* Kuwait was cultural hub before 1990 invasion
* Art has suffered in past 20 years
* Young artists exploring sensitive topics
By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT, May 22 After two lacklustre decades,
Kuwait is experiencing a quiet revival of an arts scene once
known as the most avant garde in the Gulf, thanks to a new
generation eager to tackle sensitive issues using cutting-edge
The artists have been exhibiting works in the graphic arts,
photography, animation and fashion in private galleries but also
bypassing traditional venues and arts groups - and possible
censorship - by showing their work online to reach an audience
beyond the 3.7 million people in Kuwait.
"They are creating an excellent buzz," said Lucy Topalian,
who runs the Dar Al Funoon gallery in Kuwait which showcases
contemporary art from around the world.
Young people in tailored trousers and elegant jackets packed
her small gallery earlier this month to view Abdullah al-Saab's
dark dresses, shirts and capes hanging from the ceiling in front
of large black-and-white photographs.
The people in the photographs were blindfolded, some with
labels such as "wife", "lover" or "friend". One depicted a man -
the designer himself - bound with a thick rope, another a woman
in a smart dress spilling coffee from a paper cup as a foreign
maid kneeled on the floor to clear up the mess.
"I thought that some people would take it a little bit
sensitively. The amazing thing is that they actually have an
open mind and they can relate to it," said Saab, 27, on the
opening night of the show, "Boundaries".
Art aficionados and experts say those like Saab in their 20s
and 30s are helping to revive a cultural life damaged by
indifference, religious conservatism and, possibly most
importantly, the Iraqi invasion in 1990.
Kuwait has since rebuilt its badly damaged oil
infrastructure and in recent years private companies have poured
money into building skyscrapers, shopping malls and restaurants.
But many believe the arts have been neglected in a country
where state spending on basic public infrastructure has slowed
in recent years due to bureaucracy and political infighting,
despite huge oil revenues.
They point out that elsewhere in the Gulf, governments have
not only spent heavily on transport and transforming public
spaces, but also invested in museums and art projects.
DESTRUCTION OF WAR
When Sheikha Paula al-Sabah came home after U.S.-led troops
expelled Saddam Hussein's forces in 1991, she found her house
had been wrecked and the walls stripped of Middle Eastern and
Western art collected over decades. It took her several years
before she could bear to collect again.
"We have to catch up on a lot of things, but obviously there
were so many other things that were a priority when your whole
infrastructure was destroyed," Sheika Paula, an American who
married a member of Kuwait's royal family, told Reuters.
Other Gulf cities like Dubai and Doha pulled ahead in the
international arts world in the period, but some connoisseurs
say Kuwait still holds the edge thanks to its rich cultural
history and relative openness.
"The rest of the Gulf hasn't caught up with where Kuwait was
50 years ago, not only politically but also culturally," said
Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, an influential UAE collector and
commentator and founder of the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art
He cited Kuwaiti theatre, art exhibitions, commissions and
patronage, television and radio drama as examples of creative
"However, today the art scene is in need of a long-overdue
revival," he said, calling for national museums to be renovated
Sheikha Paula agreed it was time for the country to improve
its exhibition spaces, renovate museums and celebrate its
comprehensive Islamic art collection.
She cited the opening of the Contemporary Art Platform
gallery and annual auctions organised by her daughter Lulu as
evidence of a new phase in Kuwait's cultural life.
"It is a moment whose time has come," the former New Yorker
said. "These young collectors now are in their late 20s and 30s.
So this is a whole new energy. This is a whole new way of
looking at art."
That energy comes from challenging traditional ideas, said
Wafaa al-Husaini, a 23-year-old design student at the American
University of Kuwait who uses 3D animation and graphics to
explore issues such as sectarianism and feminism.
She set up a feminist group called Neda, which is organised
online and distributes posters of women doing things normally
seen as culturally unacceptable for them such as riding a
motorbike, fixing a car or smoking.
"I think it is the younger generation that is rebelling
against the norms and boundaries," she said, dressed in a
T-shirt she designed with the slogan "I am a man" in decorated
Kuwait enjoys greater political freedom and debate than the
other countries in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and
this feeds into an environment where artists can afford to take
bigger risks, artists and art lovers said. Limits remain,
Graphic designer Mohammad Sharaf described his bemusement on
reading news reports from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where women
are not allowed to drive, that women would no longer be stopped
from bicycling in parks as long as they were accompanied by a
"It was so silly, I did not expect it was true actually,
when I saw (the news) the first time," Sharaf, 31, said in his
office scattered with posters and art books in a shopping mall.
"I illustrated the real scene according to what they described."
"Allowed" shows a Saudi woman on a bicycle with her guardian
in a small basket behind her, staring out over the top of her
head. The simple black, white and red image was used widely in
Arab and Western media and reposted on hundreds of blogs and
Sharaf has also produced work about his native Kuwait, such
as a poster showing the parliament building made of bones or
pieces about free speech, inspired in part by the explosion of
democratic debate in North Africa and the Middle East sparked by
the Arab Spring uprisings.
He says he has not faced any restrictions in Kuwait, but
adds he keeps his works subtle and any criticism indirect.
"I don't assign names, or something very certain; it's
always vague. Actually it protects me, and from another aspect,
each viewer can absorb it differently," he said.
Some more established artists have run into difficulties
after pushing the boundaries. Shurooq Amin's "It's a Man's
World" exhibition was shut down in 2012 in Kuwait after
authorities said her paintings were "obscene".
A painting of a woman in a mini-dress sitting on a man's lap
entitled "My Mistress and Family" and another showing three men
playing cards and drinking what appeared to be contraband
alcohol were deemed by authorities a step too far.
Yet in April this year she received an "Artist of the Year"
prize at the Arab Woman Awards held in Kuwait, in what she sees
as a sign of an improved appreciation of bold artwork.
Amin said it was important to quietly encourage young
artists in a country where such a career can be especially
"It is not a big gigantic scream from the top of a mountain,
it's a little whisper in someone's ear," she said.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)