DUBAI: From the patronage of the Medici dynasty in Renaissance Italy, through the artistic philanthropy of the great American magnates of the 19th century, the link between art and business has been a permanent thread.
In the modern Middle East, the tradition was for a while maintained by the Abraaj group and its sponsorship of the annual art fair in Dubai, but with that now in doubt given the group’s financial troubles, the baton has been taken up by the Art Jameel Group of Saudi Arabia.
Next week, reinforcing the link between big business and high art, Art Jameel unveils its first big exhibition at its new art center in Dubai, and the theme, appropriately enough, is the oil industry.
Oil has shaped the economies of the region, but has also been a pervasive factor in its artistic and cultural scene.
“Pervasive, but invisible,” in the words of Murtaza Vali, curator of the exhibition entitled “Crude.”
“Though oil drives all human life, we have limited access to it in an everyday context. ‘Crude’ is an attempt to give viewers a chance to get intimate with it, though it does consciously resist the dark and sticky lure of crude oil itself, which appears only once or twice in the show,” he said.
The exhibition brings together 17 artists from across the region and the world “to explore oil as an agent of social, cultural and economic transformation across the region, as well as a driver of geopolitical upheaval,” according to the Art Jameel website.
There were multiple inspirations for “Crude,” Vali explained. One was the work of Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet, whose work “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points” was a winner of the Abraaj prize in 2013, the year that Vali curated it. It was based on the TransArabian Pipeline, the post-war venture that got Saudi crude to the Mediterranean without having to pass through the Suez Canal.
In the Middle East, and in the Gulf especially, oil still has the capacity to inspire dreams.
Another inspiration for the exhibition is the huge but little- viewed archive of film produced by the oil companies operating in the Gulf in the mid-20th century. As well as being the heyday of oil discovery in the Gulf, this was also the high point of British documentary film making, and “Crude” digs deep into that reserve.
One highlight of the exhibition is a work by the Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan, a self-styled “Aramco brat” whose father worked for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran. Through oral histories and photographs, “If I Forget You, Don’t Forget Me” documents the stories of a generation of pioneering Saudi oilmen and women whose lives straddled the country’s shift from poverty to abundance. The photographs are taken in the home offices of many of these figures and feature mementoes and souvenirs of life lived in the oil industry.
“Living and working in the Aramco ‘camp’ in Dhahran was quite a surreal experience for many — it was like a little bit of mid-20th century suburban America plopped into the middle of the Arabian desert,” said Vali.
Montreal-based Hajjra Waheed captures some of this in her work “Aerial Studies 1-8,” which uses an old map to show some significant sites within the Dhahran compound, including the house she grew up in. Aramco was not involved in the exhibition, but roughly one-third of the works are taken from the Jeddah-based Art Jameel collection.
Oil as an environmental agent is vividly portrayed. “Plume 1-24,” another work by Waheed, consists of photographs of thick black clouds often associated with oil fires. They have been cropped so that the source of the smoke is not visible, opening the images up to multiple interpretations, everything from environmental pollution to the artist’s own memories of the Kuwaiti oil fields burning in 1991 after Saddam’s retreating troops set them alight.
That act of destruction also figures in another work at “Crude.” Monira Al-Qadiri’s “Behind the Sun” features vintage footage of the same fields, ablaze, shot by a Kuwaiti journalist from ground level, but overlaid with recitations of Islamic poetry drawn from Kuwaiti television archives. “These events elicited awe and wonder as much as fear and despair. Al-Qadiri’s use of poetry brings some of this wonder back,” Vali said.
The message from the exhibition is as much corporate as artistic. “I think it is informative to know the early history of the oil industry, to learn how quickly and closely corporations and governments came together around the extraction of petroleum. This link helps us better understand how oil so quickly became the dominant source of energy around the world,” he said.
That history throws up some quirky cultural facts, like the link between oil and golf. The American expats who came to Saudi Arabia, for example, were dedicated golfers, and went to great lengths to play their game in demanding circumstances. “Playing golf in the desert, an environment that does not seem ideal for the game, a landscape that is, in some sense, one big sand trap,” said Vali.
Raja’a Khalid’s “Desert Golf” series uncovers archival images of this practice from the late 1940s on, showing “company men” nonchalantly playing golf in the desert, often in close proximity to pipeline and other infrastructural facilities.
“The images reveal an air of corporate elitism still associated with the industry, and remind us how some of the stranger aspects of contemporary life in the Gulf, like lush green world-class golf courses, can be traced back to imperial and colonial pasts,” Vali said.
In literature, a small but significant sub-genre grew out of the meeting between westerners and Arabs in the oil industry, dubbed “petro-fiction.” The Saudi writer Abdul Rahman Munif’s “Cities of Salt” series was controversial at the time — perhaps, Vali said, because of the legacy of colonialism and imperialism inherent in the “oil encounter.”
He takes this as “another sign of how oil is both magical and insidious. It withholds itself from us while making us entirely dependent on it.”
Vali quoted the famous Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who said: “Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free … The concept of oil expresses perfectly the eternal human dream of wealth achieved through lucky accident, through the kiss of fortune and not by sweat, anguish, hard work. In this sense oil is a fairy tale, and like every fairy tale, a bit of a lie.”
Vali agrees with that in principle, but is enough of a pragmatist to understand that the oil business underpins a lot of real life as well, including artistic life.
“In the Gulf, there is quite a direct link between oil and culture. When oil fell to below $40 a barrel a couple of years ago, the culture industry noticeably shrank. Oil permeates art and culture in the region, much as it does our everyday lives,” he said.
As befits a scientist turned artist, he is on top of some of the basic economic problems facing the oil industry. One of the exhibits is a work by a Venezuelan artist entitled “The Last Oil Barrel,” which Vali calls “the key to the exhibition.”
“The idea of ‘peak oil’ is intriguing on many levels. Oil’s growing scarcity produces, what one scholar has called, a kind of “resource anxiety” which is increasingly pervasive in the West. But in the Middle East, and in the Gulf especially, oil still has the capacity to inspire dreams,” he said.