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There has been an increasing focus on the Gulf region’s modern and contemporary art scene. New York’s Museum of Modern Art blockbuster “Theater of Operations” exhibit on the 1991 Gulf War was widely covered by art media outlets when it opened to the public in 2019, occupying the entire space of the exhibition center MOMA PS1. Gulf-based independent and nonprofit organizations such as Edge of Arabia and the Misk Art Institute, established in 2003 and 2017, respectively, emerged from a pressing need to promote Gulf contemporary art and grassroot art initiatives.
Artists from the Gulf have been participating in regional exhibits, international biennales, and national pavilions since the 1960s and ’70s, but their art rarely made it to the walls of prominent international museums and exhibition spaces. Today, art institutions in the Gulf are doubling their efforts to push for greater inclusion of Gulf art in museums and exhibition spaces. Emerging local curators are also behind these efforts, pushing the envelope of dominant exhibit themes to make space for the region’s art.
Curation comes from the Latin word curare, which means taking care, but a curator’s role is far more essential in the art world. Curators are narrators working behind the scenes, carefully selecting and assembling artwork to create multisensory and immersive experiences. They are responsible for bringing artwork to life and sparking conversations. Because they wear so many hats, as writers, researchers, and educators all at the same time, they often offer the public fascinating human-interest stories through art and diverse creative mediums.
AGSIW spoke to Bahraini curator Latifa Al Khalifa to learn more about her experience as a curator specializing in Gulf contemporary art. Latifa’s curiosity inspired her to explore the region’s history, identity, and culture through artistic creations. She established the independent art consulting agency Too Far to promote local art movements.
AGSIW: How did you become passionate about Gulf contemporary art?
Latifa: I am a daughter of a former ambassador, so I grew up in the United States. My father sadly passed away when I was eight years old, and we moved back to Bahrain. I grew up in Bahrain and went to university here. I studied international relations and worked as a diplomat for three years. Then, I decided to pursue my MA at King’s College in London, majoring in cultural and creative industries. Working in politics wasn’t really for me. I was surprisingly good at it, but I knew I wanted to work in the creative field to impact people.
One day, I heard about an exhibit called #ComeTogether, organized by Edge of Arabia. I felt so overwhelmed that I had to get a curry to calm down. I just felt so ecstatic that I could see a part of me in London. There were all these fascinating pieces by Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem, and I found myself explaining to strangers the artwork on the wall. Basically, I discovered my passion for contemporary Middle Eastern and Gulf art in London through the back door.
AGSIW: What motivated you to become an exhibit curator and set up an independent consulting agency?
Latifa: I had just graduated when I saw the Edge of Arabia show. I decided to do something very impulsive and sent the organization an email saying I was interested in working with them. I did not expect a response, but within five minutes I received a meeting invitation for the next day. That’s when I curated my first exhibit in 2013 about Bahrain. I don’t know how I did it, but it was a huge learning curve, and the show was very successful.
When I returned to Bahrain, I did not feel welcome in the local art scene because I just came out of nowhere. I hadn’t taken the necessary steps to become a curator, such as doing my BA in art history or working in a gallery. When I worked on my first exhibit, Bahrain was very much divided, especially after 2011. Then, there was me: I wanted to showcase the country’s art and culture. The world of art is a very gated community, and people were just confused about who I was and what I wanted to do.
Believe it or not, it was easier to organize an exhibit in London than in Bahrain. It was a tough transition. I couldn’t find opportunities or curator positions I was interested in, and that’s when I decided to start my own company. It has been challenging, but it is also fulfilling as I see myself growing as an independent researcher and curator. I am becoming more confident in asking questions, because I am still that eight year old asking, “Why this and why that?” But now, I have the tools to ask the right questions and gather all the information.
AGSIW: What topics inspire you and how do you select your research themes?
Latifa: There is always a topic that I am curious about, and it always starts with an observation. For example, one day, I was just looking through my mother’s and aunt’s wedding albums. My mother’s wedding was in 1969, and you can see a beehive full of people, flower girls, women in short dresses – you can hear the noise through the pictures. Then, you compare it to my aunt’s wedding, which was in the ’80s, where everyone was wearing very conservative clothing. I thought to myself, “Ok, this is the same family. What has changed?” So, I started looking at the history and the politics of that time. You could write an entire book chapter just by comparing these two weddings. This is still an open project, because I am still researching. It will take time for me to get permission from people to access these photos, but one family agreed to share their wedding album photos, which I am excited about. At least, that’s a start.
I am interested in why we do certain things and the origin behind some of our customs, because it is difficult to find answers, and very little is documented. I find the wedding culture in our region very interesting, and I think it says a lot about our culture and how we behave. When it comes to documentation, I do not think any other event is as well photographed as weddings. Weddings in the Gulf are a way for you to introduce yourself into society in a way. Historically, a woman in the Gulf did not become a woman until she was married. Her identity was tied to when she got married and whom she married. I find it fascinating to examine the wedding culture and industry in the region because there is so much to say around the question of marriage.
AGSIW: One of your most recent exhibits was about the evolution of khaleeji music, what inspired you to curate this project?
Latifa: So, while I was playing with the idea of weddings, somebody was playing Arabic music in the car. The thought that came to my mind was: “This does not sound very different from many khaleeji songs.” If you think of international pop music, you can very distinctly tell which song is from which decade. You know this song is from the ’50s or ’60s because it sounds a certain way. But with khaleeji music, it would be difficult to distinguish music from the ’90s and music from the 21st century, apart from the technical things like the autotune and instruments. Then I became curious about why teenagers and grandmothers listen to the same music. I also wondered whether people understood khaleeji music as a genre or as music made in the Gulf.
I asked to be introduced to people with musical backgrounds to better understand the evolution of khaleeji music. I found out that there were two companies in the ’80s that created a distinct sound or template for their artists. The producers and songwriters were all the same. The subject matters of khaleeji music are also particular: love, loss of love, or love of the nation. There are three main themes, and that’s it. I made a sample of all these songs, and I started asking the audience what they think khaleeji music is. I also included new khaleeji hip hop and rock bands like Sons of Yusuf and Kuwaisiana, who have emerged recently, since there has been a democratization of music. Today, you can independently release your music on different platforms, and you don’t need a record company to distribute your music. The study of khaleeji music was part of a project I worked on titled “Has Khaleeji Music Evolved?” for Art Dubai’s Gulf Now segment in 2020. It was held virtually because of the pandemic and I wanted to do something different.
AGSIW: What other projects do you work on outside of exhibits?
Latifa: I also enjoy writing satirical articles. For example, I wrote an article on the Dutch platform Neo-Metabolism, and the theme was khaleeji eyebrows. It is a small platform my friends run, but I wanted to challenge myself to write a satirical piece, and it came out at the end of last Ramadan. It was a commentary about how people behave during Ramadan; how we sit and eat too much food, and how we spend time watching too many soaps.
I also like to experiment and engage with the audience. For example, when the Qatar crisis happened, I co-curated a project called “This is Awkward” with Hadeel Eltayeb that was promoted on the Khaleejesque Instagram page. This experimental project was to see whether people can handle having these types of conversations. I wanted to show that we can talk about issues without being unpatriotic because people talk about them anyways. We quickly understood that these conversations were not going to happen on the platform, but when you see the number of times it was shared, saved, or reposted, you know that people are having these conversations. I find it interesting that this is how we behave in certain situations.
My intention is not to be political. I am aware of our mentality and sensitivity toward specific topics, and I always keep that in mind. I am simply interested in explaining us, to ourselves and others. The way the world looks at us is very one-dimensional, and I find that very frustrating.
AGSIW: What do you think are the needs in the existing Gulf art scene?
Latifa: I would like to see more of myself and our culture in our museums and galleries. There are fantastic blockbuster exhibits and immense efforts to advance the art scene in the Gulf, but there is also neglect for small organizations. When it is not organic, audiences become disconnected from the art. The community needs to be built and supported more. It would be great to see more research about the gaps in the market and find more funding opportunities for artists and smaller independent initiatives.
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