THE ART OF COLLECTING ART IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Saudi Art patron and the founder of BASMOCA
“I don’t believe that you need money or power to find truth in something beautiful”
A Saudi national, Basma Al Suleiman is considered to be one of the 100 most influential people in the Art World and one of the most relevant collectors and art patrons in the Middle East. She is the founder of BASMOCA (Basma Al Sulaiman Museum of Contemporary Art), a museum and art gallery that relies on cutting edge visual technologies to disseminate her collection among a wider audience. As she says:
“by embracing technology, we can make the collection available to as many people as possible,
all over the world. To be able to show an international collection in a global forum, this is the future”.
Basma gained a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature in Jeddah and, some years later, took the diploma course in Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s. A love of international travel brought Basma into contact with contemporary art and she began to collect by instinct, her first acquisition, a David Hockney, was bought in New York before she even really knew the identity of the artist. She then relished the challenge and began to collect in earnest, bringing home works by Frank Stella, David Mack, Renier Fetting and Luciano Castelli. In 2004, Basma started looking into Chinese contemporary art. Travelling all over China, visiting artists’ studios and young galleries, Basma bought from artists such as Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Huan.
Aside from BASMOCA, Basma is one of the founding members of the Saudi Art Council and the brain behind Jeddah Sculpture Park.
Basma was interviewed by TGSM when she was attending Arco, the Contemporary Art Fair held in Madrid.
TGSM: Behind every art collection there is a human story. What is the personal story behind your own collection?
BA: I’ve always felt very connected to the aesthetic, especially in visual art, but when I started to study art I realized that the art world is often seen as a closed circle where only the elite can enter. This has never sat well with me; I don’t believe that you need money or power to find truth in something beautiful. I want to build a collection that will cross borders and cultural boundaries, so everyone can feel welcome and find something they love. Of course my collection is very personal, I feel connected to the pieces in it, but I want others to share that connection with me.
Art is about communication; after all, about reaching out to another human being and saying, “I feel that way too.” It’s the perfect way to tell people they’re not alone, and I don’t want anyone to miss out on that.
TGSM: In the 1940´s André Malraux had this idea about creating a Musée Imaginaire, an Imaginary Museum where reproductions of works of art from different times and traditions could have a conversation in the minds of the beholders unconstrained by borders and physical walls. In our days, digital technologies are allowing Malraux´s vision to become real. Your own project, BASMOCA, is a virtual museum where global visitors can have on line access to your private collection. In your view, what are the main promises and perils that digital technologies can entail for the art world from the point of view of creators, curators, collectors and, of course, the spectator? What is your personal experience in this regard?
BA: My personal experience has been very positive overall. Digital technology is going to help museums a great deal, as this new generation has different needs and demands than the ones who came before. Technology is so prevalent in our world today, and we can use it to reach a wider audience! Communities in remote areas who might not be able to visit a physical museum often still have access to the internet, and we can tap into that to introduce them to so many wonderful things, art included. The traditional concept of museums is not obsolete, by any means, but can certainly be enhanced by embracing the opportunities that technology offers.
TGSM: Your collection span different artists, styles and cultures but, at the same time, you seem to have a particular interest in the contemporary art emerging in the Middle East and the Far East. Both regions were connected before the current Western-centric wave of globalization by myriad threads across the Silk Road and the Indian Ocean. Are we witnessing a revival of those connections, also in the art scene?
BA: I think the connection has always been there, due to geographical proximity, but was maybe a little overshadowed by Western influences.
The challenges faced by the Middle East and Far East, back in history as much as today, are very much the same. We are trying to prove ourselves and find alternatives for social situations, so this creates a kind of bond through common interests.
We’re both trying to find our place in a constantly changing, modernizing world, and there are a lot of stereotypes to be dealt with! As technology connects us, younger generations have realized that they are facing similar situations and challenges, and that’s brought them together in many ways, including in the art world. Art allows us to be open and vulnerable with each other, to really learn about one another and truly understand our struggles. When we do that, when we really start to see one another, we realize that our struggles are not so different. This helps us to forge those lasting connections.
TGSM: Tell us about your favourite ancient, modern and contemporary artists…
BA: This is a difficult one! As far as ancient artists go, I have a deep respect for early nomadic artists; after all, they’re where it all began! I adore the paintings and drawings in the Cave of Altamira, as well as the rock art in the Saudi Hail region. So incredible! I also very much admire the works of Diego Velázquez, he has been such an inspiration to so many artists since, how could I not mention him!
As for modern, Picasso, of course! Edvard Munch is another modern artist that immediately springs to mind, his work is so very human. Dark sometimes, yes, but he really captures the sense of modern anxiety, I think, in a very relatable way.
Then for contemporary artists…
I am particularly drawn to Middle Eastern calligraphers just now, especially Dana Awartani and Hamid Nasir. The level of detail in their work is truly astounding!
TGSM: Madrid, Paris, London, Berlin, New York…. Western capitals have monopolized the art scene and the art market, but things art changing. We are witnessing the opening of new museums and cultural venues in the Middle East and Asia- Pacific with an increasing global reach, what are the main drivers behind this shift? Is it just money, sheer demographics or a structural transformation in the domain of art appreciation?
BA: It’s certainly not about the money.
There’s been new interests sparked in these regions that can partly be credited to cultural transformations, but I think a lot of it has to do with the desire to find a language to communicate with the rest of the world.
We want to open a window, not only into other cultures so we can see and learn, but into ours so others can come to know us too. There’s a real desire in the Middle East to not be isolated or pushed aside anymore, and since art is such a reflection of culture, it’s the perfect way to make connections.
TGSM: The Middle East is undergoing profound and often dramatic transformations, to what extent art can help healing and overcoming past and current traumas in the region? How do you see your role as an Arab woman in this evolving landscape?
BA: Art is going to play a critical role going forward, especially due to the way people perceive the Middle East and Islam. Culture is the new language where you can find a common ground for people to integrate, talk, and come close to each other without any fear of being judged or scrutinized. We can look past stereotypes with art and really see the human person. Art is a safe ground for all cultures and religions to come together and be open.
As for myself, I think it’s tremendously important that these cultural movements are led by women. The landscape is ready in the Gulf now, and a lot of changes are happening.
Women are being empowered and being given, in Saudi Arabia especially, a lot of opportunities and already they are playing a bigger role.
TGSM: And finally, getting back to the story behind your collection, what projects are you currently involved in and what are the prospects for your collection?
My current project is called BASMOCA Art, which is a virtual museum and social media platform. The goal of the project is to introduce people to art in a very accessible, fun way. As we talked about earlier, people often think art is for the elite, and I don’t agree. Art brings us together and helps us understand each other. No one should feel alone in this world, and through art we can make wonderful connections, learn from each other, and build communities.
That’s the goal of BASMOCA Art, to build a community where we can learn about art, share ideas, and connect.
We do informative posts, interesting facts, memes, and every other week we highlight a particular artist to discuss and engage with. There are lots of videos and fun things on my Instagram and on the Facebook page, and I love to see people reacting to the posts. It’s such a joy when people start chatting about what they like or don’t like about a work of art!
As for the collection, I’m in the process of upgrading the museum to make better use of virtual technology. I’m still collecting in the meantime, of course, but I want to make the collection accessible. It’s not just for me, I want everyone to be able to enjoy it!