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Sun 4 Mar 2007 12:00 AM

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The art of Arabia

We should follow the French, and fight to retain our rich heritage of Arabic art.

Art is such a subjective issue that if you really wanted to delve into it, it would be so hard to know where to begin and where to end, however, as the UAE is starting on such a beautiful journey in both the public and private sectors, I thought I would write about something I have experienced myself.

A few days ago, I was watching a French television channel as they were arguing a very sensitive issue — lending their artwork to Abu Dhabi’s proposed Louvre on Saadiyat Island. The UAE capital is on a cultural binge and is setting up a number of world-class museums in the emirate. They have made it quite clear that the sky is the limit as Abu Dhabi intends to be a global landmark when it comes to art. It doesn’t hurt to have leaders within the emirate that have the will to make this happen, so what was the issue for the French? They were hotly debating whether they wanted to lend their national treasures to an Arab country.

I was annoyed for two reasons. The first was because the French government was going to get over US$200m for this and would manage the museum under the Louvre’s name. If they are going to be paid why should they even debate this issue? The second was the negative French stance against Arabs portrayed on the TV show.

Then after a smooth cigar, a bitter Italian coffee and a cool breeze hit my face as I looked at the Louvre, it started to dawn on me why this was such a hot issue for the French. For them, art is life. For over 300 years, the French people have looked at art not just as an addition to their heritage, but also as sacred as the water they drink and the food they eat. For some people, art is second only to the language they are so protective of. For the French people that I have interacted with, art is not simply a painting that hangs on a wall, but also the way they dress, they way they eat, and the way they are unique to other nationalities.

If you go back into the history of the modern art movement starting with the Impressionist movement, you will discover that this happened in Paris with the godfather of this movement, Camille Pissarro. This is important to note because it marks the split between the old, classical art styles used by the greats such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Da Vinci and the new style of Monet, Renoir and Degas — all French. It is worth noting that great artists from around the world knew that France was the place to be for its new style of painting.

As I pondered over the way the French cared about art, I also started to understand their reluctance to lend their national treasures to a people, I being one of them, that have showed no interest whatsoever in art and culture in the last 100 years, even though our history is so rich with a myriad of different styles of art from calligraphy to music. Islamic, and by extension, Arabic art, has enriched the world with such beauty as Al Hambra in Spain and the Ummayed mosque in Damascus. As for art on a global scale, all you have to do is go to any of the world-class auction houses and see the amount of Islamic art that is collected by non-Arabs.

Our history is rich with many scenes of beauty that are once again reappearing such as the work of Ali Omar Ermes and Nja Mahdaoui who are both museum quality artists in their own right. On the Gulf scene, names such as Abdulla Al Muharraqi from Bahrain and Abdul Qader Al Rais from the UAE are reflecting the local art scene. Up and coming artists blending modern and traditional Arabic art together include the likes of Jamal Abdul Raheem in Bahrain and Jalal Luqman in the UAE. I must also add that my cousin Mohamed is someone worth watching in the region, with his art that you can see in the Mubadela offices in Abu Dhabi.

They say put your money where your mouth is, so that is exactly what I did. Along with my partners Charlie Pocock and HH Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, we have founded Meem gallery for the very purpose of not only exhibiting world-class Arab and Muslim artists, but also to help to educate local buyers in the rich heritage of Arabic art. At Meem gallery we hope to show the varied and beautiful art that the Arab and Muslim world has to offer.

I want to be like the French — and I want to retain our art. I want the world to know what a beautiful world we helped to create over the centuries. I want the French to be appreciative of what art means to Arabs. I know with the leadership that we have in Abu Dhabi that we will start to show others why we are important to the art world. Cultures are known for their art and science not for their fleeting wealth. I want our culture to rise and shine again, and with the steps I see the government taking, I am sure we will make it a reality.

Mishal Kanoo is deputy chairman of the Kanoo Group.

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T Crowe Semler 12 years ago

Dear Mishal, Masha'Allah you're expressing a great truth. Each culture has its own unique art to offer the world. We must start at an ealy age with our children to reinforce their creativity and appreciation of art. All, culinary, music, painting, poetry, textile, and writing the whole specturm. Look to our past, look to our present, and dream great dreams for our future. Insha'Allah the making of this reality is NOW. I am your brother, T Crowe O'Rourke Semler

rima zaarour 12 years ago

I agree with Mr Kanoo's arguments and applaude the founding of Al Meem Gallery. I just wanted to comment about the french havinand g a problem "lending" their art to the arabs (@200M US), when it should be noted that when walking through the louvre u cant help but notice the vast collections of egyptian, ancient greek, phoenician and islamic art...not sure how much of that was "lent" to the french either, let alone paid for.. :)

Mohamed Ebrahim 11 years ago

Why can we not teach our kids art appreciation from a very young age both Western and Eastern. If we want to build pluralistic societies we have to understand the arts. One artist you did not mention is Ismail Gulgee, who was murdered in Pakistan recently he was one of the foremost artist in the Islamic world. We all seem to know the names of Hollywood and Bollywood actors. How many of us know the names you have mentioned and others like Pissaro, Cezzane, Giacometti, Picasso, etc.

Sinan 11 years ago

Ethiopia got back its Granite 160 ton Axum Obelisk back from Italy!! Mussolini had taken it to Rome and after much diplomatic negotiation it was returned, Why Can't we get the Islamic art back from the Louvre????