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Women at the forefront of Oman’s art scene

From the rugged landscape to the dunes or from the architecture to the environment, women in Oman are leading the way as they pour their creativity onto the canvas.

Women participating in the fine arts movement in the Sultanate of Oman gained momentum in the mid- 1970s and the numbers increased manifold in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, a number of prodigies appeared and became role models for the fine art movement in Oman.

While the size of women’s contribution became larger, the situation of Omani women has been thoroughly transformed during the last five decades.

Women are at the forefront of Oman’s contemporary art scene, according to a report featuring Omani women artists in its latest edition of Middle East Monitor. “They are contributing massively to the art movement in Oman and around the world”, the report claims.

Male and female artists in Oman are treated equally in terms of opportunities and support albeit the history of Omani women in art is fairly recent, their work conveys their singular experience and perspective within a continuously evolving culture.

Their artworks are also truly innovative in terms of the use of new technologies and their aesthetics; they’re aligned with the latest trends in contemporary art, yet steeped in historical research.

Scholar and artist Fakhriya al Yahyai from Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat wrote in the International Journal of Arts Theory and History that Omani women have not been too far behind in the fine arts movement that first began in the country in the mid-1970s.

“Women’s participation in fine arts was marginal and limited only to Muscat. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, a number of prodigies appeared and became role models for the fine art movement in Oman”, she writes in her scholarly journal “The History of Omani Women in the Fine Arts Movement”.

After setting up the basic requirements of the education system, fine arts education gained special attention from the rationalised government, represented by the construction of a lot of schools, institutes, colleges and clubs in which the youth find a good climate to develop their talents.

“The greatness of Omani cultural heritage can be found in the heritage of the sea, environments, the Omani habits and traditions, the Omani traditional crafts, and Omani architecture, including old houses, castles and forts”, mentions Fakhriya .

The experience of the Omani fine artists can be described as positive and full of achievements so much so that many Omani fine artists have successfully competed for prestigious awards inside and outside the country.

The constant endeavours and hard work of some artists helped in identifying the real prodigies who have a strong influence in the Omani fine arts movement.

The list of famous female artists includes Rabha Mahmoud, Nadra Mahmoud, Maryam al Zadjali, Zakia al Barwani, Fakhriya al Yahyai, Budoor al Riyami, Mona al Baiti, Hafiza al Tamimi, Nadia bint Juma al Balushiyah and Iftikhar al Badawiyah

The interaction between Omani artists and foreign artists who live in Oman was one of the most important factors in activating the Oman fine arts movement and ensuring the continuity of Omani artists in joint art exhibitions at national and international levels

Foreign participation by Omani artists in international art events ensures them the opportunity to see the art experiences of others, and this was reflected in the quality of Omani artists’ productions as well as in the art movement in general.

The latest catalyst in this regard was this year’s Venice Biennale, the biggest event in the art world. The debut Oman pavilion — which included three women out of its five artists — brought together the work of three generations of Omani artists, spanning five decades of modern and contemporary visual art in the country.

“It’s the first time that Oman has a pavilion in Venice, so it’s something very special, and we are proud to have three women,” pavilion curator Aisha Stoby was quoted by Al Monitor.

Stoby specialises in modern and contemporary art from the West Asian region. “Many of the works in the Oman pavilion were inspired by specific elements in the country, which was not part of the original concept, but was a very welcome happenstance.”

The pavilion also had Muscat-based Budoor al Riyami, a pupil of Anwar Sonya and a contemporary of Hassan Meer — both pioneering Omani artists present at the Venice pavilion — whose current practice focuses on photography and video installation.

Al Riyami started working with painting and sculpture, then transitioned to photography and video installation. She came to the forefront of the local art scene in 2008, winning the Grand Prize at the 13th Asian Art Biennale with a video installation entitled “The Peak of Burning”. This was one of the first artworks from the Middle East employing the latest technologies, making her a leader in encouraging new forms of art in Oman and the Gulf.

In another part of the pavilion was the “Speed of Art”, an installation created between 2017 and 2022 featuring the work of leading curator and artist Raya al Rawahi, who passed away in 2017. The video screen is like an airplane window, and its content refers to the relationship between art and technology.

A look at fine art history was also what characterises the work of young artist Eman Ali, one of the most controversial creatives from the region, due to her unfiltered and empowered representation of women, as well as underlying political themes.

Her latest project, Succession, is a book that was created by collecting visual archives from the 1970s.

The work of Radhika Khimji in the Oman Pavilion was also very striking. An installation called “Under, Inner, Under” includes seven fabrics with detailed paintings, a wooden sculpture, two wooden paintings, and structures attached like tiles.

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