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Correcting misconceptions of the Gulf’s modern art movement

Contrary to what some may believe, a vibrant indigenous visual arts tradition does exist in the Gulf.
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On Oct. 25, after a brief visit to the region, a Wall Street Journal writer declared, “The Arabic-speaking part of the Gulf has essentially no indigenous tradition of visual or plastic arts.” It isn’t the first time that the modern art movement in the Gulf was dismissed by those who don’t know better. In fact, modern art as defined in the West stretches back several decades across the Gulf with multiple generations of artists.

According to Maha al-Sinan, 1958 saw the first public art exhibition held in Saudi Arabia. The most famous of the many Saudi art pioneers was the sculptor and painter Abdul Halim al-Radwi, who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in the 1960s and whose art is part of art museums in Brazil, Jordan and Spain among others. Radwi was known for having refused a substantial sum of money to sell an artwork that won an award at the 1988 biennial in Spain opting instead to have it displayed in his own art museum in Jeddah. Among Radwi’s two dozen or so peers were pioneering women including Safia bin Zagr and Muneera Mousli, who went on to exhibit in Europe and the Middle East. Today, 400 of the 650 students at the King Saudi University College of Art Education are female.

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