It’s a Thursday night and visitors at the majestic Royal Opera House Muscat are huddled inside the venue’s Opera Galleria for an exhibition called “Manifestations” that showcases the work of emerging Omani artists such as Mohammed al-Mamari and Shayma al-Mughairy. The artists aren’t international household names yet, but Oman is trying to change that. The exhibition is true to its name — it’s a manifestation of a new economic journey the nation is embarking on, with art at its heart.
For decades, Oman’s wealth has depended on oil — crude still constitutes 44 percent of the country’s exports. The 2015 crash in oil prices exposed the vulnerability of that economic model. While its oil-rich neighbors have pinned their hopes on other energy forms and the entertainment sector, Oman is turning to the arts as a key economic supplement.
The wave of change has already begun.
Alia al-Farsi, Omani artist
A generation of young artists — many of them women — is providing the quality ballast that the shift in priorities needs, leaving their mark internationally and inspiring other Omanis to take up a career previously not as viable in the conservative society. Alia al-Farsi, 33, has exhibited her work across Europe and East Asia, winning awards in distant Tokyo and Seoul. Shows in Belgium and Bangladesh, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates have all presented opportunities for Budoor al-Riyami, 28, to exhibit her work. And 37-year-old Enaam Ahmed has presented her art in Germany, France and Switzerland and, closer home, in Algeria, Turkey and Bahrain.
But Oman’s emerging art scene is for the first time also drawing support from the regime of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, which has largely ignored the economic potential of Oman’s ancient artistic and cultural traditions. The Sultan Qaboos University, for long the only Omani institution offering professional arts training, now has the Scientific College of Design, the Khimji Training Institute and the Classic Music and Arts Institute among its competitors in Muscat. In January, the Oman government announced scholarships for rural artists to study in Seoul. And the Royal Opera House Muscat, which opened in 2011, is increasingly focusing on talented young artists and cultural diplomacy, signing up for multidisciplinary collaborations and exchanges with international galleries.
“The wave of change has already begun,” says al-Farsi, the best-known of Oman’s young female artists.
It’s a journey that many of Oman’s artists believe the country could have embarked on years ago. The nation boasts some of the Arab world’s most prominent modern artists, such as Anwar Sonya, who brought Omani art to prominence in the 1990s. For the generation of Omani artists now emerging, Sonya still stands as an inspiration. But for decades, success like Sonya’s was sporadic, isolated and not supported by wider Omani society or the government.
“The young generation of Oman always had the interest and desire to pursue arts as a career,” says Emaan Mamari, a young artist. “Fewer opportunities and initiatives from the government served as the main barrier.”
Promoting art and culture — especially when led by women — in a conservative Islamic society still isn’t easy. The new Muscat International Airport, inaugurated in March, has an exhibition of contemporary Omani Bedouin paintings. Among the work displayed there, al-Farsi’s portraits sparked a debate centered on the depiction of faces, which is barred under Islam. “Some of the clerics weren’t pleased with my portraits,” she says.
But al-Farsi’s portraits have stayed up at the airport, underscoring support from the Omani regime. In many ways, the airport exhibition itself represents the government’s emphasis on art and tourism as tools with which to attract visitors — and drive the economy. And that shift in the government’s approach is spawning a change in social attitudes too, toward art, says Hamdan al-Naimi, a member of the Omani Fine Arts Society.
One way in which that attitudinal change is finding expression is in the growing demand for — and increasing availability of — art education. Muscat, the country’s capital, is where most new art schools are opening, but training institutes are also sprouting up in smaller cities. “I feel so privileged to have a dedicated arts institute in my city. I don’t have to travel all the way to Muscat to pursue my studies,” says Fatimah al-Hinai, a student from Sur, in northeastern Oman, where a branch of the MuscArt school opened in 2012. Al-Hinai inherited her love of the arts from her father, who didn’t have the opportunity to gain professional training because there weren’t any art schools in Sur when he grew up.
The change in Oman is spreading beyond its modern cities. Data from the Omani Society of Fine Arts shows that 65 percent of the country’s current generation of aspiring artists who are receiving training are from rural and less developed parts of Oman.
The deepening roots Oman’s art is taking won’t be easy to kill — even if the country’s clerics gain more leverage than they have at the moment. “The talent of the young generation will lead its way in transforming Oman as the new capital of arts in Arabia,” says al-Farsi. With female artists at the center of this calculated economic transition, Oman’s society too may never be the same.
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