bawa notes

Architecture Through the Lens of Gulf Artists

Written by Rashed Almulla (MABNAI)
22 August 2023
4 minute read

Artists and designers have long used art as a means to capture the transformative nature of their surroundings. Whether reflecting joyful childhood memories or addressing contemporary issues, art serves as a documentation and exploration of changing spheres.

Across the globe, international artists have consistently depicted their own cities, capturing the essence of street life and urban landscapes. From Hiroshige's vibrant scenes of Tokaido in "Otsu" (1840), to Caillebotte's portrayal of "Paris Street" (1877), and Hopper's depiction of New York's railway in "Approaching the City" (1946) (presented above). These artists have provided glimpses into the heart of their respective cities.

But how does this artistic tradition transfer to the Gulf region? The Gulf artists share a common practice of observing their surroundings and ensuring their art reflects the unique culture, identity, cities, and architectural elements of the region. In Saudi Arabia, for example, pioneers of Saudi art have taken a stance to document the ever-changing urban landscape. Safeya Binzagar's "AlMahmal" (1972) and her "Untitled" (1964) (presented above) are notable works that illustrate elements of the local Hejazi house, preserving traditional elements and layouts. Another Saudi painter, Khaleel Hassan, portrays the traditional urban form of Jeddah in his dynamic painting "When the Moon Lands" (~1970-80s), blending it with a luminous moon at its core.

In the United Arab Emirates, artist Abdulqader Alrais is recognized for his works capturing the disappearing Bastakiya neighborhood, a place close to his heart. His artwork "Barjeel" (1987) showcases the treasured windtower with a slightly cracked roof, symbolizing the demise of the building and the broader erasure of identity.

As time progresses, the artists' focus shifts from documenting their surroundings to preserving their memory. Saudi painter Abdulhalim Radwi's paintings, such as "Al Sham District" (1985) and "Neighborhood" (1986), depict the streetscapes of Jeddah, aiming to evoke nostalgic memories in the face of rapid modernization.

A more focused approach emerges, with artists documenting destruction and decay. Saudi artist Ali Alruzaiza's "The Remaining Beauty" (1987) and Alrais' "Decay" (1989) (presented above) both capture traditional houses on the verge of collapse. These artists seek to showcase the beauty of vernacular architecture amidst the emerging modernist trends.

Throughout the 1990s, artists continued their documentation efforts with various approaches. Kuwaiti artist Ibrahim Ismail's "The Souq" (1995) and Saudi artist Nabeela Al-Bassam's "Houses" (1997-1998) utilize a multi-layered approach in painting depicting different Gulf elements into one canvas such as the Kuwaiti national dress or Sadu weaving. Alrais' "Impressions" (1992-9X) series reveals different forms stacked upon one another, showcasing the reinterpretation of Khaleeji architectural elements and Gulf urban forms.

The Omani artist Hassan Meer recalls his former city of Muscat through a collage approach, one that combines photographs with digital art. In particular, “Reflections from Memories” (2008) (presented above) showcases a structure that is about to be demolished with Arabic text which translates to “The old house’s walls collapse from weeping”. These different interpretations express the nostalgia withheld within architects on the former version of their cities, houses, or even neighborhoods.

In 2018, nostalgia ensues the Qatari artist Yousef Ahmed Al-homaid (commonly known as Yousef Ahmed) in entangling his memories of a city he remembers in the series titled, “When I remember the past” (2018-19), which was exhibited in Msheireb Museums. The artworks were featured on the same grounds that held similar architectural language. A language that was pan-Khaleeji (pan-GCC) in essence.  

In recent times, artists continue to explore Gulf’s architecture through different approaches. The Emirati artist Khalid Mezaina's "Windtower" (2010) (presented above) reinterprets the UAE's iconic Barjeels or wind towers using silk screen techniques. Emirati painter Mohamed Kazem's famous series "Neighbors" (2018) depicts split air conditioners sticking outside houses, symbolizing the late modernism period of UAE architecture. On the digital front, Kuwaiti artist Dana Al Rashid's latest digital exhibition (2022) (presented below) carries forward the artist's role in documenting architectural heritage, portraying the demolition of Al-Sawaber, celebrating Kuwait's Water Towers, and capturing urban sceneries of now-demolished ice skating rinks.

The nature of artists recreating, drawing, depicting, documenting, and analyzing their urban surroundings will persist in some capacity. The essence of urban documentation, intentionally or unintentionally, remains evident in the Gulf. Gulf artists have and will continue to depict their surroundings and memories in distinctive forms and styles, which may not always receive widespread international acclaim. The question remains whether their work is a response to the rapid changes in the Gulf's urban landscape or simply an expression appreciated by the local market and audience. Their work serves as a testament to the ever-evolving nature of the region and its cultural identity.

Acknowledgements to Barjeel Art Foundation, Ghadeer Sadeq, Msheireb Museums, The National, and Gulf News for documentation and support in research