Why the Arab world must embrace placing art online

Art institutions and collectors in the Arab world need to make a giant leap into the present day and invest

Sultan Al Qassemi
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In February 2014, I received an email from the then curator of London’s Whitechapel Gallery, Cairo-born Omar Kholeif. Mr. Kholeif inquired about the possibility of organizing an exhibition in London from the Barjeel Art Foundation collection of Arab art. Eighteen months later, Imperfect Chronology, the name chosen for the landmark exhibition that with over 100 artworks is the most comprehensive display of art from the Arab world ever in the West, was inaugurated in London. When I asked Mr. Kholeif why he specifically picked Barjeel from among all other collections he replied, “It was the only one I could view and study online.” It was only then that I realized how essential it was to have an online presence for Arab art.

At the outset, it is important to first acknowledge what is perhaps the very first Arab art collection online belonging to respected Saudi businessman Adel al-Mandil whose Kinda Foundation held a historically important exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in 2002. The very next year a website was launched that despite its closure is a major milestone in the modern history of the online presence of Arab art. Today, Mr. Mandil’s son Fahad has created the most extensive online portal of Arab art on Pinterest titled the Arab Modern & Contemporary Art Project (The AMCA Project for short) with over 2,200 “pins” including images of artworks and of the artists themselves.

Shying away

Unfortunately, many collectors in the Arab world shy away from placing their art collection online. The reasons for this vary and may include an aversion to a public display of wealth, a fear of potential taxation even in the Gulf states and a lack of awareness of the importance of such a move. Additionally, the vast majorities of art museums in the Arab world have little to no online presence or have not updated their websites in many years. For instance, the Musée National des Beaux-Arts in Algiers which is probably Africa’s largest updates its website intermittently, while Egypt’s National Art Museum’s website, launched in 2007, is often down and doesn't appear easily on Google search results.


Amman’s National Art Gallery, although created many years ago, still remains accessible, user friendly and is continuously updated. In the case of Egypt an online presence is essential since many of the museums remained closed for many years following the uprising of 2011. Furthermore, a notable number of artists in the North Africa and West Asia still lack an online presence. Although financial reasons might play a part artists can easily make use of social media networks to establish online galleries for their works. Kuwait’s National Art Museum, the Sharjah Art Museum and Morocco’s new Mohamed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rabat also need to spruce up their online presence. Moreover, despite the welcome news of the reopening of the Iraq’s National Museum of Modern Art in November 2014 no online portal has been established as of yet.

One of the most important displays of Arab art online belongs to Qatar’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, whose collection exceeds 9,000 artworks. Although Mathaf’s own website lacks an extensive gallery of works they were the first in the region to partner with Google Cultural Institute on the Google Art Project where visitors can view 90 works dating back to the early 20th century in ultra-high resolution from the brushstrokes of Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi’s Memories No.1 (1968) to the chisel marks of Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar’s On the Banks of the Nile (1931).

Today Barjeel’s website includes close to 1,000 images of Arab artworks as well as a Google Art Museum virtual tour of aide-mémoire: footnotes (PDF) one of our recent exhibitions. We have also expanded our presence on Instagram, Pinterest, Wikipedia, Twitter, Flickr, Google Plus, Vimeo and YouTube. The bottom line is: If the masses won’t go to the art, take the art to the masses. Barjeel Art Foundation has become the second regional institution after Mathaf to partner with Google Cultural Institute where we now have over 800 images of Arab art many, including Hamed Ewais’ 1967 masterpiece Le Gardien de La Vie with ultra-high resolution viewing options.


Other major Arab and Iranian art patrons such as the Dubai based Samawi Collection that holds Louay Kayyali’s 1965 masterpiece “Then What?” as well as the Farjam Collection have also made their collections available online via PDF. Other notable collections online include Saudi based Basma al-Sulaiman and Al-Mansouria as well as the Jalanbo Collection from the New York based Syrian art patrons. Beirut’s Mokbel Art Collection and the Instagram only Abraham Karabajakian collection from Lebanon can also be easily viewed. Western art collections and initiatives have also launched dedicated portals for Arab art including Germany’s Nadour which also includes Iranian art and Nafas Art Magazine whose remit extends beyond the Arab world.

Art institutions and collectors in the Arab world need to make a giant leap into the present day and invest in creating online portals for the region’s art. We can all play a part in countering the negative narrative of extremists in the region by virtually displaying our arts and culture. As someone once told me, “the best way to preserve one’s culture is to share it with the rest of the world.”

Sultan Al Qassemi is a columnist on Arab affairs and an MIT Media Labs Director’s Fellow. Sultan is also the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, an independent initiative established to contribute to the intellectual development of the art scene in the Arab region. He tweets @SultanAlQassemi

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