Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a United Arab Emirates-based columnist whose articles have appeared in many international magazines like: The Financial Times, The Independent, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, as well as other notable publications.
Sultan is also a prominent commentator on Arab affairs on Twitter. Rising in prominence during the Arab Spring, his tweets became a major news source, rivaling the major news networks at the time, until TIME magazine listed him in the “140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011.” Sultan is an MIT Media Labs Director’s Fellow, and also the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, an independent initiative established to contribute to the intellectual development of the art scene in the Arab region.
In the first quarter of 2017 Barjeel Art Foundation will inaugurate exhibitions at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, Yale University Art Gallery in the US and the National Gallery of Jordan in Amman.
Mara Sartore: What was the inspiration to start collect modern/contemporary art?
Sooud Al Qassemi: I had studied in Paris where I visited numerous exhibitions, some of which were drawn from private collectors. I wanted to replicate that experience for visitors to the UAE and to expand knowledge of Arab art.
M.S.: You collect different artists and media, who do you think are the most promising artists from the UAE today?
S. A-Q: There are plenty including Jumairy and Alia Lootah who are Emirati but also non-citizen artists like Saif Mhaisen and Lantian Xie, Sara Al Haddad and Vikram Divecha, the latter three are representing the UAE at Venice this year.
M.S.: Works from your collection have been on display at the Whitechapel gallery in London for a while now, how is Middle Eastern art perceived in Europe?
S. A-Q: “Imperfect Chronology” was a super hit of a show, it lasted over 16 months and it attracted more than 300,000 visitors. There was immense interest, it might be one of the most impactful exhibitions we ever put up.
M.S.: Do you think that the UAE and other countries in the Gulf will keep growing in terms of presence and importance in the contemporary art world?
S. A-Q: Yes all countries in the Gulf have recognised the importance the of culture and its impact on the economy including in luring tourists. We now have Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait building major museums along side their sister Gulf states.
M.S.: You have a strong presence on social media platforms, what do you think is the role of social media in the discovery of new artists?
S. A-Q: Instagram and Facebook have become indispensable tools in discovering new artists. Because of potential censorship or sensitivity of artistic themes many artists choose to show their work on social media rather than sell to galleries due to sensitivity of the topic.
M.S.: What’s in the radar of the Barjeel Art Foundation for the future?
S. A-Q: We have three exhibitions coming up in the US, at Yale University Art Gallery, the Hessel Museum of Bard College and the American University in Washington DC art gallery. We also have exhibitions coming up at the Institut du Monde arabe in Paris, the National Gallery of Art in Amman, Jordan and in our Sharjah space. We are in discussion with a number of museums around the world for future shows.
One day in Sharjah with Sultan Al Qassemi.
Sooud has designed for us an artistic itinerary around the main cultural art space in Sharjah.
In Sharjah one should visit Sharjah Art Foundation Spaces. The Maraya Art Center and Barjeel Art Foundation are on two floors in the same building in Al Qasba. A visit to the Flying Saucer Building is also very interesting. You can start at Al Qasba and go to Maraya and Barjeel Art Foundation, followed by a bite to eat at Shababeek restaurant for lunch. Alternatively, one can have lunch at Al Maskoof Restaurant on Mareija Street, which serves great grilled fish from Iraq, after which they can take a 10 minute walk to Sharjah Art Foundation Spaces.
Ratios cafe at Souq Al Shanasiyah is a nice place to enjoy a good cup of coffee before moving on to the next place. Al Majaz Waterfront is a great place to have dinner, as the area also has art installations by Maraya Art Center. Design 1971 on Flag Island is worth a visit. Jones the Grocer recently opened there as well, if one fancied some good coffee and food.
Sharjah is wonderful to drive around in at night, the city comes alive with people from all walks, along with Sharjah’s unique mix of old and new architecture.