The Women Shaping Contemporary Art in the Gulf

Khaleeji women artists are interrogating a wide range of themes such as belonging, post-oil futures, ecology and dissonance.

A black and white photo of a woman holding a slate on which there is Arabic writing
Manal Al Dowayan. ‘I AM AN EDUCATOR’. “I am” series (2005). Silver Gelatin print. Courtesy of the artist

During the late aughts and early 2010s, “Gulf Futurism,” a cultural concept articulated by artist Sophia Al-Maria, sought to articulate trends and changes affecting the region, where the advancement of a future enabled through the wide application of technology and innovation often implied tensions between tradition and modernity.

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Since then, contemporary art in the Gulf, or Khaleej, has seen the emergence of Khaleeji women artists interrogating a wide range of themes such as belonging, post-oil futures, ecology and dissonance through their visual practices.

Of these artists, Abu Dhabi native Farah Al Qasimi frequently finds inspiration in the mundane and what she calls “so muchness” to critique Khaleeji materialistic tastes and visual saturation. In her multimedia works, exhibited in group and solo shows since 2014, Al Qasimi turns the excessive dimensions of a hyper-consumerist lifestyle into intimate objects of contemplation—incarnated in draped textiles, smoke, shimmery maximalist home decor, malls, loud billboards and digital culture.

A woman in a leopard print headscarf stands turned away from the camera holding a compact
Farah Al Qasimi. ‘Woman in Leopard Print’ (2019). Courtesy of the artist and The Third Line, Dubai

Her photograph series “The World is Sinking” (2014) glimpsed at such fragments—a disregarded pomegranate, a dress blending into tapestry patterns—that are reinterpreted as societal mementos and fetishized through manipulated imagery. In the video work Arrival (2019), Al Qasimi used the voice of a Ras Al Khaimah jinn to discuss modernization and disorientation. The figure of the jinn returns in one of her latest projects Um Al Dhabab (Mother of Fog, 2023) presented at Sharjah Biennial 15, decolonizes Western narratives about piracy in the region and engages with the fabrications of past and present via kitsch folklore, pastiche, and surrealist elements.

While the recent NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery exhibition “Khaleej Modern” highlighted the pioneering role of Modern artists of the region before 2007, there is no consensus on what constitutes “Khaleeji contemporary art,” a field as fluid and diverse as the people who make up its fabric.

For instance, Budoor Al Riyami, winner of the 13th Asian Art Biennale Grand Prize in 2008, often features more minimalistic motifs and themes in her work. She captures and uses Omani landscapes and other images to question the role of land and the environment in the formation of modern-day identity while considering bodies as the site of desired spirituality and enduring labor. Al Riyami is associated with the Circle, a movement established by Oman’s avant-garde artists of the 1990s, and her visual work draws on other passions and fields, for instance, poetry.

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Brooms of Wisdom (2007) exposed the lived reality of Muscat’s street cleaners—often ignored and marginalized—through compositions focusing on their brightly-colored brooms and immigrant silhouettes. Her photo series “Salt” (2014) discusses vulnerability and truth. An unhealthy-looking date tree goes from fully covered with a white garment to progressively more naked.

Similarly, in Breathe (2022), an installation presented in the inaugural Omani National Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennial, Al Riyami mixed sculpture and film to question appearances. Large, suspended rock-like structures evoke an Omani natural asset, peridotite, a carbon-capturing material found in the Al Hajar mountains. At the base of these sculptures, a deceiving pool of water serves as a window screen that plays a video of people manipulating the mantle rock. We are left to wonder about erosion and the ways we make peace with nature.

“For me, she’s an artist who’s been very important, very innovative, and a central figure in the conceptual movement that developed out of Oman,” said Dr. Aisha Stoby, who curated “Destined Imaginaries” for the Oman Pavilion in Venice, about Al Riyami’s work and influence.

“Although contemporary art in the Arabian Peninsula has a history that can be traced back to a few decades, the academic interest in this subject is recent and there is still a lot to be done to conceptualize and theorize this. As a researcher working on the topic—with a focus on the UAE—I’d say there is still a discrepancy between the dynamism and depth of the regional art scenes, on the one hand, and its coverage and recognition on the other,” Océane Sailly, founder of Hunna Art, a UAE-based gallery that specializes in representing emerging women artists from the Arabian Peninsula in the region and at the international level, told Observer.

Sailly’s roster of up-and-coming artists, which include Razan AlSarraf, Eman Ali, and Zayn Qahtani, just to cite a few, are showing distinctive styles and maturity in engaging with their region’s multifaceted heritage while interrogating representations.

Whether through conceptual forms, reviving forgotten ancient mythologies, relying on extensive research or convoking their lived experiences, the women of this generation represent critical voices amid a rapidly burgeoning art scene.

A man writes the word 'Muslim' repeatedly on a piece of glass using black marker
Ebtisam Abdelaziz. ‘Islamophobia’ (2017). Courtesy of the artist

“My art is my way to express our time,” Emirati conceptual art pioneer Ebtisam Abdelaziz told Observer. She has been innovating in performance-based art, pushing the boundaries of geometric shapes and optical illusions in her mixed-media work, since the early 2000s.

“We don’t need to have a similar scene as Europe,” she adds, reflecting on her journey breaking taboos, such as when she used her body to discuss social issues related to womanhood or race. “I had to convince [people] that it was an art piece.”

Since then, mindsets have evolved as these women continue to shape different cultural perspectives in the region amid significant societal transformations. Saudi-born Manal AlDowayan has championed feminist themes throughout her career. At the first Diriyah Biennale in Jeddah in 2021, AlDowayan presented a mixed installation honoring Saudi heritage and elevating matrilineage. Her prompt question “When do women disappear from memory?” is an invitation to contemplate genealogies, oral histories and the role of women in society, turning the visitor into an active participant, a practice she replicated in her one-time performance at the Guggenheim last year, “From Shattered Ruins, New Life Shall Bloom.”

“My approach to art over the last two decades has given me the chance to be part of a transformation that is taking place in my country,” AlDowayan said in a statement. The artist will represent Saudi Arabia at the upcoming Venice Biennial, and she has been commissioned new work for the anticipated Valley of the Arts in the desert site of AlUla.

The Women Shaping Contemporary Art in the Gulf