One of the Middle East’s leading supporters of art, Lulu Al Sabah has run auctions, opened her own consultancy, and remains a dedicated art patron. Selections caught up with her at Beirut Art Fair
A woman at the forefront of contemporary art in the Middle East, Lulu Al Sabah was a regional pioneer with auctioneers Christie’s and Phillips, opened her own consultancy in Kuwait, then launched a commercial gallery in Dubai. The daughter of prominent collector Paula Al Sabah, she visited Beirut to participate in Beirut Art Fair, where she spoke to Selections about contemporary art in the broader Middle East.
Ari Akkermans: Do you think there is a market for art in the Middle East? Is it profitable?
Lulu Al Sabah: I still feel that the collector pool is quite small and with the large number of galleries, it’s tough, and the pool of collectors definitely needs to increase. The galleries that set up in Dubai a long time ago have a larger market share than the galleries set up more recently, because it’s a long game. You need to establish your name for a few years in order to get the good artists. So it’s not a profitable business initially. You need to put money in and carry on doing so before it becomes a profitable business, that’s why many galleries fold and close after five or six years.
AA: How visible is contemporary art in the region, particularly in the public domain?
LS: I genuinely think that contemporary Iranian and Arab art will become part of the mainstream one day. It’s still a niche market, a small market, but I when I went to Frieze the first time, there was maybe one event in London focused on Middle Eastern art. Now when you go to Frieze, not only do you have galleries from the Middle East in Frieze Art Fair, but also you have so many events happening regarding contemporary Middle Eastern art, and that’s something. So you do see growth, but this is something that’s going to take time.
AA: Does all art from the region have to be political?
LS: Think about Reza Derakshani, the Iranian artist. There was a time when lots of artists were doing very political art, and Reza was doing completely something else. He has beautiful works and he’s an exceptional artist, but his works are beautiful and not political. But [at the same time] they are indeed very political because the government doesn’t want to see beauty. It’s very limited to pigeonhole contemporary Middle Eastern artists in such a fashion and I hope that with time the scope will widen to include a broader vision.
AA: There is a perception that there was no art in the Gulf before the rise of Dubai. Can you tell us what was happening in the Gulf then?
LS: In the 1960s artists in Kuwait pushed the government to create a studio space, and government scholarships allowed people to study abroad. People went abroad because we have no art academies and that’s a problem that no one is addressing. But there was a lot of activity. In Dubai you also had some conceptual artists.
AA: Is the lack of art education and criticism hindering the growth of art in the Gulf?
LS: Totally. People do not understand the importance of art criticism and its role in developing an art market. We have art journalists but we really don’t have art critics. It’s very sad that some people have talent from a very young age, but without an education how can they develop? With the museums opening in Abu Dhabi, I think there must be an art academy opening in the region in the next five years.
AA: Can you tell us about some Kuwaiti artists that are worth looking into at the moment?
LS: From the older generation, Sami Mohammed is the artist who is most known internationally. He’s been at auctions, shown internationally and his work was shown in Venice at the Kuwaiti pavilion. From the younger generation, Mohamed Kouh, who loved the technique of painting on photography but he taught himself and now he’s producing work in this technique.
AA: What do you see in the future for art from the Arab world over the next decade?
LS: I hope it will become a more selective process, so that not everybody can call himself an artist. Essentially, I think in the next 10 years there will be a natural growth from a niche market to a more mature market, and some artists might disappear, and others will move to the fore. Hopefully we will have a better art infrastructure and an art academy.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Rose Tinted issue #28, on page 84.