Sharjah Art Museum: 25 years of making art speak

The first and oldest purpose-built museum in the UAE has been a pivotal pillar of the art scene in the country and region


Sherouk Zakaria

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Published: Sat 30 Apr 2022, 3:07 PM

Last updated: Sat 30 Apr 2022, 3:19 PM

For over two decades Sharjah Art Musuem has positioned itself as one of the most prominent cultural and art destinations locally, regionally and internationally, while providing a platform for local artists to showcase their talent.

Unlike classical and contemporary Western artists whose masterpieces find display for the world to see and admire, thousands of artists across the Middle East have long produced their works of art in silence and without recognition.

The museum which is celebrating its milestone silver jubilee this year was established with the aim of bringing Arab artistic talent to light - and one can say it has been doing that spendidly over the years. Manal Ataya, Director-General of Sharjah Museums Authority, told Khaleej Times: “It places Arab artists on the global map. Visitors get a glimpse of the region’s rich arts ecosystem that is otherwise unknown.”

The museum, which opened its doors in 1997, has been a pillar of the art scene in the country and region. With entry free, it houses dynamic expressions of Arab and international artists showcased through 300+ artworks across 64 halls.

Located in the traditional Arts Square in Al Shuwaiheen area, the museum is surrounded by heritage buildings which combine to give visitors an authentic experience of Sharjah’s rich history and culture. Besides organising temporary exhibitions, the building, which consists of two wings interconnected by two passageways over an interior street, displays an impressive permanent collection of Arab modern art including works by artists such as Abdulqader Al Rais, Louay Kayali, Mona Saudi, Najat Mekky, Bashir Sinwar and Faiq Hassan, among others.

It also has a permanent gallery with highlights from the renowned orientalist collection of His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah.

Through the works of emerging and established artists, visitors can also get a glimpse into the development of the artistic movement in the Arab region through selected artworks from the collection of Barjeel Art Foundation on display at the museum.

Supporting facilities like the Emirates Fine Arts Society, which was established in the surrounding area in 1980, boosted the status of the museum as a meeting point for artists, experts, academic faculty and researchers.

“Artists from all over the region met and shared their ideas at a time when art was still growing and maturing in the region. This heritage area served as one of the earlier platforms for artists to flourish,” said Ataya.

Later in 2011, the annual ‘Lasting Impressions’ exhibition series was also launched to feature the works of the Arab region’s most distinguished artists.

“Many of these Arab artists’ practice spans decades, however they have yet been given the opportunity to have a retrospective that showcases their work. The space we provide contributes to exposure for the artist and introduces their talent to the UAE and the world,” added Ataya.

The museum has always been part of the large-scale contemporary art exhibition - Sharjah Biennial, and also hosts the annual Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival which is organised by Sharjah Department of Culture.

Equal representation

With an increased exposure to artists, Sharjah Arts Authority is now eyeing equal representation for both genders in the field.

“We are focusing on highlighting the works of more women in the field and boosting diversity and giving exposure to underrepresented categories in the art scene,” stressed Ataya.

By bridging academic links, Sharjah Museums Authority aims to enrich the online research corpus on Arab artists, placing the museum as an important educational resource for researchers and university students.

Ataya said: “One of the biggest challenges facing the art scene in the Middle East is the absence of credible academic content on Arab artists, especially when compared to the West.”

The galleries, exhibitions and publications at the museum provide university faculties and students with rich primary research resources and archives.

By hosting artists, the museum looks to inspire interest among researchers to tackle different forms of art, under the broader objective to make regional art as accessible as possible.

Ataya said: “Art is the mirror of humanity and a visual documentation of the social and political life of any country. It should be the channel through which we introduce our story to the rest of the world.”

“The museum plays a critical part in the journey to open the door for people to learn. Over the years, it has the impetus of major art business deals, academic publications, and public awareness on different forms of art,” she added.

The museum’s library offers more than 5,000 Arabic and English books related to artists and art history as well as other genres such as design, photography, sculpture and architecture.

A place for everyone

Establishing the museum as an inclusive space is another key focus, as the facility continues to hold an annual series of dynamic free programmes that include activities, discussion sessions, and interactive workshops targeting families and children, while also regularly organizing various community programmes that are specifically designed for children with disabilities.

On the museum’s 25th anniversary, Ataya said the authority renews its pledge “to support Arab artists and dedicate efforts to provide them with greater exposure through exhibitions and publications. We are also committed to our audience of families and school children ensuring they have the opportunity to learn about art and enhance their creativity through workshops and other programmes.”


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