Cultural Diplomacy and Global Exhibitions of Modern Arab Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation

  • Abstract:

    The Barjeel Art Foundation is at the forefront of a postcolonial presentation of art as cultural diplomacy through its regional and international exhibitions of modern and contemporary Arab art. Based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Barjeel is unique among public or private art institutions in the Middle East as an independent foundation that upholds a philosophy and commitment to present a dynamic, public-oriented venue into the historical context of Arab art and intellectuals. Barjeel’s collection and exhibitions are inclusive of the region’s diversity, for it has purposely collected and exhibited prominent Arab artists of diverse backgrounds and nationalities, including the prominence of women artists, as well as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, whether, Sufi, Sunni or Shia, as well as radical anarchist artists from Egypt and other countries. In just nine years, Barjeel has held over 24 regional and international exhibitions, leading to its culmination in a long-term installation at the Sharjah Art Museum, which opened in May 2018. In 2017, Barjeel exhibited the first collection of modern Arab artists ever shown in Iran, at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. With exhibitions in Singapore, Iran, France, the UK, US, and other locations, Barjeel has become a significant player in international art. This paper will summarise an extensive research project underway at the Barjeel Art Foundation. This paper also offers a theoretical and contextualised discussion of the history of Arab art diplomacy as seen in Barjeel’s collection, including the works of the Egyptian diplomat and painter Muhammad Naghi (1888-1956). A nationalist model has dominated many international exhibitions as at the Venice Biennale with its dependence on national pavilions. While the politics of censorship among the tribal-state formations of the Arab Gulf have limited the use of official cultural diplomacy in some states, a consistent policy of the Sharjah Government and the Sharjah Art Foundation’s direction of the Sharjah Biennale and the UAE pavilions at the Venice Biennale offers a less nationalistic perspective. The efforts of Barjeel as a private art foundation to present modern Arab art as a cultural forum reflect a deeper understanding and commitment to present the response of Arab intellectuals to the crises and conditions of recent history, and in their resistance to state authoritarianism. The sustainability of these efforts through unofficial channels faces a myriad of political and financial challenges.