[Postcard] | The Curator, by Armin Rosen | Harper's Magazine

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Touring Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi's art collection

The twin prisms of Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi’s compound rise above a sprawl of palm trees and squat sandpaper villas. Dubai’s Safa neighborhood is empty-feeling and opulent, especially when it’s in the grips of a 110-degree August heat that drives everyone behind their pilastered perimeter walls and tinted-blue mansion windows. Al-Qassemi, the forty-year-old political commentator, art collector, and member of the royal family of the emirate of Sharjah is never openly contemptuous of the maximalist brand of conspicuous consumption perfected in his home country, but he also isn’t above hinting that there’s a better way. “I hope all the malls turn into art galleries,” he said during a presentation in Washington, DC, in September.

In Dubai, al-Qassemi was dressed in a flowing kandoorah, the semi-official uniform of aristocratic locals and a clear visual marker separating the United Arab Emirates’ male citizens from the other 95 percent of the country’s population. The compound’s main house had a museum-like atmosphere that compelled me to tiptoe around the rugs, although al-Qassemi assured me this was unnecessary. In contrast to these trappings of tradition and control, al-Qassemi has slummed it on the New York-to-Boston Greyhound, robe-free of course—“I am a Greyhound expert,” he later boasted. He spent much of September road-tripping around the United States in a modest rental car with a couple of close friends.

At the Safa houses, al-Qassemi bubbled with an aesthete’s enthusiasm. The radiant brushstrokes of a colossal portrait by the Syrian-born artist Marwan screamed across the ground floor sitting room of the main building—Marwan, who died in 2016, “was one of the most important artists, I believe, of the post-war period in the world,” said al-Qassemi. Every piece was “gorgeous” or “stunning”; the Portrait de Mademoiselle AC, a 1939 work by the Egyptian Ezequiel Baroukh (who was also Jewish, al-Qassemi noted) had the special distinction of being “stunning, stunning, stunning.” Al-Qassemi paused in front of the painting, in which half the sitter’s face is absorbed in shadow and her eyes are locked in a disarming forward stare. “I feel like she’s almost going to speak, you know?” he said.

An ink work from the acclaimed Sudanese abstractionist Ibrahim el-Salahi hung in the neighboring bedroom. Al-Qassemi had just acquired one of el-Salahi’s masterpieces: The Last Sound, completed in 1964 to commemorate the death of the artist’s father. In the painting, Sufi symbols and prayers for the dead orbit an unnerving black void. “Everything about this work just kills me,” al-Qassemi said. Lately the image of the painting had been the last thing to flicker in his mind before falling asleep each night, and he had been trying to buy it from an Arab seller in London for more than three years. “As we say in Arabic, You cook it on a cool fire. You wait for it, wait for it.”

The Safa houses are an education—in the Baghdad modernist school of the 1950s and 1960s, in the Kuwaiti sculpture movement, in the stories and histories that Western art scholars and frequent museumgoers have probably never heard before. Just off the living room of the main house is one of the few surviving sculptures by Issa Saqer al-Khalaf, a pioneering Kuwaiti artist whose disapproving son destroyed much of his father’s output shortly after his death in 2000. Nearby hangs an ennobling earth-toned portrait of two nameless Jordanian boys by Ali al-Jabri, a Syrian whose male lover murdered him in 2002. One of the most famous paintings in al-Qassemi’s collection, Kadhim Haider’s Fatigued Ten Horses Converse With Nothing, commemorates the killing of Iraq’s communists in the early 1960s. “See how the person depicted refuses to die,” al-Qassemi said of the subject of Mahmoud Sabri’s The Hero, which recounts the 1963 execution of the Iraqi communist leader Salim Adil and which al-Qassemi excitedly summoned on his iPhone during a meeting with an architecture scholar in New York in September—the conversation had set him on a tangent about depictions of leftist movements in Arab art. Then, pointing just beside the condemned man in the painting: “See how this child is looking straight ahead, instead of down.”

There are hints of subversion in al-Qassemi’s collection. In a painting by the Palestinian artist Jeffar Khaldi, a woman in a bikini leans out from an ethereal thought cloud hovering over a group of bored-looking old men. Banish the thought that this is a Saudi royal conclave: “I’m not gonna comment,” al-Qassemi smiled. It’s “a ruling family.” His grin widened. “It could be anyone!”

There’s art attached to every available surface, inside and out—a Jawad al-Mahi photograph of East Jerusalem’s Shuafat neighborhood covers over fifteen feet of a low mezzanine wall, roughly at knee-level. Towering Arabic calligraphy painted by the French-Tunisian graffiti artist eL Seed spans the back of the compound’s guest house—set against the still, eggshell surroundings, the painting is a fiery black-and-red announcement of the collection’s presence that’s visible from blocks away. Still, the house couldn’t be mistaken for an Emirati version of the Frick Collection. Art books were piled on a coffee table just under the unnerving gaze of the Marwan head, and when I visited, a neighbor’s butterscotch cat had made it over the property wall, with its occasional mewing becoming an anguished reminder of the outdoor heat. Al-Qassemi says that he has the resources to build a museum, but the cost would force him to stop acquiring new art. This would be an unacceptable trade-off for him. Al-Qassemi’s work as a collector isn’t complete yet, and he believes his collection’s significance goes beyond what a single building could achieve at the moment.

Since 2003, al-Qassemi has accumulated around 1,000 modern and contemporary works by Arabic-speaking artists or artists of Arab heritage. Under the guidance of three curators, works rotate through his Barjeel Foundation space, a small public gallery inside of a large arts center in al-Qassemi’s home city of Sharjah, about twenty minutes north of Dubai. Between 200 and 300 pieces are lent to museums around the world each year, something from which al-Qassemi derives no financial benefit. The collection, now one of the most important of its kind, is so vast and geographically scattered that there are major pieces al-Qassemi hasn’t actually seen before. At an opening of an exhibition of his works at Washington’s American University in September, he confronted an eerily static blown-up photo of exploding mortar shells by the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari for the first time, and uttered a long, guttural “wow.”

Until the UAE joined in the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar this past summer, al-Qassemi hosted a show on Al Jazeera’s AJ+ where he walked viewers through collection highlights. He had over 500,000 Twitter followers before he deactivated his account, and was one of Gulf Business’s one hundred most powerful Arabs of 2017, falling within respectable distance of Gigi Hadid. Al-Qassemi’s high profile doesn’t come from the art collection, but from a previous phase of his life as a public figure, when he emerged as one of the leading boosters of the Arab Spring protests and of Egypt’s failed push for democracy. In the wake of the region’s upheavals, al-Qassemi’s status as a political celebrity and an Emirati royal meant he had credibility with both liberalizing and traditional forces in the Middle East. He was also able to say things about his country that few others could—he wrote in favor of certain long-term residents being able to obtain citizenship, a dangerous proposal in a monarchy where roughly 10 percent of the population are UAE nationals.

After 2011, the exhilaration of the Arab Spring morphed into something disorienting and dark: Egypt’s democrats were crushed, demoralized, co-opted or exiled, and across the region protests often presaged crackdowns, terrorism, and civil war. The UAE itself developed a sharply nationalist streak as it plunged  into various regional quagmires, joining a large-scale military operation in Yemen, participating in the anti-Qatar boycott, weeding out subversives and reducing an already limited space for political expression.

Careers have risen and fallen on the Middle East’s sudden reversals, and al-Qassemi has smartly pivoted. Over the past few years, the focus of his life has been art, not politics, with their interplay never far from view. In 2016, al-Qassemi mounted an exhibition in Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, just as the Yemen conflict mutated into an Arab-Iranian proxy war. “Even if people can’t travel, art needs to travel,” he has said more than once.

After touring the Safa houses, al-Qassemi took the wheel of his burgundy Land Rover and, with markedly greater care than is typically exhibited on the Emirates’ dangerously ego-sodden roadways, drove one of his full-time lead curators and me to a dinner he had convened for a visiting German television crew. At a restaurant next to the Financial Centre with an impressively (if, perhaps, incoherently) cosmopolitan menu, I was seated between a British art critic—who was working on a novel that partly took place in this very restaurant, he explained—and a Lebanese startup founder, and not far down the table from a Palestinian human rights lawyer. Here, your shrimp could be tandoori- or szechuan-style, or stuffed into tortelloni. If you asked for them on a pizza, would they dare refuse? One diner suggested that the restaurant, with its stone Buddhas alongside art-deco-style lounges, was a microcosm of Dubai, a city with an unmatched ability to feel like everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“Ever since the Arab Spring I’ve been more interested in modern art,” al-Qassemi told me as plates of Goan fish curry and quattro formaggi pizza were cleared and warm cookie sundaes arrived. He now wants to “buy modern as much as possible,” partly to claim a place for Arabs in the pantheon of twentieth-century art. “I feel like the modern art movement is an important statement to people who say that there’s no art or art history in the Arab world,” he said. “It’s basically a giant ‘fuck you’ to all the chauvinists who come and say everything here is new, that everything here is a product of the last few years.”

Arab modernism also presents a model of openness and creative possibility—as well as a warning. In the 1950s and 1960s, a newfound sense of political and cultural potential pulsated through Arab societies, unleashing energies that were abused and squandered over the coming decades. “The identities of pan-Arabism, the identity of nationalism, of patriotism; the identity of being Lebanese and being Syrian and being Iraqi, being Nasserist, being Baathist” led to “art techniques that were largely in rejection of colonial forces,” al-Qassemi explained, with artists “going into deeper roots, rather than the training that they got from European and Western teachers.” It was an era in which the art reflected and advanced transformative new ideas. “The Arab world was more diverse then,” al-Qassemi also acknowledged. “Because we had Jews.”

During the Egyptian uprising, al-Qassemi had witnessed the rapid opening of possible destinies that hadn’t seemed to exist before. “The euphoria I felt—I could not describe it,” al-Qassemi recalled, likening the Tahrir Square activists he met in Cairo to characters from a novel made real. “I’ve never felt alive in that way in my life or since. At one point I felt like I could fly if I wanted to.”

Al-Qassemi’s Twitter account, once looked to as a definitive running digest of a new Middle East’s hopes and dreams, has been silent since mid-2017. It was tempting to look at his career as an art intellectual as a retreat, or a reaction to the dismaying experience of getting burned by one’s most hopeful delusions. Al-Qassemi assured me those were delusions worth suffering, maybe even delusions that one had no choice but to suffer. “I would rather not lose my sense of naiveté. I’d rather keep it. I would rather trust that what I see is real.” To react to a Tahrir Square–like moment with cool analytic skepticism would be “like going and saying the Northern Lights aren’t real, they don’t exist, that they’re just a reflection of lights. I would rather believe what I see.”

Earlier that night, al-Qassemi had boasted that he “curated dinners like I curated art.” He had gathered a group of far-flung relative strangers around a single long, black table separated from the rest of the restaurant by a heavy curtain, under the service of a headwaiter who knew al-Qassemi by name. At one point, al-Qassemi had me switch places with the Lebanese startup founder, in hopes he would strike up a conversation with the German TV crew’s translator, a young Pakistani who had grown up in Dubai but sat mutely throughout the dinner, casting stiff and baffled stares at a table of English-fluent people he barely knew. Al-Qassemi spoke to the pair in Arabic. “I just made up a lie and said he hates the UAE,” he confided, in reference to his Lebanese friend. “Now they’re gonna talk about it. I do that.”

There was a time when it felt like al-Qassemi was everyone’s curator, as if the Middle East’s wondrous upheavals were being filtered through him, 140 characters at a time. The early Arab Spring feels tragically distant from the present, but al-Qassemi hasn’t despaired. If anything, his actual goal is to prove that positivity is still worth the emotional and psychic investment, a proposition he was busy testing in reality, in ways grandiose and mundane: at the other end of the table, the translator and the startup founder were getting on famously.

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