The Oman International Art Fair held in March at the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre was a massive affair bringing some of the world’s best artists under one roof. While established and emerging artists vie for attention both from patrons and sponsors, it was a collective win for the organisers and participants alike as they successfully demonstrated that art in the Sultanate is alive and flourishing.
Of the hundreds of artists who brought along some of their best works, it was impossible to miss the art pieces showcased by talented Omani artist, art teacher and photographer Yousuf al Nahwi not only because of his technique and style but also because it’s in-your-face gargantuan.
At the very centre of one of the exhibition’s massive hallways, an art piece 5-metres in length called ‘World Peace’ showing playful Saluki dogs running after a gazelle demanded attention enchanting even kids as old as five years old.
It was one of the seven pieces that Yousuf has created with this one taking as long as six months to complete.
“Three out of seven of these big paintings are with His Majesty,” he said and it is understandable why ambitious work like his will take His Majesty’s attention.
Inspired by Vienna museums
Yousuf has done his fair share of regular paintings. As a member of the Omani Society of Fine Arts (OSFA) and having his first exhibit in 1999, he wanted to challenge himself to bring something new to Oman.
“I was on this trip to Austria a few years for an exhibition with colleagues and friends and ended up exploring museums in Vienna. While touring the museums, I can’t take my eyes off these big pieces of art that dominated museum walls,” he shared.
“At that time, I was very curious about how they did it. I ask many questions but it didn’t occur to me yet that I will embark on a project that would be inspired by what I’ve seen in that city,” he said.
It was in 2011 when he finally started to put things into motion. Attending a biennial exhibition in India with Maryam al Zadjali, the head of OSFA, he opened to her his dream of wanting to create art about 5-metres in size.
“She looked at me trying to figure out whether I was joking. And when she realised that I was serious about my proposal, she was very supportive of the idea,” he said.
“On the second day of the biennial, I started creating sketches. I was always inspired by camels and while others did theirs small, I wanted mine to be big. I want to make it huge,” he said.
Fast forward to more than six months later, he showed his artwork to Maryam who couldn’t believe what she is seeing.
“I was doing it not for commercial purposes but for passion. I wanted to do it. After completing the camels painting, I moved to the next one,” he shared.
Yousuf would eventually create seven massive paintings in barely a decade.
“When I finally displayed them in 2015 in an open exhibition, nobody can believe that it was an Omani guy who made it. I was very happy when I finally showed them to the public because, for the first time, someone is doing something new in Oman,” he said.
Not yet done
One of Yousuf’s painting will eventually become more recognizable than the rest. The painting is that of His Majesty on a horseback flanked not only by Yousuf but other prominent artists in Oman including Maryam al Zadjali.
“There was a lot of imagination involved. As a photographer, I took photographs of the subjects, study them and then imagine how they would look like in my painting and then actually do it. That piece with His Majesty on horseback generated lots of attention,” he shared.
“All these subjects, I like them. They come to me through my dreams or sometimes I look for inspiration from the natural world. For instance, the painting with the dogs on it, I spent two weeks in England to study the dogs,” he said.
Yousuf said that the paintings were his way of demonstrating that Omanis can do quality work.
“It is tiring but I like the challenge. I am still figuring out the next step to what I would like to do. For now, teaching students at SQU to become artists is what’s keeping me busy,” he said.
“And my work, by the way, they are not for sale. I do them because I love doing them. I don’t like to sell them,” he said.