Winning hearts through the arts
Sheikha Lulu Al-Sabah, the Kuwait-based art journalist who co-founded JAMM - an independent art advisory - is breaking ground in Dubai with the launch of an exciting fashion-centric exhibition. We speak to her about the changing role of art in the Middle East and what needs to change to sustain its growth
Can you tell us about the upcoming exhibition by fashion photographer Michel Haddi?
I tried to find a medium that incorporates fashion and contemporary art. There haven’t been any exhibitions of fashion photography that I’m aware of here. If you look at past fashion photographers, they’re now being sold at auction, so I thought it would be interesting to find someone from our region to help launch our first exhibition in Dubai. Our guture exhibitions will be multi-influenced because that’s what Dubai is about - an intercultural melting pot - so I wanted to capture that.
Where does your passion for the arts stem from?
I was writing for a UK-based art magazine and I had asked the publisher if I could do a special issue on Kuwaiti art and artists. I didn’t know much because I was a history major focusing on the West. It was only after spending three months in Kuwait researching the artists that I realised what great underground work there was in the region. What’s so sad is that there’s no arts curriculum in the public schools. There must be great artists in the making and their talent will either never be acknowledged or never be developed. It’s sad for these kids with talent because either the parents don’t recognise it or give importance to it.
You’ve witnessed the evolution of the Middle East art scene first hand. What do you think has been the biggest change?
I think Dubai has certainly established itself as the heart of the Middle East art scene - just look at the number of art galleries that have opened in the last few years. Now any artist that wants to show internationally has shown in Dubai. There are many different things happening across the region, including political instability, and of course it will affect the art scene. How that’s going to play out, nobody knows. In one sense the art scene is growing and thriving, and one day Arab and Iranian contemporary art will be well represented, but on the other side nobody knows what’s going to happen here and only time well tell.
The art scene in Dubai is still relatively in its infancy. What needs to change?
There needs to be more of an art infrastructure. The number one thing we need is an art school. It’s impossible to sustain yourself with museums and no art schools. We need academies, artist residencies, patronage etc.
There still seems to be a stigma around pursuing art as a profession in the Arab world. What are your thoughts on this?
That’s how it was in the West at one point as well. To be honest I think it’s even harder for a female than a male. What’s very interesting is that a lot of women are in the arts because it’s seen as a safe arena, but ironically you can really instigate a lot of change through the arts. It’s tough because there are so many artists that don’t make it or don’t make enough to sustain themselves financially, and there’s only a select few that make it to that next level, and then there are artists who don’t make it until after they’re dead. In the Arab world, the stigma extends to all of the arts from acting to music. If we celebrated creative minds more, there would be less of a stigma to pursue the arts.
You do a lot of work promoting Middle Eastern artists to the Western world. Why is that so important to you?
There is a global art market and I think it’s important to be recognised in the West, but that doesn’t mean we have to copy the Western way of doing things in terms of how art is shown or the value system. When auctions exhibit more Middle Eastern artists, it raises the level so it’s not seen as a niche market.
How does art build bridges, according to you?
It breaks down stereotypes and increases tolerance. One of the reasons why the West is so interested in Arab and Iranian art is because we’ve dominated the headlines since 2001 and the arts help us understand people. You can argue that the West wasn’t interested in Chinese contemporary art until Tiananmen Square.
What inspires you?
It inspires me when I meet people from this part of the world who are doing interesting and original things. It makes me crazy when I see people being competitive because we’re such a small market so it’s important to collaborate and support each other, not just through contemporary art but across the board. The ‘under 40’ generation are really in tune with what’s going on and I’m really hopeful for the future.
JAMM will host its inaugural exhibition in Dubai featuring the works of French/Algerian photographer Michel Haddi on Sunday, March 18 at Toby Arts, a new art gallery space located in Al-Quoz.
The exhibition will run until March 31 at Toby Arts, Block 1, Warehouse 11, Al Quoz, close to Al Serkal Avenue.
Timings: Sunday-Thursday from 11am to 6pm.