KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — The United Arab Emirates may dominate the popular image of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries today, but for most of the 20th century the region’s poster child for oil-fueled prosperity and cosmopolitan aspiration was Kuwait. While the GCC countries have been playing a more public role in the global arenas of culture, media, business, and politics lately, their rise to prominence began decades ago with a movement funded by the region’s oil wealth. Kuwait City was the first city in the region to undertake a massive modernization project of the sort currently underway in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha — with extraordinary wealth, tempered cosmopolitanism, large migrant populations, and hyper-modernity — and remnants of that process continue to shape and inform the Kuwaiti capital’s unique cultural landscape.
Unlike its flashier cousins across the Gulf, Kuwait City’s global influence has dwindled. Gone are the casinos, bars, and nightclubs that once dotted the city. In their place is a nation where only the affluent drink alcohol, which is now illegal, behind closed doors and in gated communities, and women are pressured to dress conservatively in public. Yet interest in Kuwait’s history has started to increase as the nations of the GCC build museums and archives that are institutionalizing art and different forms of memory at a pace never before seen.
Architecture in Kuwait is some of the best in the region. Unlike modern buildings in the UAE or Qatar, Kuwaiti architecture is generally more austere. World-renowned architects, including Walter Gropius, I.M. Pei, Kenzō Tange, as well as a cluster of Nordic modernists, including Arne Jacobsen, Jørn Utzon, Malene Bjørn, and Reima Pietilä, have built significant structures in the country. Their contributions were part of a wave of aspirational architecture, an attempt to demonstrate the country’s newfound wealth coupled with a respect for tradition. Many of the buildings evoke strong geometry, which is a formal language shared by traditional Islamic art and Modernism. From 1946, when oil started to flow from the country’s oil wells, until the Kuwaiti stock market crash of 1982, the country went through what many consider a “Golden Age” during which the majority of these high-profile architectural commissions were erected. Arab architects would eventually contribute to the cityscape, including urban planners like Saba George Shiber and architect Ghazi Sultan, even though the majority of bold-faced names were non-Arabs. Some of these Golden Age structures remain, but many have been altered or given facelifts to make them more decorative — Jacobsen’s Central Bank is hardly recognizable today.
In other cultural fields, such as art, theater, and film, Kuwait also used to be at the forefront. It produced its first feature film, فيلم بس يابحر (The Cruel Sea), in 1972. In 1969, the Sultan Gallery opened and it was the first modern art space in the region. Unlike the white box spaces we normally associate with modernism, the gallery covered its walls with raffia, which gave it a more subdued quality and grounded the space with local materials. The gallery showcased and facilitated shows by both international artists, like Andy Warhol, and Arab artists, like Dia Al Azzawi and Munira al Kazi.
Warhol even mentions the Kuwaiti art scene in his infamous Diaries, though largely in a dismissive manner. On January 18, 1977, he wrote:
Visited a Kuwaiti artist atelier. Three artists in each room. This time tea or orange pop. Visited each stall, had to. One guy painted in Picasso-Chagall style. Not one original style. They sit on the floor and paint on rugs and pillows, it looked like hippie streetwares, like the sixties. It was the only nicely designed building in Kuwait because it was a copy of the Ford Foundation. Got a tour of the building. The man said it was very Kuwaitian.
Two days earlier he wrote:
Visit to the National Museum, there’s no history to this place, it goes back twenty-five years. There were like eight rooms, one had three coins in the whole room. Think there was one room that Alexander the Great left some pots in.
Like many people of his generation, Warhol didn’t understand the interests of Arab modernism, its postcolonial history, its interest in resistance, its relationship to modernity, or any of the tenets that made it unique.
The Sultan Gallery’s avant-garde role as a pioneer of Arab modernism is the stuff of legend, but the gallery does not rest on its laurels. Two years ago it was the first space to exhibit the work of the now world-renowned GCC artist collective. The fact that the GCC art group got their break in Kuwait is no coincidence. Many of the members have family ties to the country, and their work has more relevance in a nation that has already gone through the cycles of boom and bust that have affected the region for over a century. The collective uses the language of contemporary corporate communication, but with an understanding that the hollow verbiage and sleek signs that dominate conferences rarely help generate understanding. If the UAE has come to be the region’s futuristic beacon, Kuwait is the temperate older sibling, one that is no longer intoxicated by blind ambition. In the context of Kuwait, GCC’s work has a more foreboding connotation than it can have in other locales.
During the first half of Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum in Kuwait City (March 14 and 15), a number of presenters lamented the loss of Kuwait’s once cosmopolitan status. Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, the co-director of the event, pointed out that Al-Arabi magazine, which was published in Kuwait starting in 1958, was a leading Arabic-language magazine in the world. He also cited it as one of the first times that a nation in the GCC went beyond consuming global culture to become an important producer. Its editor in chief from 1999 to 2013, Sulaiman Al Askari, spoke about the publication’s history, its readership in countries across West Asia and North Africa, and how the content was never impacted by censorship during its early years.
In the 1980s, the local stock market crisis coupled with a conservative Islamic movement bolstered by the 1979 Iranian Revolution changed the country. The 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq fully interrupted the project of modernization as the country faced physical devastation, migrants moved away, and thousands died or went missing. Only in the last few decades has the country been able to rekindle its modernization program, though on a smaller scale.
One of the most significant structures built in Kuwait in the last 20 years is the Arab Fund Building, which was designed by Qatari architect Yasser Mahgoub and completed in 1994, just a few years after the Gulf War. Filled with over 1,000 paintings and sculptures by Arab artists, the building is the headquarters of the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, which is the biggest of the four organizations housed there. A majestic library, giant marble atrium, automated meeting rooms, and lavish conference rooms, each more impressive than the next, are decorated with the work of artisans from across the region. Egyptian woodcarvers, Syrian metalworkers, Moroccan craftsmen, and others have created a jewel box that projects an image of unparalleled wealth, and the commissions have allowed the visiting artists to showcase their skills and at the same time fortify their businesses.
There are newer galleries and exhibition spaces in Kuwait, too. Amricani Cultural Centre, which was the first cement structure in the Gulf when it was built a hundred years ago as an American hospital, hosts exhibitions of all kinds. Dar Al Funoon, a gallery housed in an old Kuwaiti home and run by Lucia Topalian, has an impressive exhibition by Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian.
What my visit to Kuwait City consolidated for me is that it was at the origins of the modernization project that has since consumed the entire GCC. The country’s arc from regional hub to international financial center, its investment in culture, its difficulties at the hands of geopolitics, and the continuing tensions between secular and religious forces, offer important lessons and insights for those seeking to understand the region as a whole.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and accommodations were paid for by Art Dubai 2015.