Where is ancient Arabia in contemporary Gulf culture? The great civilizations that flourished on the peninsula from the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam are nowhere to be found. At school, children are not taught about the subject; in public discourse, no mention is made of them. Unsurprisingly, the aesthetics and stories of ancient Arabia do not feature much in contemporary Gulf art.
At first sight this would appear to confirm the impression, held by many foreigners, but also by some Gulf Arabs themselves, that the history of the region has only started properly in the mid 20th Century; and that previous to that, there was only transient Bedouin culture, occasionally in contact with passing merchants and explorers but fundamentally unchanged since the times of the prophet. This is unlikely; but even if it were so, what about the period before Islam? What about the palaces built in Yemen, the complex scripts used in South and North Arabia, the extensive cities of Southern Arabia, the rock architecture of Meda’in Saleh, the sophisticated burial mounds of Oman, Bahrain and the UAE, the pottery and other fine crafts from Dilmun, Magan and other regions of the peninsula? What about the striking statues and other sculptures made all over the peninsula before the advent of Islam? There are great stories waiting to be told about this period.
The fragmentary information about the region provided in Persian, Assyrian, Greek and other classical accounts, together with the material evidence uncovered in numerous archaeological sites throughout the peninsula, provides only partial insights. It does not lead to a grand narrative about this period, such as exists about the Persians, Mesopotamians and Romans. This, however, provides an opportunity for both artists and scholars, who are adept at threading together these pieces of information, to create speculative narratives – and give them shape and expression in their artworks or texts.
What does all this matter to the contemporary societies of the Gulf? First, there are many parallels with the current moment to be explored: from the importance of the Indian Ocean trade and the resulting cultural exchange of antiquity, to the characteristics of a resource-based wealthy society (incense, copper and gold in the past, oil and gas now). It is also striking how, for the first time since the ancient times, most of the areas on the peninsula (with the sad exception of Yemen) are again flourishing, awash in material wealth. If the past can provide any lessons for present times, then certainly it is worthwhile exploring these parallels.
Second, the main narrative nowadays, that of Islam and the jahiliyya (age of ignorance), obscures the historical continuity that may have taken place over the millennia - for example in local cultural practices, or in a certain relation with the landscape. Moreover this narrative lays a blanket of uniformity over what was, and still is, essentially a pluralist society with rich cultural differences. Researching the relevance of ancient Arabia in contemporary Gulf societies can thus highlight both geographic diversity and historic continuity.
This research subject is extracted from an analysis of socio-cultural shifts which are already occurring in the region, not from an abstract, comparative scholarly point of view. It follows upon the analysis of the contemporary art world of the Gulf which I published in "Contemporary Art in the Gulf" (online here
I found that artists play a clear role in redefining contemporary Gulf identities, with all their differences, from the Asir to Bahrain and from Kuwait to Dubai. This is why the Gulf art world appeals not only to the international art crowd, but also has strong traction locally. I also found that artists in the Gulf are increasingly interested in the historical discontinuities buried in official narratives; a few of these artists are also investigating ancient Arabia and its heritage today, such as the half-Yemeni Ibrahim Quraishi (figure 1).
Gulf artists, however, do not have a particularly strong research tradition. The kind of research into subjects, materials, art history and social sciences which is practiced by artists elsewhere in the world is not yet common here. When researching history and archaeological matters, a bit of scholarly input is required. Luckily I discovered during my own preliminary research that scholars in the Gulf, and in particular in the UAE, are vividly interested in ancient Arabia.
Therefore the wish came to see artists and scholars work together, to explore how ancient Arabia could be represented in contemporary Gulf culture. This is one of the objectives of this research; a pretty ambitious one, as artists are not easy to nudge and scholars tend to be very busy. The only way it might work is by organizing field trips together, and then encourage the artists to follow up and produce relevant work. Work that could be included, for example, in a future exhibition.
But in general, I realize that I need to perform this research myself, by visiting sites, landscapes and institutions, and by engaging with scholars and artists on this subject. As so little is known about ancient Arabia, I decided to post all I find along the way - relevant objects, sites, institutions, articles, scholarly texts, websites – on my research website
and the associated Flickr account
– in the hope this might inspire artists and other art professionals. To assist me I have found a UAE-based researcher – Amal Bssiss – who is as interested in the subject as I am, performing and posting her own research.
While Amal trawls the internet looking for information such as academic nuggets and rare projects, my own research will be more philosophical. My recent work as a curator has focused on questioning the very notion of history, which I deem partially guilty for the global political stagnation (see more about this on my exhibition project website Crisis of History
). Looking at the work of artists, I have wondered whether it would be possible to move beyond history – which is a collective narrative, explaining who we are and how we got here by joining the dots of the past in a particular way. One solution could be by individually re-aligning these dots, in a speculative but nonetheless sound way, thus transforming the collective narrative into a personal one.
In any case I have no interest in helping to replace the void of knowledge that surrounds ancient Arabia with the grand narrative of history – which is naturally what many historians and other academics would like to do. I prefer the mystery and the opportunity offered by the lack of this grand narrative, allowing artists and myself to explore alternative approaches to the notion of history. These alternative approaches will structure the end result of the project, tentatively called the Museum of Contemporary Ancient Arabia.