Arts, On Campus

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and Suheyla Takesh Thwart Unique Challenges to Art Collection and Curation in the Arab World

Barjeel Art Foundation founder Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi described on a virtual panel on Sunday the somewhat tedious and almost miraculous process through which he found the artist of a rare Algerian painting. 

“The way we found this information is I posted on Facebook saying, ‘Does anyone in Algeria know this artist?’” Al-Qassemi said. “And then one of my followers, I have 80,000 followers on Facebook, one of them tagged his teacher who was her student, and so he said my teacher studied under this artist.” 

This painting is thought to be one of less than 30 artworks in existence done by contemporary artist Djamila Bent Mohamed. Still much remains unknown about this work titled Siblings, but there is speculation among those at the Barjeel Art Foundation that this depiction of four women is a reference to Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger

Al-Qassemi discussed this rare painting and his other work with the Barjeel Art Foundation on March 28 on the McMullen Museum of Art’s Collecting for the Barjeel Art Foundation panel alongside curator Suheyla Takesh. Kathleen Bailey, professor of political science at Boston College and curator of the Landscape of Memory exhibit at the McMullen, moderated the panel to discuss the exhibit. 

Nancy Netzer, professor of art history and director of the McMullen Museum, introduced the panel and exhibit, which is the museum’s second collaboration with the Barjeel Art Foundation.  

Barjeel Art Foundation was created in 2010 as a publicly accessible art collection. In the past 13 years, the foundation has mounted 30 exhibitions and has loaned art to over 100 institutions. For Landscape of Memory, the foundation loaned art with a focus on a mix of modern mediums such as films, paintings, light installations, sculptures, and photographs to represent the Arab world, West Asia and North Africa.

Bailey asked the panelists if they had any unique challenges to building and creating a collection from this region.

Al-Qassemi said his 13 to 14 years of art acquisition in the Middle East was challenging because of the lack of a network to acquire art in the region. Al-Qassemi said that the infrastructure of transporting, handling, and ensuring art is improving, as art centers in cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi grow, but it is not “across the board” in the whole region. 

He explained how he decided not to bid on a piece of artwork coming up for auction in the next few weeks because he was not completely sure about its origins and accuracy. 

“It’s very challenging to buy art from west Asia and the Middle East,” Al-Qassemi said. “Research is not as readily available. Sometimes there are books, but they are in print and it’s not easy to access these books.”

Takesh said five years ago, around 2018, the collection shifted toward a more balanced practice of collecting an equal number of artwork from men and women. This began with an exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, in which the museum hung an equal number of paintings produced by men and women. Seeking equality in art produced by both genders opened new pathways for Barjeel, according to Takesh. 

“Over time, that led us into avenues of research that were completely new for us and encountering names of artists that we hadn’t been familiar with and meeting new artists and, sort of, families of artists and being connected with their studios and so forth resulted in an acquisition of a lot of works that kind of married further research and further writing,” Takesh said. 

Takesh further developed this idea of male versus female art in the collection, describing how she began to observe that women were more experimental with their mediums than the male artists. According to Takesh, this proportional difference in the types of work created by men and women is the beginning of a conversation on expanding the canon of what modern art can be.

“It just so happens that with male artists they tend to be oil on canvas or acrylic on canvas paintings, with, you know, perhaps works on paper or sculpture,” Takesh said. “Whereas when we began this process of installation, we noticed that women ventured into areas such as tapestry and weaving, embroidery, ceramics and clay, you know light sculpture, tar, and henna, and sand and a whole array of different materials.”

March 30, 2023