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A huge, old wooden chair held together by pieces of rope, balanced on just two legs above a red rug in the middle of the room. Draped over the back of the chair is a black bisht, the traditional coat with gold embroidery that is worn for formal occasions by men throughout the Arabian Gulf.
The Broken Chair with the Bisht is an exhibit at the Kuwait Museum of Modern Art by Kuwaiti artist Ambar Waleed. It’s thought-provoking in its simplicity and it’s obviously designed to make a strong statement, but about what? The powerful message becomes clear when explained by the director of the museum, Ahmed Al Babtain.
In Arabic, a chair conveys the meaning of an official position while a bisht is a symbol of authority. “Do you know what it’s like when someone stays on their job too long? They don’t want to give up and give someone else a chance, even if they’re not doing a good job anymore. This is the theme of this exhibition. The Kuwait Museum of Modern Art, with its vast collection of paintings and sculptures, is a great place to contemplate hidden meanings.
It is installed in the old Sharqeya school at the back of a vacant lot in front of Souk Sharq. With its spacious courtyards bathed in sunlight, its pleasant shaded arcades and its cozy rooms, it is an inviting setting. Strategically placed wooden benches invite the visitor to pause and enjoy the visual feast. The museum opened in 2003 under the jurisdiction of the National Council of Culture, Arts and Letters (NCCAL). Promoting the arts in Kuwait, stimulating interest in Kuwait’s cultural heritage, restoring and maintaining local historic buildings are among the activities of this organization.
The creation of the Museum of Modern Art in the former Sharqeya school fulfilled all these objectives. Sharqeya School was built in 1939 and first served as a primary school for boys and later as a primary school for girls. Several of Kuwait’s former emirs were among his notable students. Plans to convert the building into a museum were already in place when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990. During the occupation, Iraqi troops vandalized the building, leaving it in ruins. The NCCAL has carried out a careful restoration aimed at retaining the original features and character of the building.
The traditional ceilings of mangrove poles and palm leaf mats have been replaced. All the woodwork, including the window and door frames, have been redone in the original style. Even the old-fashioned opaque patterned glass typical of old Kuwaiti houses was used for the window panes.
The few concessions to modernity include a glass elevator, freestanding exhibition panels, and a glass roof over the main courtyard allowing guests to linger in air-conditioned comfort. Upon entering the main courtyard, visitors will see four large paintings depicting some of the pioneers of the formative arts movement that flourished during Kuwait’s golden years from the 1950s to the 1980s. Many of these artists received professional artistic training at the abroad under the sponsorship of the Government of Kuwait. Their work is on display at the museum.
Among them is Sami Mohammad, whose sculptures are displayed in the courtyard. In the early 1970s, he mainly worked with wood. From this period stems a series on human procreation which includes four sculptures: Before childbirth, Childbirth, After childbirth and Mother with her child. These rounded, soft shapes contrast sharply with another series of his sculptures across the courtyard titled An Attempt to Get Out.
Created in 1978, these sculptures are extremely disturbing. They deal with the concept of a man buried in a solid block of bronze. Hands seem to have squeezed their way out of the massive block and are reaching out in a pitiful cry for help, while bulges just below the surface hint at the struggling rest of the body trapped within. Writing in Kuwait: Arts and Architecture, Arlene Fullerton sheds light on the message these sculptures are meant to convey. “Sami Mohammad uses his art to talk about humanity. His characters are all victims. They are tied up, crushed, tortured and buried and yet as long as there is a thread of life, they do not lose hope. It glorifies strength, perseverance and the will of man to free himself from his struggles. Ahmed Al Babtain admits that the storyboards and detailed captions explaining the exhibits could go a long way in helping visitors better appreciate the museum’s art. “We plan to add descriptions,” he says. “And every six months we change some of the exhibits and bring in new art, to make things more interesting.” Another notable Kuwaiti sculptor whose works are on display is Khaza’al Al Qafas. His life-size bronze sculpture, La Détente, was made in 1979.
It depicts a faceless man wearing a dishdasha reclining in a relaxed posture. A young Kuwaiti man examining the sculpture marvels at the realistic way the folds of the man’s robe are draped, despite being bronze, and the way the figure exudes an air of peaceful repose. “It’s such a typical pose, there’s always a guy in the diwannia relaxing like that,” he laughs. Other Al Qafas sculptures provide vignettes of life in the past. The Afternoons (bronze, 1983) also depicts men in dishdashas in typically relaxed positions. This time they are seated on a bench in a scene of easy camaraderie, the way old men spent their afternoons in the old days, sitting facing the sea and watching the world go by. Al Jerbah (bronze, 1981) is a sculpture of a type of goatskin bag once used to store and transport fresh water brought by boat from the Shatt Al Arab River in Iraq.
The Habban Dance (wood, 1978]is a sculpture of two graceful reclining figures, a man and a woman. The man plays the habban, a traditional goatskin bagpipe, his cheeks puffed out from the effort of blowing into the instrument., spacious rooms surrounding the courtyard on the ground floor, and on the first floor, paintings and sculptures are displayed in pleasing juxtaposition. Various aspects of Kuwaiti heritage are popular themes. Al Seef Palace at Sunset is a painting by Tareq Sayed Rajab. It shows the old dhow harbor next to the palace filled with wooden ships, their jumble of masts silhouetted against an orange sky and reflected in the water. Look closer and you will see the paraphernalia of the shipbuilder’s trade: a capstan, scaffolding, piles of wood, and rolls of logs used to launch traditional ships. In the background is the iconic shape of the Seef Palace clock tower. Tareq Sayed R ajab was a multi-talented man who had a profound impact on Kuwait.
Painter, photographer, ceramist, archaeologist, academic, educator and heritage curator; with his wife, Jehan, he founded the Tareq Rajab Museum and the Tareq Rajab Museum of Islamic Calligraphy as well as the New English School. A number of other artists have also depicted scenes from the era of sailing in Kuwait. Ahmed Al Babtain recalls that a group of American soldiers visiting the museum wanted to know why there were so many paintings of wooden boats. He explained that in the pre-oil era, shipbuilding, pearl fishing and commercial travel in the Gulf and to India and East Africa were the mainstays of the economy of the Kuwait.
Ayoub Al Ayoub is another of Kuwait’s distinguished art pioneers whose work showcases Kuwait’s heritage. A prolific artist, he painted over 600 works depicting traditional Kuwaiti scenes.
His chart, Elementary School Certificate Test, shows boys in a traditional classroom being supervised by a dishwashing teacher. Like many of his contemporaries, Al Ayoub was also an art teacher in public schools. The Khalal Seller by Essa Saqer illustrates a traditional scene that can also be seen today, especially at this time of the summer season when fresh dates are ripening and being sold in the market. Khalal is the Kuwaiti name for dates when they are freshly picked and still hard and crisp. Another bustling market scene is Ibrahim Ismail’s Souq Wajef, an impressive long sign showing the tree-shaded alleyways of Mubarakiya Market.
Many talented Kuwaiti women have also made their mark in the art world. Among those represented in the museum are award-winning painter and writer Thuraya Al Baqsami. His abstract painting, The Talisman of Love, can be seen on the second floor. Nearby is the painting Monday Morning (2) by Sabeeha Beshara, in which a woman wearing a traditional red-colored dress is seated, looking calm but waiting in a red-colored room, which makes one wonder what she anticipates. Mother and Daughter was painted in 2001 by internationally renowned artist Ghada Al Kandari. Powerful women are a common theme in his work, and the mother with her arm protectively wrapped around her daughter’s shoulder exudes quiet strength. You can see more of Ghada’s paintings on her fascinating blog called Pretty Green Bullet, where she shares her work and thoughts.
Events During the long summer season, things are quiet at the museum and chances are that if you visit you will have the whole place to yourself. According to Ahmed Al Babtain, workshops, special events and exhibitions are planned for the fall. You can get news from them, and all the activities of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, by following their Instagram @kw_nccal. The Kuwait Museum of Modern Art, like modern art museums around the world, awakens the public’s interest in art, encourages critical thinking, and provides material evidence of the human condition that is open to questioning and to the discussion.
It is unique in its unpretentious setting. The simple architectural lines of the traditional building showcase the vibrant colors, bold shapes, designs and textures of the paintings and sculptures. Visit and immerse yourself in the world of artists’ storytelling, where traditional themes and changing cultural ideas and social concepts are open to the viewer’s interpretation. The museum is open on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Story and photos by Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud
Special for the Arab Times