Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani on introducing ‘the depth of Arab and Islamic culture’ to New York

Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani on introducing ‘the depth of Arab and Islamic culture’ to New York
Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani is the founder of the New York-based Institute of Arab and Islamic Art.
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Updated 29 June 2023
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Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani on introducing ‘the depth of Arab and Islamic culture’ to New York

Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani on introducing ‘the depth of Arab and Islamic culture’ to New York
  • The founder of the new Institute of Arab and Islamic Art talks to Arab News 

NEW YORK: Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani, a 30-something self-proclaimed “closeted poet,” moved to New York in 2014. He quickly noticed that while the city was home to a number of niche institutions including the Asia Society, the Jewish Museum, and El Museo del Barrio, it lacked spaces dedicated to Arab and Islamic art, aside from a few scattered shows — usually curated by Westerners — or limited spaces in places like the Met. 

Al-Thani believed that raising public awareness of art from the Arab and Islamic worlds would be a way to counter Islamophobia and present a narrative about those worlds that was not focused on violence and terrorism. So in 2017 he created the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art, a registered non-profit organization. Although Al-Thani is a member of the Qatari royal family, the IAIA is independently funded.  




Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani, a 30-something self-proclaimed “closeted poet,” moved to New York in 2014. (Supplied)

Its first show, “Exhibition 1,” and featured four female artists — Saudi-born Dana Awartani, Iranian Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, India’s Nasreen Mohamedi, and Indian New Yorker Zarina Hashmi — and focused on Islamic architectural elements and design.  

On May 15, the IAIA doors opened a new exhibition at a different location in downtown New York, featuring artwork by the late Iranian modernist Behjat Sadr, who, according to the show brochure, “broke through the male-dominated pre-revolutionary Iranian art world, establishing herself as one of the foremost artists of the 20th century with her biomorphic gestural abstractions that defied the status-quo.” 




Saudi artist Dana Awartani’s work from IAIA’s first group show back in 2017. (Supplied)

The Brooklyn-based artist Pooneh Maghazehe created a site-specific work for the façade of the building, which houses an intimate space with some curated items for sale on the side, including coffee-table books, trinkets, and custom garments from the East. 

Here, Al-Thani discusses his hopes for the IAIA, how he was inspired by the Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah, and looking beyond gender.  

Let’s start with an easy but complex question: How do you define Arab and Islamic Art? 

The term “Islamic Art” refers to certain artistic productions that are produced within a geographical realm. But there are Arab Christians and the majority of Muslims aren’t Arabs. You feel the diversity in the architecture and urban development — even in the south of Spain some of the food and language is inspired by our shared culture. The misconception that every Muslim is Arab is just not true. 

Saudi Arabia recently held the first Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah. How has the narrative about Arab and Islamic art changed — or not — since the launch of IAIA?  

The Islamic Art Biennale in Jeddah was a much-needed platform to discuss not only historical narratives around the influence of Islamic Art, but also to bring forward the diverse platform that exists within contemporary Islamic art and the role it’s had globally. If it wasn’t for the biennale in Jeddah, I wouldn’t have been introduced to so many cutting-edge artists from the region who present a compelling visual language.  

What are your hopes for the IAIA? 

There is a widespread stereotype that Arab women are not given a platform and that their voices are not heard. That might be true in some cases, but not in all cases. We look beyond gender, we look at the quality of work. And when we were building the (first) exhibition, the best work was created by female artists, so we decided to showcase them. 

And this current exhibition is also dedicated to a female artist. Are you making a deliberate statement?   

I have six sisters. I’m the only brother. I grew up with women and whatever opportunities I’ve had have also been given to my sisters. I know how hardworking my sisters are. That’s why, for me, it’s very easy to look beyond gender. For sure, in certain areas, women are not given an equal opportunity but we (at the IAIA) have to be able to grant them these opportunities. I’ve been really drawn to works by female artists. The work is solid. The artistic and stylistic approach is very genuine and independent to what we see from their male counterparts, and it’s our responsibility to give a different perspective on art being produced in the Islamic world. We are opening doors to people so they can experience work that hasn’t been experienced before.

Why did you decide to create this space in New York, rather than another city? 

The city is really a mecca for art and culture. When I came here, I saw that every civilization was represented except for the Arab and Islamic worlds. There are many museums and foundations in New York that showcase Islamic and Arab art, but it’s based on (Western) narratives. Westerners curate the shows and choose the artists. I think that, sometimes, stereotypes would come up mainly from Western perspectives. But when an institute is run by Arabs, you have a genuine narrative. So I felt it was time for us to build an institute to engage the community. We introduce the depth of Arab and Islamic culture. 

Let’s talk about the current exhibition. Why is the work of Behjat Sadr still relevant today? 

Behjat grew up at a time when the socio-political and cultural climate was being shaped by the oil industry, and so much of the thick oil and pigment she uses in her paintings is reminiscent of that. Many decades later, the region is still being defined by its natural resources, and their undeniable influence on nature, (and this is something) Behjat covered in her work more than half-a-century ago. Beyond the conversations surrounding the work, it was also important to showcase through Behjat’s work that artists from the region were creating abstraction simultaneously to the West and were active participants in that movement.  

What does the IAIA mean to you personally? 

Every morning I wake up, I want to make sure that those artists have a platform here. I want to make sure that they are able to show the Western audience that not everything produced in the region is distinctively political. Now you see this amazing work produced in Arab countries that you can put it in any museum in the world, and in some cases, you can’t identify gender. It’s good, solid art. It is work that speaks to a diversified audience that really drives me. The cultural exchange that once existed in the Islamic world, with translations of books from European languages traveling to and from the south of Spain — that was such an exchange across the civilizations. Today, with the technology that we have, why are we not doing that? I’m here not only to support my culture, but to open a dialogue. I’m here to connect people and artists. I feel like that’s a duty we have. Poetry, science, technology and art belong to everyone and everyone should experience them. 


British-Pakistani opera singer receives royal honor for recording national anthem post-coronation

British-Pakistani opera singer receives royal honor for recording national anthem post-coronation
Updated 25 May 2024
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British-Pakistani opera singer receives royal honor for recording national anthem post-coronation

British-Pakistani opera singer receives royal honor for recording national anthem post-coronation
  • Saira Peter says she is privileged to contribute her voice to British government’s public events, citizenship ceremonies
  • She also recorded ‘God Save the Queen’ in 2018 and received acknowledgement and gratitude of Queen Elizabeth II

ISLAMABAD: A British-Pakistani Sufi Opera singer, Saira Peter, announced in a video message circulated on Saturday she received a letter of appreciation from Buckingham Palace for recording the British national anthem, “God Save the King,” following the coronation of King Charles III.
The British king’s coronation took place last May at Westminster Abbey in London. The event brought leaders and high-profile personalities from around the world and marked his official accession to the throne after the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022.
Upon receiving the recording, performed in the soprano vocal range, the highest of the female voice types in classical singing, the king sent Peter a letter conveying his good wishes and sincere thanks for her public services.
She also received a signed photo card from him and Queen Camilla.
“I want to share with all my followers how excited I am to receive a letter and card of appreciation and gratitude from His Majesty King Charles the Third,” Peter said in the video, where she mentioned she was Pakistan’s first opera singer. “This arrived in response to my civic service of recording the British national anthem, ‘God Save the King.’”
“Being British-Pakistani, I feel so privileged to contribute my skill and voice to the British government’s public events and citizenship ceremonies,” she added.
Peter informed the British national anthem was recorded at the request of UK Government offices at Hastings Town Hall in East Sussex. The recording is now used across her adopted country for official government events.
Previously, she recorded “God Save the Queen” in 2018, making her the first Asian and the only Pakistani officially invited to undertake the task. Peter also received acknowledgment and gratitude from the late queen.
Born in Karachi, the opera singer told Arab News during her visit to Pakistan last year she used to sing in church choirs and began her Western classical journey, learning from Paul Knight, a disciple of Benjamin Britten, in London in the early 2000s after her family moved there.
Peter’s father, Zafar Francis, pioneered the Noor Jehan Arts Center in London, which was opened by British superstar Sir Cliff Richard in 1998.
She is the director of the performing arts center and teaches both Western and Pakistani classical music there.
She said her work in Britain was projecting “a positive image of Pakistan.”


UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott

UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott
Updated 25 May 2024
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UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott

UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott
  • Speakers, performers pull out from scheduled appearances in protest over Baillie Gifford sponsorship
  • Boycott organizer: Hay must shun future sponsorship by companies with links to ‘Israeli occupation, apartheid or genocide’

LONDON: The UK’s Hay literary festival has dropped its main sponsor over a boycott criticizing its links to Israel and fossil fuel companies.

Speakers and performers at the festival pulled out from scheduled appearances in protest over investment firm Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the event, The Guardian reported.

On Friday, the festival said it was canceling its sponsorship deal with the firm.

Singer Charlotte Church and comedian Nish Kumar had earlier pulled out of appearing at the event.

In a statement on her social media channels, Church said she had taken part in the boycott “in solidarity with the people in Palestine and in protest of the artwashing and greenwashing that is apparent in this sponsorship.”

Fossil Free Books, the group that has led the campaign against Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the event, has demanded that the firm divest from companies “that profit from Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide.”

More than 700 writers and publishing professionals have signed a statement by FFB concerning the Hay festival campaign.

Kumar shared the statement online in announcing the cancelation of his appearance.

An FFB organizer said: “Hay festival is right to listen to the concerns of hundreds of book workers who are working to create fossil-free and genocide-free festivals.

“Hay must now develop a fundraising policy that rules out any future sponsorship by companies that invest or profit from the fossil fuel industry, Israeli occupation, apartheid or genocide, and any other human rights abuses.”

Hay CEO Julie Finch said the festival’s decision to cancel the sponsorship deal with the firm was taken “in light of claims raised by campaigners and intense pressure on artists to withdraw.”

She added: “Our first priority is to our audience and our artists. Above all else, we must preserve the freedom of our stages and spaces for open debate and discussion, where audiences can hear a range of perspectives.”

Baillie Gifford began its relationship with the festival in 2016 as a principal sponsor. A spokesperson said: “It is regrettable our sponsorship with the festival cannot continue.”


Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes

Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes
Updated 25 May 2024
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Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes

Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes

DUBAI: Saudi film “Norah,” starring actress Maria Bahrawi, this week received the Special Mention accolade, which recognizes films for outstanding achievements, at the 77th Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard awards.

The cast and crew, accompanied by director Tawfik Al-Zaidi, stepped onto the stage to accept the accolade in front of a full house.

The film, shot entirely in AlUla, is set in 1990s Saudi Arabia when conservatism ruled and the professional pursuit of all art, including painting, was frowned upon. Besides Bahrawi, the movie also stars Yaqoub Al-Farhan and Abdullah Al-Satian. It follows the story of Norah and failed artist Nader as they encourage each other to realize their artistic potential in rural Saudi Arabia.

“Norah” had its official screening at the festival on Thursday, becoming the first film from the Kingdom to screen as part of the official calendar at the event.

The movie was backed by the Red Sea Fund — one of the Red Sea Film Foundation’s programs — and was filmed entirely in AlUla in northwest Saudi Arabia with an all-Saudi cast and a 40 percent Saudi crew.

Un Certain Regard’s mission is to highlight new trends in cinema and encourage innovative cinematic works.

Chaired by Canadian actor, director, screenwriter and producer Xavier Dolan, the jury included French Senegalese screenwriter and director Maimouna Doucoure, Moroccan director, screenwriter and producer Asmae El Moudir, German-Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, and American film critic, director and writer Todd McCarthy.

Chinese director Guan Hu’s “Black Dog” won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section.

Marking Guan’s debut at Cannes, the film follows a former convict who forms an unexpected bond with the titular animal while clearing stray dogs in his remote hometown on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

The jury prize was awarded to “The Story of Souleymane,” directed by Boris Lojkine, marking his return to the festival after a decade since his 2014 feature “Hope.”

The film portrays the journey of a Guinean food delivery man who must create a compelling narrative for his asylum application interview in Lyon within a two-day timeframe.


Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh

Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh
Updated 25 May 2024
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Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh

Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh

RIYADH: Cameras flashed and crowds cheered as Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit the red carpet at Roshn Front’s VOX Cinema in Riyadh on Friday night to mark the fourth installment of the “Bad Boys” film franchise.

“Bad Boys: Ride or Die” arrives 30 years after Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, played by Smith and Lawrence, respectively, teamed up as the infamous buddy cops.

The latest film, exclusively in cinemas on June 6, shows how the characters have changed over the years.

“Their backs have gotten weaker, and their knees hurt more,” Smith said jokingly.

“Part of what we wanted to do with the franchise is to have the characters grow in an age-appropriate way,” he told Arab News.

“We are trusting that the audience wants to grow with us, wants to go with us, and wants to follow the natural progression of life and what these characters would be going through.”

The film continues to mix action, drama and comedy, but also allows the characters to grow and develop spiritually.

“The core of the movie is about friendship, love, and family,” Smith said.

“And would you ride or die for your partner?” Lawrence added.

The film builds on the success of the third installment, “Bad Boys For Life,” released in 2020, with the directorial duo for the latest production, Bilall Fallah and Adil El-Arbi,  reportedly inspired by video games.

Lawrence said the “top notch” directors were great to work with, and inspired the actors to “come up with magic.”

Smith added: “It’s interesting working with non-American directors; there’s such a different perspective… You know, they were (young) when the first movie came out, so there’s such a reverence for the original films. They’re bringing that energy, but they also want to put their signature on it. Energetically, it was fun to work with them, and also their openness to the spirituality of the film was also refreshing.”

Action films, whether “Mission Impossible” or the more recent “Monkey Man,” have enjoyed a revival in recent years, and both actors believe the genre will always have a place in the industry.

“The physical wars of humanity represent the inner wars that we go through. So, I think human beings are always going to like watching a good visualized external battle that they can relate to,” Smith said.

“We all know internally that life is kind of a series of ordeals. How do you manage these ordeals and put things back together? And I think that this movie is a comedic look at two people trying to be friends, surviving ordeals together, which changes them without life breaking their relationship. It’s like a standard bromance.”

With the film premiere taking place in Saudi Arabia’s capital, both stars expressed their excitement over initiatives underway in the Kingdom.

Smith said: “I performed at Soundstorm and everything is brand new. The energy of 40 and 50-year-old people in Saudi is like the energy of 20 and 30-year-old people in America.

“It’s like there is this powerful sense of being on the cusp of the future. It’s showing up in music, it’s showing up in art, it’s showing up in architecture, and hopefully shows up at the cinema tonight.”


Dave Chappell says support for Gaza war is result of ‘antisemitism in the West’ at Abu Dhabi show 

Dave Chappell says support for Gaza war is result of ‘antisemitism in the West’ at Abu Dhabi show 
Updated 24 May 2024
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Dave Chappell says support for Gaza war is result of ‘antisemitism in the West’ at Abu Dhabi show 

Dave Chappell says support for Gaza war is result of ‘antisemitism in the West’ at Abu Dhabi show 

DUBAI: US comedian Dave Chappelle performed to a packed audience at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena on Thursday as part of Abu Dhabi Comedy Week, where he also addressed the war in Gaza.

“What is happening in Gaza is a direct result of antisemitism in the West,” he said on stage.

“If you are in America, the best thing you can do is to make American Jews feel safe, feel loved and supported so they can know they don’t have to support a country that is committing genocide just to feel safe,” he added. 

Chappelle previously slammed the Israeli bombing of Gaza, as well as the US support for it, at a show in Boston in October.

According to people in attendance, an audience member asked Chappelle to shut up, which sparked a heated response from the comedian.  

“You can’t take tens of billions from my country and go kill innocent women and children and tell me to shut the f--- up,” he said, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

Some members of the crowd began chanting “free Palestine,” to which Chappelle replied: “You are damn right, free Palestine.”