He brought us the Arab Spring, live. Now he’s bringing art
Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, who tweeted the Arab awakening to legions of followers, brings to Aga Khan Museum an exhibit on place and identity
Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi arrived at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto one morning this week — slim build, in black jeans, open-necked shirt, neat beard, glasses — looking every bit the hipster Manhattan art maven.
As founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Qassemi is more than comfortable in that world. In fact, cosmopolitan and fluent in several languages, educated in Paris, he’s comfortable in many cultures.
What brought Qassemi to international celebrity was his live-tweeting during the Arab Spring of 2011, which made him a major explainer of the Arab world to the West, a role that remains a point of considerable pride.
What brings him to Toronto is his touring exhibit of contem- porary Arab art, the field that’s been a passion since his student days haunting the galleries and museums of Paris.
To this day, the 37-year-old laughed in an interview, he still has the ticket stubs from those visits during his teens. “It’s a strange habit, but I like it.” Qassemi is, to say the least, an interesting chap. He comes from one of the ruling families in the Emirates — not a background, the outsider would expect, that would spawn a populist champion.
Prior to the uprising that rocked the Arab world, Qassemi had been using social media, but mostly to share and promote art and the activities at the Barjeel Foundation, which he opened in 2010 and houses about 1,000 pieces.
“I feel very protective of the origin of the Arab Spring and the dreams and aspirations that were articulated by young Arabs in those days.”
“During the Arab Spring, there was a lack of instant translation of what was happening,” he said. “I sat down in front of a computer. I dedicated my time to instantaneous translation of speeches and breaking news. And apparently there was a lot of interest.”
There certainly was. Based in Sharjah, he went from having several thousand followers to having a few hundred thousand. Before he knew it, follow-ers were relying on his every tweet.
"When you’re in it, when you’re doing it, it’s euphoric. You have this rush and this energy, this momentum that keeps going on and on.”
He tweeted out news at a fantastic clip, better than one post a minute over long periods, tweeting at all hours and even from a wedding. He then wrote, and continues to file, freelance columns and analysis to major media outlets.
"I feel very privileged to have been part of this, and I feel very protective of the origin of the Arab Spring and the dreams and aspirations that were articulated by young Arabs in those days,” he said.And the celebrity born from his reporting of the turbulence brought opportunity.
"I started using this presence of mine to sort of share and post about Middle Eastern art, a sort of counternarrative to what was always being shared about destruction and negative news.”
To that end, the exhibit Home Ground opens Saturday day at the Aga Khan Museum, where it will run for the rest of the year. And in his curator from Barjeel — Suheyla Takesh — Qassemi may just have found the ideal person to oversee the event.
The exhibit, she explained, is the work of 12 Arab artists from around the world concerned with the concept of “home,” the power of place and the ongoing struggle to forge identity.
"It's the story of so many people’s lives,” Takesh told the Star. Including her own. She was born in Crimea to a Palestinian father
and Russian mother. The family moved to Sharjah when she was 10. At the time, she spoke only Russian. Now, she is fluent in English and Arabic as well. In many ways, this exhibit very much reflects her own experience.
The 24 pieces she chose from the Barjeel collection explore “how we define home and how home can be re-established and rebuilt,” she said.
“This could relate to struggles associated with moving from one place to another, crossing geopolitical borders and gaining the sense of inclusion where you are.
“This process is very challenging, but is full of hope at the same time.”
The artists — some of whom grew up in refugee camps — might work from a differ- ent contextual framework, she said, but in a cosmopolitan city such as Toronto, with its large immigrant population, “anybody who has experienced movement between geographies or has questioned their experience of home and sense of belonging can relate to it.”
“It’s kind of this universal theme,” she said. “I think this will resonate with the Canadian audience.” The works are inventive and engaging. In
Nation Estate, Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour imagines Palestine as a skyscraper in which each floor is a different city or landscape from that region and “you could travel between cities just using an elevator,” Takesh said.
“In her work, she was addressing this is- sue of Palestinian lands losing physical connection between one another, because, of course, it’s an area of conflict and there are structures and settlements that separate Palestinian territories from one another.”
A work both playful and powerful is that of Raafat Ishak, an Egyptian-born artist who now lives and teaches in Melbourne, Australia.
Inspired by the so-called Pacific Solution in 2001, in which the Australian government redirected asylum seekers approaching Australia by boat, Ishak sent letters to 194 countries, outlining his credentials and requesting citizenship. He waited two years for replies, hearing back from exactly half the countries he had contacted.
For his piece, he produced egg-shaped abstracts of each nation’s flag, on 194 small boards, with a transliterated excerpt in Arabic characters from each country’s reply.
Canada referred Ishak to a website. “It at least gives you like a little door,” Takesh said with a laugh.
“We’re going to display the Canadian board apart from everybody else’s, just because we think it will be the most interesting one.”
To Qassemi, “Toronto and the Aga Khan Museum specifically are a perfect platform to launch our exhibit in North America. Toronto is a city that has a large number of people who were born in other countries and immigrated here.
“We are sort of helping to build the cultural bridge between Canada and the U.A.E.”
With luck, some young person might be tweeting out their impressions, and saving their ticket stub.
Home Ground runs until Jan. 3 at the Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Dr.
In a cosmopolitan city such as Toronto, with its large immigrant population, anyone who has “questioned their experience of home and sense of belonging” can relate to the theme of the exhibit, says curator