A digital art museum is spotlighting the influence of female power in the evolution of Arab art

Shaistha Khan/Dubai
Filed on June 24, 2021

Two Emirati sisters are have opened Arab Gulf region’s first dedicated online museum to promote the work of female GCC artists

An Art Market report highlights that the median price for female artists’ work in the Middle East and Africa is 11 per cent less than that of male artists. Furthermore, the work of female artists’ accounts for only 36 per cent share of major permanent collections in the region. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, “women continue to remain dramatically under-represented and undervalued in museums, galleries, and auction houses”.

The Khaleeji Art Museum, the Arab Gulf region’s first dedicated online museum to promote the work of GCC artists, hopes to lead by example, disrupting this gender disparity in the art world. Founded in 2020, the digital art museum hosts exhibitions and galleries that display the works of emerging and established Arab artists. Some of their previous exhibitions have been: Ramadan in Quarantine, Khaleejis in the time of Corona, and a digital gallery that was projected on the 36-storey building of the Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City (DFC).

Founded by Emirati sisters, Manar and Sharifah Al Hinai, the museum is also the first in the region to be formed, developed and curated by an all-women team. “Worldwide, female artists have voiced a gender disparity — barriers to entry that prevent their work from being displayed in renowned museums or acquisitions at auctions,” explains Manar Al Hinai. “So we thought, why not change that and present an example from the region?”

The duo ensures that they have an equal representation of artists in their exhibitions and galleries. Delving on why this may be important, Manar Al Hinai asks, “How are you going to tell an inclusive story of a country, region, an event or a time in history if women are excluded from it?”

In a solo exhibition, the museum recently displayed the works of Saudi artist Zakia Al Dubaikhi, including acrylic and watercolour paintings that depict motherhood, ceremonial events, and cultural differences in the Arab Gulf region. Available for public viewing outside Saudi Arabia for the first time, the exhibition included paintings of Saudi women preparing lunch, Bahraini girls playing by the sea, and a scene from the marketplace.

“My mother was very active in the Saudi art scene during the 1980s and at that time, art was not celebrated as it is today,” says Basma Al Zamil, Al Dubaikhi’s daughter. “Throughout her career, she was very passionate about art, and came back to it after she retired from her job as a teacher.”

In her later years, Al Dubaikhi’s work was displayed in galleries of major Saudi cities, including Riyadh, Jeddah, and her hometown of Dammam. “She touched on socio-cultural topics and was very vocal about familial and women’s issues in the country,” says Al Zamil. “She was an ambassador for women’s rights in her own way. She was also very keen to record and document Saudi history — from a woman’s perspective — through her art.”

The family continues to preserve and present Al Dubaikhi’s art around the region. Speaking of the role female artists play in the regional art scene, Al Zamil notices that women are comparatively more active now and there seems to be more of an openness and willingness to address socio-cultural topics.

Omani graphic media artist and photographer Marwa Al Kalbani also explores topics related to the Arab society. In her latest work for the Khaleeji Art Museum, Moving Ideals: Challenging Niqabi Stereotypes in Arab Society, Al Kalbani presents a series of photographs that aim to break the stereotypical image of niqabis (women who wear the black-veil face cover) in the Arab world.

Against the backdrop of candy-coloured rides in a theme park, Al Kalbani captures niqabi women as they enjoy their day out. “The whole point of the series was to start a discussion for people to think about societal expectations. Why is it ‘strange’ to see a woman who wears the niqab doing anything that requires physical movement or even, just having fun?”

In her work, Al Kalbani uses a whimsical approach to send a serious message. The inspiration for this series came from her own perception. “When I was younger, I thought women who wear the niqab had to behave in a serious manner,” she says. Eventually, her perception changed and she realised that these ideals were indoctrinated by society.

“You always hear people making up rules on how others should live their lives. We have so many societal standards and expectations, not just for niqabis, but for every woman,” she adds.

As more women take up space in the regional art scene, Al Kalbani is happy to see women expressing themselves and highlighting social issues that affect other women too. “With issues that revolve around women, it is important to have their voice and experience,” she says. “Women are a big part of our society and voicing our opinions is essential to the development of our communities.” Al Kalbani believes that art helps convey powerful messages and educates the public on issues that are not talked about often, due to the cultural stigma attached.

Emirati artist Sumayyah Al Suwaidi is a digital artist who creates portraits of women juxtaposed with surreal elements like birdcages, feathers, and flowers, giving the illusion of an alternate world. Titled She Loved Me, her artwork at Khaleeji Art Museum combines fashion and luxury in a portrait of a woman. In most of her work, Al Suwaidi envisions femininity in different situations. “My artwork is also a diary, documenting my daily experiences,” she explains.

Al Suwaidi notes that there are many avenues for new and upcoming female artists to share their art, and young women are much more confident about sharing their artwork with the public.

“Women bring many different perspectives,” she says. “Some talk of the culture and heritage, others about family, relationships, and friendships. And many talk about the things that are happening around us and what concerns us as human beings.”

wknd@khaleejtimes.com