INTERVIEW: Art Jameel curator Murtaza Vali on the first major exhibition from the Gulf region’s new artistic patrons

Murtaza Vali of the Al Jameel Group of Saudi Arabia. (Illustration by Luis Granena)
Updated 04 November 2018
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INTERVIEW: Art Jameel curator Murtaza Vali on the first major exhibition from the Gulf region’s new artistic patrons

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.


Dubai property developer Damac on hunt for land in Saudi Arabia

Hussain Sajwani
Updated 18 March 2019
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Dubai property developer Damac on hunt for land in Saudi Arabia

  • Brexit a “concern” for UK property market says Sajwani
  • Developer mulls investing “up to £500 million” on London project

LONDON: The Dubai-listed developer Damac says it is scouting for additional plots of land in Saudi Arabia, both in established cities and the Kingdom’s emerging giga-projects such as Neom.
Hussain Sajwani, chairman of Damac Properties, also said the company would look to invest up to £500 million ($660 million) on a second development in the UK, and that it is on track to deliver a record 7,000 or more units this year.
Amid a slowing property market in Dubai, Damac’s base, the developer is eying Saudi Arabia as a potential ground for expansion for its high-spec residential projects.
Damac has one development in Jeddah, and a twin-tower project in Riyadh — and Sajwani said it is looking for additional plots in the Kingdom.
“It’s a big market. It is changing, it is opening up, so we see a potential there … We are looking,” he said.
“In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is the biggest economy … They have some very ambitious projects, like the Neom city and other large projects. We’re watching those and studying them very carefully.”
The $500 billion Neom project, which was announced in 2017, is set to be a huge economic zone with residential, commercial and tourist facilities on the Red Sea coast.
Sajwani said doing business in Saudi Arabia was “a bit more difficult or complicated” that the UAE, but said the country is opening up, citing moves to allow women to drive and reopen cinemas.
He was speaking to Arab News in Damac’s London sales office, opposite the Harrods department store in Knightsbridge. The office, kitted out in plush Versace furnishings, is selling units at Damac’s first development in the UK, the Damac Tower Nine Elms London.
The 50-storey development is in a new urban district south of the River Thames, which is also home to the US Embassy and the famous Battersea Power Station, which is being redeveloped as a residential and commercial property.
Work on Damac's tower is underway and is due to complete in late 2020 or early 2021, Sajwani said.
“We have sold more than 60 percent of the project,” he said. “It’s very mixed, we have (buyers) from the UK, from Asia, the Middle East.”
Damac’s first London project was launched in 2015, the year before the referendum on the UK exiting the EU — the result of which has had a knock-on effect on the London property market.
“Definitely Brexit has cause a lot of concern, people are not clear where the situation will go. Overall, the market has suffered because of Brexit,” Sajwani said.
“It’s going to be difficult for the coming two years at least … unless (the UK decides) to stay in the EU.”
Despite the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit, Sajwani said Damac was looking for additional plots of land in London, both in the “golden triangle” — the pricey areas of Mayfair, Belgravia and Knightsbridge, which are popular with Gulf investors — and new residential districts like Nine Elms.
Sajwani is considering an investment of “up to £500 million” on a new project in the UK capital.
“We are looking aggressively, and spending a lot of time … finding other opportunities,” he said. “Our appetite for London is there.”
Damac is also considering other international property markets for expansion, including parts of Europe and North American cities like Toronto, Boston, New York and Miami, Sajwani said.
The international drive by Damac comes, however, amid a tough property market in the developer’s home market of Dubai.
Damac in February reported that its 2018 profits fell by nearly 60 percent, with its fourth-quarter profit tumbling by 87 percent, according to Reuters calculations.
Sajwani — whose company attracted headlines for its partnership with the Trump Organization for two golf courses in Dubai — does not see any immediate recovery in the emirate’s property market, or Damac’s financial results.
“(With) the market being soft, prices being under pressure, we are part of the market — we are not going to do better than last year,” he said. “This year and next year are going to be difficult years. But it’s a great opportunity for the buyers.”
But the developer said Dubai was “very strong fundamentally,” citing factors like its advanced infrastructure, safety and security, and low taxes.
In 2018, Damac delivered over 4,100 units — a record for the company — and this year, despite the difficult market, it plans to hand over even more.
“We’re expecting north of 7,000,” Sajwani said. “This year will be another record.”