- The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture – Open Calls as of ...
- Meanwhile in Kuwait, RENDEZ-VOUS MASASAM//CAP KUWAIT...
- The Arab Unbound: Tareq de Montfort exhibition in London...
- New article by Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi on the modernity mov...
- Nat Muller on the Arab pavillions in Venice, from the Majall...
Kuwait is a city state ruled since 1756 by the Al Sabah family. The population is estimated at 3.5 million inhabitants, of which 60% are non-Kuwaiti (mostly South Asians, Egyptians and other Arabs). Kuwait has one of the highest GDP per capita rates, and it scores highest of all Arab nations on the Human Development Index. 95% of its exports and 80% of government revenue comes from oil. Kuwaitis are mostly Sunni with a 20-30% minority of Shiites.
From the 1940s through the 1970s Kuwait went through an oil-wealth boom, marked by the country’s independence in 1961 and mostly engineered by expatriate workers and experts, primarily from Palestine, Egypt and Asia. In the 1980s the country got embroiled in regional politics (the Iran-Iraq war, rivalry with Saddam’s Iraq and rising Islamism); the invasion by Iraq in 1990 dealt a heavy blow to Kuwait’s progressive cultural scene.
Although the country has physically and financially overcome the damage wrought on it by the Gulf War, the country’s social make-up will never be the same. For example most Kuwaiti Palestinians – about 25% of the total population before 1990 – left after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, being accused of having sided with Saddam Hussein.
In 2012 Islamist groups gained a majority in parliament, in what is one of the Middle East’s most genuine democratic systems, thus creating a challenging new environment for Kuwait’s liberal society and the arts.
The Kuwaiti Art Scene
Kuwait has the second most lively gallery scene in the Gulf, after Dubai. Nevertheless many observers believe that, while the rest of the Gulf art world is developing rapidly, Kuwait is lagging behind. It has lost the comparative advantage it enjoyed until the 1970s. Many Kuwaitis would like to reverse this trend and recover their previous reputation as a leading country.
The government has always played an important role in the development of Kuwait’s art world, notably through the National Council for Culture, Art and Letters. The NCCAL is in charge of most governmental projects in the field of culture, such as the management of the museums. Although it sometimes appears to have become a conservative, cumbersome bureaucratic organization, recent feats include the establishment of the privately funded landmark ‘Babtayn’ public library for Arabic poetry and the renovation, construction and management of a dozen museums. Among these is the Museum of Modern Art, which contains a selection of paintings from the Arab modernist period (second half of the 20th century); and the National Museum which has two collections on display (archaeology and traditional Kuwaiti life). A large new wing is under construction to house the famous Dar al Athar collection of Islamic art, but apparently no haste is being made to complete the building.
The real drive in Kuwait lies in the private art sector. Several of the scions of the Al Sabah ruling family are famous art collectors, such as Sheikha Hussah and Sheikh Nasser, who own the world-famous Dar al Athar al Islamiyya collection of Islamic art, while Paula al Sabah and her daughter Lulu are into contemporary art, the latter with Jamm Consultancy. Among other important Kuwaiti patrons of contemporary art are Farida Sultan (Sultan Gallery), Amer Huneidi (Contemporary Art Platform) and Rana Sadik of MinRASY projects. These individuals do more than collect art; each of them is involved in initiatives to develop the Kuwaiti art world.
Other galleries of note are Dar-al Funoon, Boushairy, Tilal, and Al M(ashreq). When one looks at the programming of the galleries one is struck by the great variety and rapid turnover of shows in each gallery. There seems to be little effort to curate exhibitions or programs – these seem to be decided on the basis of opportunity or personal relationships between galleries and artists. Most galleries occasionally provide a platform for young artists and non-profit activities.
Artistic Exchange opportunities
Because of the situation described above, both local artists and patrons are very interested in artistic exchange with more developed art scenes. Residencies of foreign artists in Kuwait were mentioned several times as a desirable development, but there are as yet no structures to welcome artists in residence, although the Contemporary Art Platform is planning one. One way in which external agents could help, is by engaging in medium- to long-term projects in Kuwait engaging at least several artists and/or art professionals there. It should not be difficult to find patronage for such projects among the above-mentioned patrons. In the longer term, Kuwaitis also need support in setting up an art educational facility.
Downtown Kuwait is pleasant to walk in, at least between October and March, and at night. The scenery along the long Gulf road – an urban development of the 1990s – makes the walk along the seaside worthwhile. The central souq, in a reconstructed cultural heritage village style, is worth a visit. One can eat very well in its food court (kebab, salad, hummus and fresh bread).
Western travelers generally do not need visas to enter Kuwait. One can apply for a visa at the airport. It costs 3 Kuwaiti dinar and takes up to an hour, depending on how busy it is. Taxi fares are quite standard: 2 dinar for a ride within Kuwait city (the central area), 5 dinar for a ride to the airport. Fares must be negotiated beforehand as meters are not much used. Most taxi drivers do not know the locations of the galleries and museums. The most useful way to find your way is to approach the area you’re going to, and then call the gallery on your mobile (or have the taxi driver call on his) for the final directions. Use this website’s google map directions, it works well on smartphones.
Kuwait, as the rest of the Gulf, is very safe and one need not worry about thievery or aggression
Written by: RobertK