Eman Al Musallam, 'Legacy', mixed media installation in Kuwaiti modern art gallery
Stephen Stenning, Director of Arts in the Middle East and North Africa, writes about the Out of Kuwait exhibition in partnership with the British Council Kuwait, Contemporary Arts Platform in Kuwait and the Kuwaiti National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters.
I visited Kuwait in late October 2012, whilst the country was experiencing demonstrations and protests and feeling noticeably tense. Against that background, ‘Out of Kuwait’, an exhibition of works created by 12 young Kuwaitis on the Out of Britain residency programme, was opening. The artists had been challenged to re-examine their practice and to create work that responded to their surroundings, reinterpreting the theme of landscape art.
The exhibition was housed in the Museum of Modern Art, Kuwait – as far from an edgy gallery in a busy shopping mall as it is possible to get. The carefully-presented but eclectic array of paintings, videos, installations and interactive works brought extraordinary vibrancy to the clinical and over-reverent museum. The 280 visitors who crammed into the small exhibition spaces created an energetic and animated atmosphere. I think it was the noisiest crowd I have ever encountered in a gallery. I asked a Kuwaiti whether the level of debate and discussion was unusual. He replied that it wasn’t so much the noisy debating that was unusual, as the atmosphere. When I asked him to explain, he gestured toward the crowd viewing a video, saying “Look! Women and men! Young and old! No one is being careful about who they sit next to, or who they talk to!”.
Most of the works explored one element of Kuwaiti life or another. There was a piece that brutally exposed Kuwait’s approach to preserving its heritage and architecture, and one that explored the dominance of road traffic through a nationalistic carpet of plastic cars. A particularly affecting piece put traditional poetry and music alongside a fly-on-the-wall (or in this case fly-on-the-shopping-trolley) video of people at a souk. It presented a troubling picture of disconnection and disassociation.
The exhibition was opened by the Secretary General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters. Having performed his ceremonial duties he stopped off at the first exhibit, which was the work of the female artist Aseel Al Yaqoub. It was a political counter campaign complete with banners, stickers, badges, t‐shirts and campaign paraphernalia. There was also a video of her witty and provocative campaigning speech. It targeted, amongst others, government officials who put “more energy into choosing savoury pastries than they did into performing the duties for which they were overpaid”, and National Councils that routinely stifled ambition, creativity and individuality in the young. The senior government official experienced the work with Aseel before joining in a discussion of it. I’m not sure that conversation would have taken place in many other situations.