been an exhibition or a book that was dedicated to the Abstract Art history of the Arab World. There were abstract artworks shown as part of a larger exhibition, but there’s never been essays specifically about abstraction in the Arab World. 

Our artists are dying. In the past year, Alia, we have lost Kamal Boullata, we have lost Huguette Caland, we have lost Chant Avedissian. Every time one of these artists dies, their library -which is their mind- is lost with them. So, what can we do to document these histories?

What you’re doing with your project is an essential part. It has to be there for the future, for future generations to research. We really need this to be a concerted effort. 

Credits to @artmejo for video edits, interview transcription, and translations.

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