The Barjeel Art Foundation: Imperfect Chronology – Debating Modernism II @ The Whitechapel Gallery

The Barjeel Art Foundation

In 2010 the Barjeel Art Foundation was opened, a museum and cultural institution in the United Arab Emirates created to manage, preserve and exhibit the personal art collection of Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi.

Last December the first of four exhibitions opened at the Whitechapel Art Gallery next to Aldgate tube, showcasing highlights from the BAF collection. As the wall panel reminds us, the 22 nations of the Arab League are home to some 350 million people (same population as the USA). The aim is that the exhibitions, as a whole, will tell the story of Arab art over the past hundred years. It will feature over 100 paintings by 60 artists.

This is the second instalment – on show until 17 April 2017 – and it explores the development of abstract and figurative art in the twenty years after the fateful Six-Day War in 1967.

The first instalment featured forty oil paintings in one medium sized room. This one has only 24 paintings and immediately feels more relaxed and accessible.

The paintings

But as with part one, it still feels like a very mixed bunch, with all kinds of styles and subject matter hanging side by side. Again, it was difficult to get an overall view.

Central to the room is this large painting by Syrian artist Marwan. I thought it was a novel and interesting way to depict the human figure and face. Not much emotion. The oddity of being human.

The Three Palestinian Boys by Marwan Kassab Bachi (1970) Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

The Three Palestinian Boys by Marwan Kassab Bachi (1970) Barjeel Art Foundation

Marwan had been represented in the first show by two of his characteristic, very big lampoon portraits, distortions, caricatures, Munif al-Razzaz (1965) and Der Gemahl (1966), now this. He is still alive and a quick google search shows that his later style changed out of all recognition since then.

Five silk screens from the 1980s by the influential artist Kamal Boullata (born Jerusalem) based on Islamic calligraphy – which is traditionally curled and flowing – abstracted and turned into geometric designs. I didn’t massively like them but they were the most distinctive works here. The Visitor Assistant in the room explained how Arabic letters had been reduced to primal elements, and also that they play with Islamic tenets, hence ‘There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’’, an obvious play on the basic Muslim creed, There is no God but God.

La Ana Illa Ana (There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’) by Kamal Boullata (1983) Silkscreen. Image Courtesy of Meem Gallery. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

La Ana Illa Ana (There Is No ‘I’ But ‘I’) by Kamal Boullata (1983) Silkscreen. Image Courtesy of Meem Gallery. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

Dia Al-Azzawi (b.1939), Iraq’s most influential artist, also featured in the first show with the powerful Mask of the Pretenders. He was a co-founder of the New Visions group in Baghdad but fled the regime in 1976 and settled in London. Here we have three works (only two of which I can find online):

  • Untitled 1976
  • Composition 1980 Maybe my favourite piece in the show. I liked the ragged outline of the work, made of two sections as if cut out by scissors, the way the tongue of colour hangs down at the bottom, and yet it is all finished with a strong sense of design and colour.

Azzawi is obviously a big figure with a major career and a large body of interesting work, but that doesn’t come across here, you have to visit his websites to see this.

Sulemein Mansour (Palestine 1947) – Olive field

Abdul Qader Al Rais (United Arab Emirates) Untitled (1970). Surely this is very bad, the kind of thing you see lined up against the railings of London parks to be flogged off to undiscriminating tourists.

Walid Shami (b. Syria 1949) – Maryam 1972

Hamed Nada (Egypt) – Fortune teller and cat Superficially scratchy and angley like George Grosz, but really something different.

Tayseer Barakat (b. Palestine 1959) – Untitled 1983

Fateh al-Moudarres (Syria 1922-96) – Al-Wahesh wal Muskeen, 1987. A red dog on the left is menacing some blue meanies in the centre.

Abdelkader Guermaz (Syria 1919-96) – Rêve 1975

Miloud Labeid (Morocco) Composition 1973

Shafic Abboud (Lebanon 1926-2004) – Relief 1977

Farid Belkahia (Morocco 1934-2014) – Aube

Huguette (b. Lebanon 1931) A very well known Arab woman artist, apparently. According to the wall label she is ‘drawn to nuanced representations of her own body’, and Erotic composition ‘focuses on the sensitivity of her own body.’ Compare and contrast with the women photographing their own naked bodies at Tate Modern’s Performing for the camera exhibition, from the same time (late 60s, early 70s).

  • City II (1968)
  • Erotic composition (1967) Googling this, you find out it’s only one of scores of similar drawings and paintings which refer very allusively to the body. Would have been nice to see a series of them to put them in the context of her work.

Jafar Islah (b. Kuwait 1946) – Colour with black and grey (1968)

Ibrahim el-Salahi (b. Sudan 1930) In the present, 1987. One of the leading figures in Arab and African modernism, el-Salahi mingles traditional and Western depictions of the human figure. Like so many of these artists, he left his homeland and settled in England in the 1990s. Again, googling this image, I discovered there are scores more done in the same style. Displayed on its own it looks isolated and inexplicable. Set in the context of lots of other images done in the same style would help you understand how it is a complete way of seeing.

Hassan Sharif (b. UAE 1951) – Man, 1980


It’s not a great exhibition, and only worth visiting for a few pieces (the Marwan, Boullata’s silks, the Dia al-Awazzi). Basically, for making a detour upstairs if you were visiting the Whitechapel anyway, for the Electronic Superhighway show. Mostly it looks like the undistinguished kind of provincial modernism my parents used to buy as posters or framed prints from Ikea in the 1970s. Lots of brown.

In conversation with the Visitor Assistant, we agreed we’d both seen more interesting, in fact some dazzling work, by some of the artists on display here. Most of the pleasure has come from googling these artists and discovering a world of achievement. It’s only by doing this that I’ve discovered how eminent (and great) some of them are.

Which leads to two thoughts:

  1. Four consecutive shows spread over the year, each dedicated to one of the obviously major artists here, would have had more impact. ‘An Arab Year’ would have been a real event. Tricky to choose which four, though…
  2. Maybe the Barjeel foundation, no matter how good its intentions, in fact only has a very average collection. Maybe what we’re seeing here is a misleadingly second-rate snapshot of Arab art, for the sake of comprehensiveness including works which are definitely not up to snuff, and even of the leading figures like Marwan or Dia Al-Azzawi only showing very average examples.

It’s whetted my appetite to see more of the better artists, just got to figure out where…

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1 Comment

  1. Jose L. De Juan

     /  March 18, 2016

    I find i t interesting that artists from these regions can actually come to England and re-establish themselves (aka , make a living from their art). I would love to know how that is logistically possible at all considering whatever currency they bring with them or provide for their galleries might be eroded greatly by life in the UK, not to mention the problems related to finding studio space, living quarters and a clientèle that has not heard from them.


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