Founded in Sharjah, the third largest emirate in the UAE in 2010, the Barjeel Collection numbers around 600 artworks from the 19th century to the present day. It is one of the most extensive in the region, and modern and contemporary art constitute a fifth of it.

After an exhibition of some of the works was presented at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, a new exhibition featuring 100 masterpieces is now at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. In an era when works and heritage created by Arab artists are at risk of being destroyed in Syria and Iraq, discovering pieces from the Barjeel Collection seems significant.

Khaled Jarrar
The exhibition has been curated by Philippe Van Cauteren, artistic director of the S.M.A.K. in Ghent and curator of the Iraq Pavilion in the 2015 Venice Biennale. Al-Qassemi approached Van Cauteren and asked him to curate the show.

The pieces retrace the history of Arab art from the second half of the 20th century. It takes in paintings by the likes of Marwan Kassab Bachi (1934-2016, a Syrian artist based in Berlin), the Egyptian artist Ahmed Morsi who was born in 1930, and Etel Adnan, the 92-year-old Lebanese artist.

Nadia Ayari, The Fence, 2007, oil on canvas
Then it moves onto multi-media works by contemporary artists, including Adel Abdessemed, Kader Attia, Khaled Jarrar and Yto Barrada. What we see in the works by the younger practitioners is concern for freedom of expression, human rights, borders and conflicts, surveillance and terrorism. Al-Qassemi has spoken about how Palestine and its occupation by Israel has been a recurring theme, and how the war in Syria is very important.

As artists with origins from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere are exhibited together, a weaving of stories of Arab art and the complexities of the region comes under the spotlight.

Exhibition view. Courtesy: IMA – A.Sidoli
Exhibition view. Courtesy: IMA – A.Sidoli
Marwan Kassab Bachi, Der Gemahl, 1966, oil on canvas
Ahmed Morsi, Self-portrait, 1972, oil on wood
Etel Adnan, Sans titre, 1963-1964, oil on canvas
Adel Abdessemed, Souterrain, 2007