Seeking identity through art

T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR –

What renders Oman its identity is verily its amazing cultural heritage and the splendidly diverse landscape, which, quite naturally, have nurtured its artistic pursuits.
However, as noted by Fakhriya al Yahyai, an acclaimed artist and professor of art, Omani artists haven’t allowed the distinct Omani identity to blossom spontaneously in their works, with its intangible and subtle dimensions remaining largely unexplored. The Omani art scene will surely experience an aesthetic explosion of sorts, once artists shed their obsession with the relics of history and images of traditional life, and venture deep into the intellectual domain of the land’s philosophy, beliefs, myths and folklore.
At the same time, Omani artists are struggling to grapple with the percolation of Western styles and symbols into local art, as the world continues to shrink (or expand) into a unified global village, facilitating easy intermingling of styles and perceptions and redefining native cultural contours.
This gives rise to the question of whether Omani artists should adopt a protectionist approach cocooning themselves in the warmth of the distinct Omani identity or enrich their art through bold experiments on a larger canvas, lavishly splashing a mélange of global cultural hues to make it more vibrant? Is it possible to embrace contemporaneity, albeit fixing the spotlight on core identity?
It seems that Omani artists have woken up to this challenge and have found their artistic mission. Oman’s experimental artists are seeking new meaning, bringing about a revolutionary renaissance by unleashing the power of the unconventional brush, but with a strong Omani accent. They include Anwar Sonya, Hassan Meer, Alia al Farsi, Muzna al Musafer, Budoor Riyami, Fakhriya, Raiya al Rawahi, Sayyid Ibrahim bin Said al Busaidi, Rashid Abdul Rahman, Salim al Salami,Yousuf al Nahwi, Rabha Mahmood, Saleem Sakhi, Maryam Abdulkarim al Zadjali`…. The list is by no means exhaustive.The Sultanate’s women, desert life, the struggles with sea, ancient adobe structures, the old and the new and the inherent contradictions, and, to a limited extent, the land’s myths and folklore, all find expression in their works.
For instance, Hassan Meer, artistic director of the Stal Gallery, has created brilliant abstract works that represent Omani identity from the multiple viewpoints of history, heritage and culture. He formed ‘The Circle’ art collective dedicated to promoting experimental art in Oman. Hassan explores crucial issues of identity, travelling through the realms of spirituality and ancient rituals as well as the inspiring legends of Oman.
Anwar Sonia’s works attempt a somewhat realistic depiction Omani life and meaning using diverse styles and techniques. He is drawn to the significant and non-significant elements of Omani heritage, making each of his works a reflection of the unique Omani identity. He liberally uses stunning landscapes (especially Dhofar), ancient forts and castles, and other remnants from the past, in his quest for identity. He has tried Arabic calligraphy as well.
The land’s identity and deep cultural symbols form the muse of Rabha Mahmood, who has invented a distinct and powerful style. She focuses exclusively on the characteristics of Omani woman and her sartorial legacy.
Moving on, Oman’s ancient adobe structures with its appealing architectural heritage and motifs, and traditional lifestyles, reveal themselves as colourful expressions of modern art in Maryam Abdal Kareem’s works. Rasheed Abdul Rahman too depicts Omani identity in a bold new perspective using multiple mediums including realism. Hedeftly uses symbols of Omani heritage, nature and village life, often analysing how traditional dress codes reveal women’s identity.
Another vibrant artist of the current generation is video artist Muzna al Musafer, who examines identity through innovative visual narratives. Her first film ‘Niqab’ that explores the veil and the personal space it represents was a daring attempt at unveiling one’s identity.
On the other hand, the sound installation artist Raiya al Rawahi, draws heavily from diverse sources. Her sound installation “Questioning Religion”, which bagged the inaugural Stal Gallery Young Emerging Artist Prize, is a fresh take on the journey from indoctrination to scepticism to enlightenment. Fakhriya, meanwhile, has explored the Omani female cultural identity through numerous drawings, paintings and photographs.
The distinct Omani roots are the central theme of works by Alia al Farsi, who has observed that “Abstract art by definition should have no roots, yet often I find myself tracing back my artistic endeavours to a contextual identity: Oman.” Omani artifacts and historical elements, as well as a soothing streak of Sufism, feature in her works. She has experimented with multiple media such as furniture, sculptures, installations and object paintings to capture the essence of identity.
The Omani art renaissance, spearheaded by the likes of Anwar Sonya, Rabha Mahmood and Maryam Zadjali, is continuing to conquer new frontiers, powered by an unrelenting quest for identity.